The Hawthorne effect states that people will ask differently when they’re being observed. Naturally, then monitoring will affect employees’ behavior. But does it help or harm productivity? Researchers have been asking this question for over a hundred years. Some have argued that monitoring improves productivity. It can also encourage good behaviors and discourage bad ones.
Hawthorne effect is a psychological phenomenon in which participants change their behavior or performance in response to being observed. Some researchers argue that the Hawthorne effect is like the placebo effect or the demand effect. It is where subjects subconsciously change their behavior to fit the expected results of an experiment. There are two kinds of models of motivation. Firstly there are process models of how we are motivated. Secondly, there are content models of what motivates us.
What is Hawthorne Effect?
The Hawthorne effect has been incorrectly defined as increasing productivity by paying more attention to workers. But it’s simply not about more attention from management. Without equal importance to the social units that become intensely cohesive groups, you cannot understand the Hawthorne effect without equal importance.
Human factors related to work were more important than physical conditions for the first time. In short, the Hawthorne studies found that workers’ feelings and attitudes affected their work. Hawthorne’s effect showed productivity increased when management paid more attention to workers. But equal importance should be given to the social units, or teams created, demonstrating that human factors were more important than physical conditions or the work itself.
The Hawthorne effect performs better when we know somebody is studying us. For example, a 2015 study of hospital staff hand-washing found that staff was almost three times more likely to wash their hands when they knew they were being studied. The Hawthorne effect comes from an experiment conducted at a US Factory run by General Electric in Hawthorne near Chicago during the 1920s into factors that affected productivity.
When we feel we’re being studied, we improve our behavior. In comparison, the experiment has been described as a glorified anecdote and certainly falls well short of modern social science. It gives rise to this famous Hawthorne effect. Modern studies have confirmed the presence of this effect in a range of scenarios. For example, when teachers are observed in classrooms, they can exhibit better teaching behaviors than when left to their own devices.
When students know they’re being studied and valued, their performance improves. It also means professional practice projects in schools. Whatever they may be will usually result in improved teaching outcomes. So get into teams and observe each other it’ll almost certainly work. When humans know they’re being studied, their performance usually improves. That is the Hawthorne effect.
Example Of Hawthorne Effect
Example 1: In the last years of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century Frederick Winslow Taylor undertook a large amount of research into what made people effective and efficient in the workplace. It led him to the idea of scientific management.
If you treat work as a process and treat people like cogs in the machine, you can make that process as efficient as possible. You can do it by studying how people do things and tweaking each element of that process. Taylor was filled with problems and challenges. But it did lead to a revolution in management and management thinking. We need to take a look at one of Taylor’s followers.
Example 2: A chap called Elton Mayo looked to see the effect of one particular tweak on the way people worked. In the late 1920s, Mayo conducted experiments with 20,000 workers at Western Electric Company’s Chicago plant. He was interested in the effects of light levels on workforce productivity. He found that productivity increased when he studied the workforce and interviewed them.
So he reset the light levels consulted the staff, and then lowered the light levels. What he found was that productivity increased. Almost anything he did to the light levels within certainly reasonable range productivity increased. Scientific management said that if you could get the light level exactly right, you could get the best results from the workforce.
What Mayo found was that it seemed to be that the light levels that they had were exactly the worst possible light levels. Because whatever you did improve productivity. Mayo thought about this and realized in the early 30s that it wasn’t the light level that was important. It was consulting the workforce. It led Mayo to abandon scientific management and be what many people think of as the founder of humanistic management.
What Mayo did was reject the view that external circumstances dictate productivity. What is far more important is how people feel in the workplace. When our managers and leaders consult us and consider our opinions, we are motivated and improve our performance levels, productivity, and efficiency.
Hawthorne Effect Experiment
However, monitoring can also have a negative effect. Employees can see they are being punished, narrow their experience focus, or feel their autonomy is threatened. How can we effectively use monitoring in the workplace with these conflicting views? When is it useful, and when is it not?
To answer this, we studied a clothing manufacturing plant in the UK. This factory produces trousers and jackets for men’s suits. In 2012 they installed a system that monitored worker activity for selected manufacturing lines. Every time an employee started to work on a task. They would scan an RFID code.
It allowed their progress to be tracked down the production line. We group the tasks the workers performed as these are complex or straightforward. We determined this from the average time workers take to complete a task. We also measured worker efficiency by comparing a worker’s task completion time against that task’s average.
Our results showed that people working on simple tasks had improved results were monitored. They made a game out of their tasks to ward off boredom. A process is known as gamification. But those working on complex tasks showed decreased productivity. These workers felt that monitoring controlled them and interfered with their work.
How much did productivity change? It rose by 10% for simple tasks, but it fell by 8.5% for complex tasks. In both cases, a significant result. Therefore monitoring in the workplace is best applied to gamified and straightforward tasks. But best avoided for more complex tasks.
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Olson, R.; Verley, J.; Santos, L.; Salas. “What We Teach Students About the Hawthorne Studies: A Review of Content Within a Sample of Introductory I-O and OB Textbooks.” The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist.