Revisiting The Hawthorne Effect

Two recent conversations reminded me of an old bromide of the Training biz: The Hawthorne Effect.

In the 1920s, researchers from Harvard wanted to find out if light levels had an effect on worker productivity at the Hawthorne Works, a large Western Electric plant in Cicero, IL. The researchers found that when light levels were increased, worker productivity also increased. But they also found that productivity increased when light levels were decreased. They concluded that the fact that someone (the researchers, in this case) was paying attention to them was the key factor in increasing performance.

In the ensuing years, many researchers have questioned this research, concluding that other factors were at play. Nevertheless, the core belief lives on: people respond positively when they have attention paid to them.

But the Hawthorne Works research produced four other general conclusions:

  • The aptitudes of individuals are imperfect predictors of job performance. Actual performance is strongly influenced by social factors.
  • Informal organization affects productivity. A significant factor was the group life among workers, as well as the relationships that supervisors developed with workers.
  • Work-group norms affect productivity.
  • The workplace is a social system.

In short, the researchers identified the importance of Culture in worker productivity. No matter what an individual’s aptitude, skills or knowledge, actual performance is strongly influenced by the social norms of the organization.

All of this is a good reminder for anyone in a leadership or supervisory position. If you want to improve performance, one simple step is to get closer to your people: pay attention to them, be visible, ask questions and seek input. Then, make sure that the Culture—the social norms, rules and values—are conducive to high performance.

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