The Hawthorne Effect

We’ll spend a great deal of time talking about specific tools later on, but while we’re knee-deep in a discussion of company culture and values, there’s one indispensable tool to introduce, and that tool (or principle) is called the Hawthorne effect.

Put simply, the Hawthorne effect is this: the employees watch what the boss watches.

The term was coined in 1950 by a researcher named Henry Landsberger while he was studying experiments conducted earlier at the Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric factory outside of Chicago. When they were conducted, the experiments aimed to find out whether factory workers performed better under different light conditions.

During the changes in lighting, worker performance went up across the board, but only for as long as the experiment was conducted; worker productivity dropped back off when the experiment was over. Landsberger concluded, from the available evidence, that the main factor causing an increase in performance was observation. Workers were aware that the bosses were watching, that the bosses were taking an interest in their performance and in their workspace, and they responded accordingly.

There is a behaviorist side to this, of course; everyone knows that there are sticks and carrots at work. But this isn’t about surveillance per se; it really is about sharing your vision. I say so because, for workers to do particularly well at their jobs, they have to know what you’re looking for!

The workers watch what the boss watches.

Watching waste? Tell your employees that you want to reduce waste overall, and you want to see their contribution to it drop. They’ll know to be less wasteful.

Watching turnaround times? Tell your employees that you want to see the times tighten and you want them to be models for an efficient system. They’ll know to be more efficient.

Watching customer satisfaction ratings? Tell your employees that you want to see the happiest customers commerce can produce, starting today. Remind them how important that is for business and how important their job is in making customers happy. They’ll think to be friendly, helpful, and professional more than they’ve ever thought it before.

You watch these things and tell employees what you’re watching, and they will be better able to show you what you want to see. Who knows? You might even find some of your brightest stars and best innovators come out of obscurity once you issue such challenges.

But you can overdo it. You don’t want to overwhelm them with a ton of new initiatives—it would only water down what you can expect from it. As the old rule goes, KISS—or Keep It Simple, Stupid. The Hawthorne effect won’t do anything if the people doing the work don’t understand what you’re looking for, or can’t fully engage themselves with it.

Identify what’s important, find a simple way to track it, and then take some action to make changes. Share with everyone what you’re watching and why. If you can then find a way to reward good performance, to give everyone a boost when they do a good job, you’ve got a winning formula. Because aside from having a booming, profitable business, you’re also starting to build a culture of high-quality work that will sustain itself even when you’re not observing the floor.

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