The Hawthorne Effect refers to an inclination of some people to work harder or perform better when they know they are being observed. The effect is most associated with those who are experiment participants, who alter their behavior due to the attention they are receiving and not due to any manipulation of independent variables. Therefore, the Hawthorne Effect describes the tendency for a person to change their behavior with the awareness that they are being observed.
Understanding the Hawthorne Effect
The Hawthorne Effect has also been discussed in the context of industrial and organizational psychology. Researcher Henry A.
Landsberger, who first described the effect, conducted landmark studies in the 1920s and 30s after being commissioned by an electric company to determine if there was a relationship between productivity and work environment.
During the studies, Landsberger examined aspects such as the timing of breaks, workplace lighting, and workday length.
In one particular study into the effect of decreasing light levels on worker productivity, Landsberger found that employees worked harder in response to the changes but then decreased their output once the test concluded.
It was later found that any change to the workplace caused an increase in productivity.
Many of these changes might appear to lower productivity at first glance, such as longer workdays or the elimination of work breaks.
The researchers concluded that employees responded to increased attention from supervisors and not from experimental variables.
Subsequent research into the Hawthorne Effect
Subsequent research into the Hawthorne Effect suggested that Landsberger’s original results were somewhat overstated.
In 2009, a University of Chicago study went over the data and discovered that other factors played a role in employee productivity.
The study also found that many of Landsberger’s conclusions were simply not supported by the data.
Nevertheless, the study did concede that the Hawthorn Effect was a real – if not weak – phenomenon.
Five years later, a systematic review published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology found the phenomena to exist across 19 different experiments.
The review also acknowledged that more research needed to be done to determine the mechanism(s) behind the Hawthorn Effect.
With that said, some factors which may influence productivity include:
Where study participants match their behavior to subtle clues a researcher may exhibit regarding the experiment hypothesis.
Sometimes, performance increases because of the novelty associated with being monitored.
In the original study, increased attention from researchers was thought to have increased performance feedback.
This in turn resulted in productivity improvements.
The Hawthorne Effect in business
Here are some scenarios where the Hawthorne Effect may occur in business:
Observation of employees is a double-edged sword.
Employees who know they are being observed may improve their performance because of increased accountability.
On the other hand, performance may decline if the employee perceives there to be an ulterior motive for the superior observing them.
The Hawthorne effect has been proven to have very little impact on school-age children, but teachers observed by a camera or a person sitting in on their class tended to perform better.
The Hawthorn Effect can also be used in new companies to encourage innovative ideas and collaboration.
Employee observation means opinions are heard and respected, which in turn invokes certain emotions that motivate the employee to strive for a common purpose.
Attentive observation can also be used to monitor employees as they collaborate in teams, with more productive team members tending to assume leadership of the group and deliver better outcomes.
Hawthorne Effect and Pygmalion Effect
If leveraged adequately within organizations, this can lead to increased performance.
- The Hawthorne Effect describes the tendency for a person to change their behavior due to an awareness of being observed. The phenomenon was first described by Henry A. Landsberger in a series of experiments in the 1920s and 30s.
- Subsequent research into the Hawthorne Effect suggested that Landsberger’s original results were exaggerated. Indeed, the phenomenon may be supplemented by demand characteristics, novelty effects, and performance feedback.
- The Hawthorne Effect commonly occurs during employee-manager interactions. It may also increase teacher performance in the classroom and enhance ideation, leadership, and collaboration in young companies.