The Hawthorne Effect

By Meade McCoy

Analysis. It’s a word we’ve all seen over and over again in our HPI and T&D texts, and a concept that we have talked about in class after class. We see analysis—really just a fancy name for research—as a means of determining what has gone wrong and deciding what the best solution is. But there is another aspect to analysis that should be remembered and can in some instances be used to improve the situation.light blub

The Hawthorne Effect was an accidental discovery that has shaped how research is conducted and analyzed for the last 80 some years. The Hawthorne Studies were a series of work place research projects conducted at the Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric factory located just outside of Chicago. The goal of the original study was to find the lighting level that would result in the highest leave of employee productivity.

The initial tests were known as the “industrial illumination tests”, this series of studies was part of a larger project undertaken by the National Research Council (an academic research organization which receives the majority of their funding from the federal government). The goal was to prove that lighting levels in factories had a direct correlation to the level of productivity of the workers. The lighting industry was waging a campaign to have American factories install artificial lighting and these studies were a way of legitimizing the idea that the costs of installing and operating electrical lighting would be offset by the increased profits from improved productivity.

Surprisingly the results of the study differed so greatly from what had been expected and seemed so inconsistent that the national research council did not even complete a report on their findings. What had started as a simple lighting and productivity study turned into a massive multiyear motivation research project. With results that are described in just about every management book printed in the last half century.

When the findings from the first lighting study were tabulated the results were completely in line with what the expectations had been. The productivity of employees had gone up when the lighting level had been increased. Fantastic, having these results was the whole reason that the study had been conceived of and implemented. Now that the desirable results had been achieved it was decided that they would run the same experiment again but this time they would lower the light level… If the first experiment confirmed the hypothesis that increased lighting resulted in improved productivity than it can be assumed that the opposite would also hold true, and that lowering the lighting level would result in a decrease in productivity. When the second experiment was completed the results were baffling, productivity had improved when using decreased lighting levels at nearly the same rate as it had using increased lighting levels. The question then was what did it mean that employee productivity improved with both more and less light then normal?

These results were considered so anomalous that the whole series of experiments was repeated in the hopes that something had gone wrong with the first set. To what I’m sure was the great annoyance of the researchers and the national research council not to mention the whole lighting industry, the results from the second set of studies duplicated the results of the first set.

factory workersThe industry and researchers were left with some puzzling questions, what was happening here? and did it have anything to do with the lighting levels at all? If productivity had increased equally with both higher and lower lighting levels what could the cause be?

The researchers spent many years trying to answer these questions. The most common and accepted answer is that the productivity of employees increased as a response to the knowledge that the study was being performed. The knowledge that the company cared about what working conditions would be best for them made the employees feel valued and appreciated. These feelings resulted in a change in attitude towards their work and the company as a whole; because they felt valued they began to take more pride in their jobs, and their over all opinion of the company improved. These changes in attitude eventually lead to an increased level of commitment to the company and the job, which then lead to in higher productivity. Lighting levels had little or nothing to do with the improved employee productivity; it was about feeling that the company they worked for valued them as employees and human beings.

This interpretation of the study results has led to a whole new school of thought in employee management. If employees work harder when they feel that the company cares about them, then showing your employees that they are valued can improve productivity without expensive infrastructure changes. Management theory has been changing and expanding for more than a hundred years now, from scientific management to bureaucratic management to human relations management. The Hawthorne studies played a significant role in the movement from bureaucratic management styles to the more humanistic styles used today. Management was forced to start treating employees as more than just cogs in a machine, when it was proven that seeing their employees as individuals and treating them with care and respect could have an impact on their bottom-line.happy worker

As HPI and T&D professionals it is important to understand what the Hawthorn studies teach us about human behavior so that we can use it to our advantage in some situations and account for it affecting our efforts in other situations. Improved performance following training may or may not be a testament of the effectiveness of the training; it could just be a result of employees feeling that someone is paying attention to him or her. And in some cases implementing a costly training program may not be necessary, doing something to make your employees feels valued may be all that is needed to improve performance and productivity.

So take a minute and think about what the Hawthorn Effect can mean to you and your work.


Angelo, R. M., & Vladimir, A. (2007). Hospitality today: an introduction (6th ed.). Lansing, Mich.: Educational Institute, American Hotel & Lodging Association.

Denova, C. C. (1968). The Hawthorne Effect. Training & Development Journal22(10), 46.

Idea: The Hawthorne effect | The Economist. (n.d.). The Economist – World News, Politics, Economics, Business & Finance. Retrieved December 4, 2012, from

Questioning the Hawthorne effect: Light work | The Economist. (n.d.). The Economist – World News, Politics, Economics, Business & Finance. Retrieved December 4, 2012, from

About Meade Peers McCoy

I am driven to learn, about the world and the people in it, learn to do new things, learn to see things in a new way.
This entry was posted in Human Performance Improvement, Organizational Development. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Hawthorne Effect

  1. Thank you for the great post. When I think of analysis it is an overwhelming word and the simple definition of ‘fancy name for research’ makes it not as intimidating.
    I enjoyed the example of the Hawthorne effect that was provided. The example provided me insight on observation being just one aspect of the analysis stage. I see the importance of bench marking with a pre and post analysis such as Kirkpatrick’s 4 levels of evaluation. I can also see that depending on the situation that the other types of analysis gathering is necessary.
    So I think to sum up my key take away is that one analysis tool is not enough.
    Thanks for the insightful post.
    Peg O.

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