Basic approaches that have evolved over time to improve productivity

Human Relations Contributors

The Hawthorne Effect

In the training world, the Hawthorne Effect is a chameleon. Ask several trainers and you'll probably get several definitions, most of them legitimate and all of them true to some aspect of the original experiments by Elton Mayo, in Chicago that produced the term.

It has been described as the rewards you reap when you pay attention to people. The mere act of showing people that you're concerned about them usually spurs them to better job performance.

That's the Hawthorne Effect.

The Hawthorne Effect at work

Suppose you've taken a management trainee and given her specialized training in management skills she doesn't now possess. Without saving a word, you've given the trainee the feeling that she is so valuable to the organization that you'll spend time and money to develop her skills. She feels she's on a track to the top, and that motivates her to work harder and better. The motivation is independent of any particular skills or knowledge she may have gained from the training session. That's the Hawthorne Effect at work.

In a way, the Hawthorne Effect can be construed as an enemy of the modern trainer. Carrying the theory to the edges of cynicism, some would say it doesn't make any difference what you teach because the Hawthorne Effect will produce the positive outcome you want.

A Sense of belonging?

How do you respond to executives who denigrate training and credit the Hawthorne Effect when productivity rises? So what? Effective training performs a dual function: It educates people and it strokes them. And there's nothing wrong with using the Hawthorne Effect to reach this other training goal. In fact, the contention is that about 50% of any successful training session can be attributed to the Hawthorne Effect.

The Hawthorne Effect has also been called the 'Somebody Upstairs Cares' syndrome. It's not as simplistic as the ideal popular under the human relations craze over recent years that you just have to be nice to workers. It's more than etiquette.

When people spend a large portion of their time at work, they must have a sense of belonging, of being part of a team. When they do, they produce better. That's the Hawthorne Effect.


One often hears a different interpretation of the Hawthorne Effect. George Orwell would understand this version; it has a Big Brother ring that's far less benign than other definitions. People use it when they talk about workers under the eye of the supervisor.

If someone should subtly observe workers on the job to see if they truly apply new procedures they've learned in a training course. Occasionally, managers object saying that observation isn't a valid test Of course they'll do a good job if you're watching them.

In essence the Hawthorne Effect really is not just about "positive outcomes"-the positive effect of "attention" wore off later in the life-span of the Hawthorne Studies. It is about the absence of definite correlation (positive or negative) between productivity and independent variables used in the experiments (monetary incentive, rest pauses, etc.).

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