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The Impact of the Hawthorne Effect on Productivity at Work

The Hawthorne effect (also referred to as the observer effect) refers to a phenomenon whereby individuals improve or modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed. In other words, it refers to an increase in worker productivity produced by the psychological stimulus of being singled out and made to feel important.

Being the chosen one at work can boost your productivity

The original “Hawthorne effect” study suggested that the novelty of being research subjects and the increased attention from such could lead to temporary increases in workers’ productivity. This series of research, first led by Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo along with associates F. J. Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson started out by examining the physical and environmental influences of the workplace (e.g., brightness of lights, humidity) and later, moved into the psychological aspects (e.g., breaks, group pressure, working hours, managerial leadership). The ideas that this team developed about the social dynamics of groups in the work setting had lasting influence — the collection of data, labor-management relations, and informal interaction among factory employees.

The major finding of the study was that almost regardless of the experimental manipulation employed, the production of workers seemed to improve. One reasonable conclusion is that the workers were pleased to receive attention from the researchers who expressed an interest in them.

Four general conclusions were drawn from the Hawthorne effect studies:

  • The aptitudes of individuals are imperfect predictors of job performance. Although they give some indication of the physical and mental potential of the individual, the amount produced is strongly influenced by social factors.
  • Informal organization affects productivity. The Hawthorne researchers discovered a group life among the workers. The studies also showed that the relations that supervisors develop with workers tend to influence the manner in which the workers carry out directives.
  • Work-group norms affect productivity. The Hawthorne researchers were not the first to recognize that work groups tend to arrive at norms of what is a fair day’s work; however, they provided the best systematic description and interpretation of this phenomenon.
  • The workplace is a social system. The Hawthorne researchers came to view the workplace as a social system made up of interdependent parts.

For decades, the Hawthorne studies provided the rationale for human relations within the organization. Then two researchers (Franke, Kaul, 1978) used a new procedure called time-series analyses. Using the original variables and including in the Great Depression and the instance of a managerial discipline in which two insubordinate and mediocre workers were replaced by two different productive workers, with one who took the role of straw boss; they discovered that production was most affected by the replacement of the two workers due to their greater productivity and the effect of the disciplinary action on the other workers. The occurrence of the Depression also encouraged job productivity, perhaps through the increased importance of jobs and the fear of losing them. Rest periods and a group incentive plan also had a somewhat positive smaller effect on productivity. These variables accounted for almost all the variation in productivity during the experimental period. Early social sciences may have readily to embrace the original Hawthorne interpretations since it was looking for theories or work motivation that were more humane and democratic.

Mayo’s and Landsberger’s work became one of the foundations of industrial psychology. Academics in this field understand that interpersonal factors and the dynamic social relationships between groups must be assessed when performing any type of social analysis. If a group is isolated from their work colleagues, for the purpose of research, the individual attention and the normal human instinct to feel “chosen,” will skew the results.

Some researchers argue that the Hawthorne effect does not exist or is, at best, the placebo effect under another name. Others postulate that it is the demand effect, where subjects subconsciously change their behavior to fit the expected results of an experiment.

Whatever the truth, there is little doubt that many fields, from psychology through to business management, must appreciate that social science subjects can, and do, change behavior. However, it is clear that as a team leader or a manager, the impact of these factors can not be negated and with teams struggling to step up efficiency and productivity, these could prove to be low hanging fruits.