The Hawthorne Effect was first conceptualized after studies conducted in the 1920s and 1930s at Western Electrical Company’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago. Researchers were trying to study ways to improve productivity.
In order to carry out these studies, the researchers worked with various groups of employees and implemented various changes to the employee’s environment. During the studies, the researchers interacted with workers, observing them as they carried out their common work tasks. The goal was to see what changes caused increases to employee productivity.
The researchers had issues pinning down the actual causes behind the productivity changes. They had a group of women, no matter what they did, productivity would always go up. More lights, fewer lights, longer breaks, even when they changed things back to where they were when they started; productivity always went up. They had a group of men where productivity actually went down with wage increases. Both groups were being heavily studied and researchers and managers were interacting with the employees regularly.
“We have become…skeptical of being able to prove anything in connection with the behavior of human beings under various conditions,” – George Pennock (Anteby, M. and Khurana, R., n.d.)
You can scour the Internet looking for various conclusions about the Hawthorne Studies. Even in my formal education, this topic was covered a couple of different times and each time a different textbook came up with different conclusions.
I recall one textbook from college (I wish I could cite it, I don’t remember the name) discussing the differences in how men and women work when observed and their perceptions of the observation. Another book used it to justify the open office or colocation of small team members. I am not aware that any of those ideas have been conclusively proven.
Keep in mind, the employees in the Hawthorne Studies were conducting simple, and probably boring, routine manufacturing tasks – not more complex software development or business tasks. Having someone to talk to in that environment may very well have been a motivator.
Just my research for this blog post taught me other things I didn’t know about the Hawthorne Studies and several more apparent rationales behind the observed behavior. There is even some disagreement on the existence of the Hawthorne Effect (Levitt, S. and List, J., 2009). Was There a Hawthorne Effect?
The Hawthorne Effect is still being studied today, and they still don’t actually know a whole lot about it.
Consequences of research participation for behaviors being investigated do exist, although little can be securely known about the conditions under which they operate, their mechanisms of effects, or their magnitudes. New concepts are needed to guide empirical studies. – (McCambridge, J., Witton, J., & Elbourne, D. R., 2014)
What we do know because of the Hawthorne Studies – Employees will change their behavior when being observed or interacting with managers and other employees. For most employees who have ever had a manager creeping over their shoulders, they know this first hand without a study.
Anteby, M. and Khurana, R. (n.d.) A New Vision. Retrieved from: https://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/hawthorne/
Levitt, S. and List, J. (2009) WAS THERE REALLY A HAWTHORNE EFFECT AT THE HAWTHORNE PLANT? AN ANALYSIS OF THE ORIGINAL ILLUMINATION EXPERIMENTS. Retrieved From https://www.nber.org/papers/w15016.pdf
McCambridge, J., Witton, J., & Elbourne, D. R. (2014). Systematic review of the Hawthorne effect: new concepts are needed to study research participation effects. Journal of clinical epidemiology, 67(3), 267–277. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.08.015 – Retrieved From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3969247/