The Hawthorne Effect

Ted Bauer
6 min readJun 13, 2022

Written before about employee turnover (and ideally reducing it), and now we’re going to add a new wrinkle to this whole deal: the Hawthorne Effect. What’s that, you ask? Good question. Per Wikipedia, the Hawthorne Effect is “when individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to being observed.” This all comes from a place called Hawthorne Works (get it?) in Cicero, Illinois and some experiments done with light bulbs. If you make the room more bright — increase the light bulb, in other words — workers end up being more productive. But if you dim the light bulb again, productivity drops back to normal (or below-normal levels). The whole deal with the Hawthorne Effect, then, is that if you’re more responsive to worker needs, maybe those workers will be more productive.

I explained this whole thing to my wife this morning en route to the dog park. She said, and I mostly quote this correctly, “Isn’t that just basic human nature? Or human decency?” Indeed, it is. Unfortunately, a lot of managers are unaware of how to do this. Remember: we live in a world where 68 percent of managers aren’t engaged in the career development of their employees. Only 1 in 3 managers can name the strengths of their employees. 60 percent of managers claim they “don’t have the time” to respect their employees. This is all real stuff, and people live through it every day. If you doubt my veracity on this, check the global employee engagement statistics — or check the “trust in workplace” statistics. Both are essentially in the toilet.

Now, have you ever heard of Frederick Winslow Taylor? He wrote a book in 1911–106 years ago, basically — that is still being used as a gold standard around how to manage people today. It attempts to explain individual productivity in ways that were somewhat relevant then — and are completely outdated now. As The Economist has explained, the Hawthorne Effect was a repudiation of some of Winslow’s work. Even with the Hawthorne Effect, though, the stats above are true. Managers still aren’t very good. 82 percent, by some estimation, end up being the wrong hire. What’s going on here?

The Hawthorne Effect: Some important backstory

Before we get super deep into this, let’s establish two things quickly. First: management is not intuitive. What gets you there is…

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Ted Bauer

Mostly write about work, leadership, friendship, masculinity, male infertility, and some other stuff along the way. It's a pleasure to be here.