The Hawthorne effect in management
An important part of successful project management is about emotional intelligence and soft skills, such as motivation and communication. It requires skills in human relations.
The Hawthorne effect refers to the tendency of people to alter their behaviours in response to being aware that they are being observed. It is named after a study of worker productivity at the Hawthorne Electrical Works near Chicago in the late 1920s. The original idea was to test how changes in the work environment, such as lightning, working hours and rest breaks affected the productivity. However, based on the observations, the researchers concluded that the workers' productivity was not affected by the changes in working conditions, but rather by the awareness that someone was observing them.
This article will briefly present the history of the phenomena and the original studies it deprives from. Moreover, it will relate the term to state-of-the-art project management processes and how it can be applied within such.
Although the studies have become firmly established as a term within social science and management, it has been heavily criticised all the way from the beginning. This is first and foremost a result of lack of original data as well as shortcomings in the methodology. However, there is still a shared agreement on the relevance of the message that came with the studies – that people are highly influenced and motivation by social factors – hence the need for project managers possessing both hard as well as soft skills.
The "Hawthorne effect"
The “Hawthorn effect” is a phenomenon used to explain any change in behaviour related to an awareness of being observed, graded, or measured. In other words, it is the tendency for people to alter their behaviour when they know that they are being observed . The term is named after a study of worker productivity, that was conducted at the Hawthorne Works, a large plant of the Western Electric Company outside of Chicago, from 1924 to 1933. The original idea was to test how changes in the work environment, such as lightning, working hours and rest breaks affected the productivity. However, based on the observations, the researchers concluded that the workers' productivity was not affected by the changes in working conditions, but rather by the awareness that someone was observing them.
Since then, the phenomenon has permeated the fields of research, economics, psychology, sociology and not to mention industrial organization and management. Due to a lack of original data, the concept has been met with a lot of criticism, but supporters of the original studies argue that the research was intended to “generate, not verify, hypotheses” . It is considered to be the single most important investigation of the human dimensions of industrial relations in the early 20th century and has thus come to represent a major historical event in the development of social science .
Although the studies are almost a hundred years old, they continue to impact leadership and organizational schools of thought today. No other theory or set of experiments has contributed more to a change in management thinking, nor led to more research and controversy than the Hawthorne studies .
The History of the Hawthorne Studies
The Hawthorne studies refers to a total of six studies, conducted from 1924 to 1933 at the Hawthorne Plant, an electric factory, outside of Chicago . The earliest of the studies, and also the most frequently mentioned to back up the studies, are known as the “illumination experiments”.
The illumination experiments were jointly conducted by the Nation Research Council (NRC), Committee on Industrial Lightning (CIL) and Charles Snow, a researcher from MIT . The original idea was to examine how various amounts of lightning in the workplace affected productivity, and test claims that brighter lightning increased productivity. However, the results were not as expected, showing that the productivity in fact increased for all. The variation of lightning, both natural sunlight and artificial, had no effect proven. These findings led the researchers to the conclusion that the changes observed in the workers’ performance were not a result of changes in the work environment, but rather the awareness that they were being observed – what became known as the “Hawthorne effect”.
In the years to come, to help interpret the results of the studies, the Industrial Research Division at the Hawthorne plant consulted several external experts, including the charismatic figure, Elton Mayo of the Harvard Business School . Mayo encouraged management at the plant to further investigate the various factors affecting the worker’s productivity, such as shorter work hours, easier tasks, higher cage incentives, longer rest periods and friendlier and more flexible supervision  Under the supervision of Elton Mayo, five more studies were conducted at the Hawthorne plant – The Relay Assembly Test Room (1927–1932, Two derivative studies (1928–1929), The Interview program (1928–1930) and The Bank Wiring Observation Room (1931–1932) – with results consistent with the ones from the illumination experiments. No matter how, or in what combination the factors varied, the worker’s productivity increased . This led Mayo and his team to the conclusion that the workers were prompted to increase their performance and work harder due solely to the attention they were receiving from the researchers – confirming the “Hawthorne effect”, that behaviour can be altered by a subject’s awareness of participating in an experiment .
The Hawthorne effect in Project Management
The Hawthorne effect put in the context of project-, program-, and portfolio management can be related to management skills and how to be a good project manager from a people’s perspective. The conclusion drawn from the experiments marked a shift in management styles, and established the foundation for understanding industrial behaviour and human relations in the workplace . For the first time, there was evidence of the potential benefits of interpersonal and subjective skills, such as leadership, communication and motivation, when it came to workers productivity. A great project managers should therefore not only possess technical skills but should also focus on developing soft skills – something that aligns with today’s perception of important competences as a project manager. The International Project Management Association (PMA), has based on numerous studies, suggested a competence baseline for project managers, based on three types: technical competences, behavioural competences, and contextual competences .
The Hawthorne effect can benefit a project manager in his or her management skills and engagement approaches. The findings of the studies provide important insight into the human behaviour and how motivation can impact project outcomes. The utilization of the knowledge related to the Hawthorne effect can help project manager more effectively engage with relevant stakeholders, build effective teams and optimize project performance.
The Importance of People Skills as a Project Manager
An important aspect of project management is about the people, and managing the stakeholders involved. Stakeholders are defined as “any person, group or organization that has an interest in, or can affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by, any aspect of the project, programme or portfolio” . One way to look at a project is as a collaboration between unique individuals, with different interests, expertise and personalities. The task of the manager is to find a way to make these people collaborate in the best possible way, working towards a shared, uncertain and at most times complex purpose .
