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What the Hawthorne effect reveals about employee experience

The phenomenon of the Hawthorne effect is used to support ideas about employee needs, including your potential HR technology choices. Here's why you should be wary of that.

As trends go, employee experience may not yet rank with craft beer and man buns. But if you're in the corporate world -- especially in the HR department -- it's something you should be investigating as hiring great talent becomes more competitive and the need to create a great employee experience becomes more and more important. How to do that is a complex endeavor, however, and in light of that, I'd like to share what I've learned about the Hawthorne effect and how understanding it might help improve your approach to employee experience design.

Definitions for the Hawthorne effect, also known as the observer effect, vary widely, but in essence, it's a change or rise in output in reaction to being observed. The term is based on the story that, during the Hawthorne studies on factory worker productivity, which began in the 1920s, study participants' production rose regardless of which variable researchers introduced.

Just one problem: That story isn't true.

During the course of the Hawthorne studies, productivity gains were indeed recorded for certain groups of workers under certain conditions, but researchers writing about the studies primarily cherry-picked just these results. Today, the Hawthorne effect -- albeit defined a myriad of different ways -- is widely referenced in a number of fields and used to support all kinds of theories about what is best for employees and even what HR technology companies need.

What the Hawthorne effect teaches about employee experience
The Hawthorne effect is surrounded by misconceptions and passed as truth. Today, employee experience is arguable surrounded by as many -- or more -- misconceptions.

The Hawthorne studies

Hawthorne Works was a large factory complex of the Western Electric Company, itself the the manufacturing unit of AT&T. The Hawthorne studies began in 1924, and by the time the Great Depression finally put the brakes on them in 1932, more than 20,000 employees had participated in some way, according to the textbook Principles of Management.

Airplane View of Hawthorne Works
Airplane View of Hawthorne Works, ca. 1925. Western Electric Company Photograph Album © 2007 President and Fellows of Harvard College; all rights reserved. https://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/hawthorne/big/wehe_001.html.

Using different sets of worker groups for different experiments, the studies looked into psychological and physical factors by introducing variables such as lighting, work hours and work breaks and recording their effects on productivity. The Hawthorne studies also included an extensive interviewing program, which allowed workers to talk about their concerns and experiences.

Field studies are by their very nature incredibly complicated, especially when you're trying to figure out people. I consulted many, many sources -- most in conflict with one another -- in my research to expand TechTarget's definition of the Hawthorne effect, which, in turn, launched this piece. Just reading through some of the notes about one of the experiments, it was easy to get bogged down. You could draw almost any conclusion. Indeed, in the initial experiments, one supervisor at Hawthorne said (as quoted in Manufacturing Knowledge), "They say figures don't lie, but we have shown that we can take a set of figures and prove anything we want to."

Although the Hawthorne studies contributed a groundbreaking humane view of workers, later researchers have criticized the Hawthorne studies for faulty experimental design, unsophisticated analysis and the cherry-picking of results, to name just a few issues. And according to a number of later research studies and in contrast to the notion that the Hawthorne studies yielded unbridled and unwavering output regardless of which variables were introduced, worker productivity did not just go up and stay up, not in the lighting studies -- which tend to be most closely associated with the so-called Hawthorne effect -- nor in later ones. Moreover, even where productivity was markedly improved, multiple confounding variables that rarely get discussed were in play as well.

The Hawthorne lighting studies and beyond

The lighting studies, or illumination studies, kicked off the studies at Hawthorne Works. They were started at the behest of the lighting industry as an effort to prove that artificial lighting boosted worker productivity. It is these lighting studies that you're likely to read about in connection with the Hawthorne effect -- though without the mention of industry interest or subsidies -- specifically in relationship to the women in the relay assembly test room.

Photos of the typical working environment at Hawthorne Works show a big, open floor with rows upon rows of workstations. In contrast, the relay assembly test room was separate, smaller and quieter, where just the five women could work on relays -- devices that made telephone connections possible. The women were given special attention, and the supervisors in the test room were friendly and tolerant, unlike the authoritarian foreman in the big room. The test room's cozy environment contributed to intimacy, which, in turn, contributed to talking -- a lot of talking. Two of the women in the first group of five were eventually replaced.

Hawthorne studies: Women in the relay assembly test room
Women in the Relay Assembly Test Room, ca. 1930 Western Electric Company Hawthorne Studies Collection © 2007 President and Fellows of Harvard College; all rights reserved. https://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/hawthorne/big/wehe_073.html Source: https://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/hawthorne/big/wehe_073.html; Baker Library.

The women in the test room also had more autonomy. Output records were shared frequently -- an early version of continuous performance management -- with the women able to challenge themselves to beat their own records. Moreover, the test room women were paid an at-the-time seemingly astronomical amount, and "earnings" was among the top three reasons these women preferred the test room over the usual working conditions. Financial incentives served as a clear indicator of motivation.

After the two most talkative women were replaced, the new group gelled as the rockstar team that would garner study and attention for years and around which most of the Hawthorne press revolved, though there still wasn't an unequivocal rise in productivity, according to many later researchers.

The Hawthorne effect, popular opinion and your employees

As mentioned, you can read numerous and conflicting accounts of the Hawthorne studies. Just looking at only the lighting studies, different versions leave out different variables. And depending on the account you hear or read -- and whether you know that two women were replaced, that money mattered, that output was overstated, as just a few examples -- you would draw different conclusions.

Things are not so different today when it comes to trying to figure out how to give your company a competitive edge, as well as what's best for the employee experience. Whether the discussion centers on physical workspace, culture or technology, myths abound in all categories, and it's easy to look around and think, "Oh, that's the modern approach. Some leading companies are using it, so it must work."

Whether the discussion centers on physical workspace, culture or technology, myths abound in all categories.

That the myth of the Hawthorne effect gets passed as truth is a good reminder of so many things relevant to employee experience and people management more generally: We come to any given issue with bias, it's critical never to rely on a single source for important decisions, the source of information is always relevant and things look different depending on your vantage point.

Most importantly, it's a reminder that human nature is complex. Companies that rank as a best place to work do much to address that complexity, especially when it comes to fostering a workplace in which employees feel valued and can find meaning and purpose. So, be open to exploring best practices and new tech, but be careful which ones you believe and what conclusions you draw.

As the ancient hops-loving philosopher Homer Simpson once cautioned, "Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true."

Next Steps

What is the importance of a digital employee experience strategy?

This was last published in December 2017

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