The Hawthorne effect and what it does not tell

In our readings it suggests that individuals tend to change their behavior if they believe they are being observed-this is called the Hawthorne Effect. As Organizational Leaders what does this phenomenon tell you about observed behaviors and those you may not see? How does this impact the broader context of an organization, particularly when trying to gather authentic data on organizational behavior?


The Hawthorne effect and what it does not tell –

“Hawthorne effect” is the term coined by Henry A. Landsberger, after analyzing Elton Mayo’s study on worker productivity during 1924 – 1932.

Elton Mayo studied correlation between the lighting on the factory floor and productivity of factory workers of Hawthorne Works near Chicago. Elton Mayo made an observation that change in any physical variable (including lights on factory floor) boosts worker productivity. With this observation he concluded that productivity goes up when worker realizes that he is being noticed or observed.

The study by Elton Mayo produced very compelling results and the organizational leaders will never be able to discount the “Hawthorne Effect” ever in future.

When a worker is part of a study in an organization, is aware that his/her actions are being monitored, he / she is likely to do better. But depending on the circumstances the reason behind the performance might vary. For example if the outcome of the study is a reward of incentive / bonus, workers might try harder. But the reason behind the performance changes when the study outcome is punishment such as “no bonus” or “loss of employment”. In first instance the performance is reward driven and for the later instance it is fear driven.


It is hard to conclude reason behind the increased productivity of workers in Elton Mayo’s study. Because

We do not know number of worker participated throughout the study

If anyone was fired or hired during the study

If the compensation was fixed during the study

And there are many more unknown factors, so it is hard to conclude what made those workers feel like they were the chosen ones, was it just the fact that they were aware about the study being conducted or did the management fire all low performers and kept high performers, hence with time the average output kept increasing? Or may be higher productivity was being rewarded with higher bonus, so everyone worked harder. Assuming that no one was hired or fired during the study, did Elton Mayo try to make the workers feel that they are special in some other way, if only making workers feel special increases productivity, and in that case Elton Mayo would have gotten similar result.


Impact of Hawthorne effect –

While performing a study, it won’t be possible to ignore the impact of Hawthorne effect. Since it is plausible that workers (if aware about the study) productivity might get a boost. The first logical step might be discounting a part of total productivity during the study. For example – before the study began the total productivity of the group of worker was 100 and during the study it is “100+x”, it might not be accurate to deduct the “x” amount of productivity, considering that is due to “Hawthorne effect”. The reason is, some of the worker might gain skill and experience (with time) resulting in increased productivity “x”. So my point is, it is hard to quantify the exact amount of increased productivity caused by Hawthorne effect. So either the leaders can let the workers know about the study and risk some up / downside of productivity before or after the study which is hard to quantify.


Or leadership should not inform the workers or employees about the study. In that case different teams can be formed and later it would be easier to compare data from different teams and go with the best result.



Add a Comment