Between 1924 and 1932, The Hawthorne Works Electrical Company, just outside Chicago, commissioned a study to see if workers would become more or less productive with different levels of light. These experiments are sometimes referred to as the luminosity experiments.
Electricity was expensive, and so by reducing the level of light, even slightly, the company could save a lot of money.
The experiments went like so.
Two women were selected as lab rats, and asked to choose 4 other workers to join them in their team for the experiment. Over 5 years, both teams worked in two totally seperate rooms, assembling telephone relays. The work was the same, but the space was different.
Productivity was measured very simply. How many finished relays were completed, but unknown to the women doing the work, the company was actually measuring their productivity 2 weeks before the ‘experiment’ even started.
The control group went about their business as per usual, and was observed in the same way as the other group. They assembled the arrays, as per usual.
But the test subjects supervisor would change something to their group, and then measure its impact on performance.
At first, they gave the groups 10 minute breaks. When they did, performance went up.
Next, they provided food, and guess what, performance wen’t up.
Then they shortened the work day by 30 minutes – performance went up.
Then they shortened it again – performance went up.
The scientists looked at these small changes and thought these are wonderful innovations. We should roll out shorter days, and provide food, and we can make everyone more productive.
But then they tried something strange.
They made the day longer.
And performance went up.
Yes. They reversed one of those changes, and performance increased.
Researchers had originally speculated that selecting ones own co-workers, working as a team, and being treated as valued members of the workforce would be a contributing factor to performance, but when they made the work day longer, the researchers knew something else was going on.
So they started playing with lighting.
The control group worked as they normally did, assembling arrays, whereas the test group had their lights turned down by 10%.
Both groups performance went up.
The scientists were scratching their heads. So they assumed the experiments were broken. To make sure they understood the results, they turned the lights down in the test subjects group to 20% and measured the results. Bizarrely, both groups performance again went up.
As time went on, the scientists began to realise that performance would increase when anything was changed. Any variable, even if the change was back to how they worked before.
They began to uncover that simply when observing the staff perform, and measuring performance, the output of both teams, no matter the variables would increase in-productivity.
This became known as the Hawthorne effect (or Observer effect) which is a type of reactivity in which individuals modify an aspect of their behaviour in response to their awareness of being watched.
Why this is important for managers
Micromanagement is not a great trait in managers, but just as bad is absentee management. When you are not around to be with your team, help them, and monitor performance, you can’t expect good results.
But simply by paying attention, and sitting with your team, letting everyone know that performance is at least monitored in some way, you will notice an increase in performance. Imagine that, for all the talk of increasing productivity in the workplace, all you really need to do to move the needle – is pay attention.
Are you paying the right attention to your team? OHNO makes it really easy to check in with your team, see how they are tracking with their performance objectives, and highlight the barriers that are slowing them down. Try it yourself. You’ll see just how easy it is to get started.