Elton Mayo’s conclusion from the Hawthorne studies was that supervisors, such as a project manager, should strive for an equilibrium between the technical organization and the human one . When aiming for an increased productivity among employees, it is not just about the action being taken and the technical skills such as managing risks, budget updates, keeping schedules and being an analytical and detailed-oriented person. Just as importantly is how it is done, by whom, and the perceptions of such changes by those directly affected by them . A great project manager will have to be a leader – “a trustworthy and competent person who motivates, communicates, inspires, negotiates, resolves conflicts, manage crises, and people enjoy working with” .
An important skill of a great leader is being able to motivate the followers. Motivation is defined as “set of forces that cause, focus, and sustain workers’ behaviour” , and the presence of it, among relevant stakeholders, is an essential part of a any project’s success. The absence of it will most likely lead to stagnation, where the employees stop seeking out new ways to perform their work more effectively . In short, motivation is what inspires and encourages individuals, maximizing their full potential and creates environments that foster teamwork – a necessity for a project’s success.
The challenge with motivation is how to do it and engage people in work. This is a key activity of a project manager, but far from a trivial task . There are many suggestions as to how to approach this, for instance by recognizing other’s accomplishments and efforts, showing appreciation, matching expectations to people’s skills, constructive feedback, setting attainable goals and providing a clear sense of direction . As a project manager, in order to succeed, it is important to set expectations that are attainable, as well as provide the right means to reach the goal .
The conclusion drawn from the Hawthorne studies highlights the importance of recognizing and acknowledging the efforts of individuals in a project team. For a project manager, the knowledge of the “Hawthorne effect” might help them understand the stakeholders, and how to motivate them – providing positive feedback, recognition, and opportunities for growth and development – making them feel appreciated and that their efforts are being noticed, something that according to the Hawthorne studies can help increase stakeholder engagement.
Limitations and Criticism of the Studies
Even though the Hawthorne studies have become firmly established as a term within social science and management, it has all the way from the beginning been heavily criticised. As early as 1967, scholars were identifying flaws in the Hawthorne studies, where it was questioned how it was possible for “conclusions so little supported by evidence, to gain such an influential and respected place within scientific disciplines and to hold this place for so long” .
Since then, the studies have been revisited by numerous researchers many of whom shed light on methodological shortcomings, and some even conclude that the Hawthorne effect itself, might not actually exist . According to Argyle, the Hawthorne researchers provided “no quantitative evidence for the conclusion for which this experiment is famous, that the increase of output was due to a changed relationship with supervision” . There have been several other who have reanalyzed the data. Despite the differences in the academics’ research, what most of them have in common is the interpretation of the data, and how there is no real evidence of the so called “Hawthorne effect” in the studies conducted at the plant outside of Chicago in the late 1920s .
This has led to speculations that the change in the workers productivity may have been caused by other factors, such as by receiving positive attention, longer or more frequent pauses, by learning new ways of interaction, or a relief from harsh supervision – all of which could explain such a change. As a consequence, the Hawthorne effect has over the years acquired the status of a creation myth in social psychology as well as management theory, and it is questionable whether the term has a function any longer .
When looking at the limitations related to the application of the knowledge of the Hawthorne effect, and the potential pitfalls for a project manager, one should pay attention to the length of the effect. If observation is used to enhance a worker’s productivity, there are no research or evidence related to the length of such an effect. There is for thus a great risk that the effect will vary off ones the stakeholder does not long feel like he or she is being paid attention to.
Over time, the Hawthorne effect has become an urban legend, permeating the fields of research, industrial organization and management, economics, sociology and psychology. It was groundbreaking in the 1930s, and continuous to impact leadership an organizational schools of today .
Although the studies have been heavily criticized, mostly due to lack of original data and thus no evidence of the conclusion that was drawn, the findings are still of great relevance in today’s management practices. Today, the focus on project managers is mostly tended to human aspects rather than technical ones. There is a great focus on the development of soft skills, such as motivation, communication and leadership, something that resonates well with the conclusions drawn my Elton Mayo and his team.
The Hawthorne studies helped us understand that a work environment and what influences it has to be understood as a system, consisting of various components. For the first time, social factors were also considered when looking into worker productivity, such as worker participation and involvement in company decision-making, job satisfaction, resistance to change, the quality of effective leadership and the means of appealing to motivating influences for untapping potential, to mention some, and how these just as much affected the productivity .
Relating the studies to the state-of-the-art project management practices, one could argue that the changes observed at the Hawthorne plant about a hundred years ago were not necessarily the result of being observed. Most likely they were the result of changes in the work environment and human relations, such as an increase in motivation. To motivate is of the main tasks of a project manager – to provide attention, caring and feedback to employees, to unleash and maximize their potential. Although the conduction and methodology of the Hawthorne studies are questionable, the movement and shift it created in management theory, emphasizing the importance of soft skills, is one explanation as to why it is still widely mentioned in the literature. As argued by the supporters of the original studies, the research was intended to generate, not verify, hypotheses.
ISO 21500, Guidance on Project Management, is an international standard for project management. The standard is the result of 31 countries’ ISO (International Standards Organization) boards’ common understanding of project management. ISO 21500 represents a common language used to talk about projects. It provides guidance on concepts and processes of project management that are important for, and have impact on, the performance of projects. Furthermore, it represents a generic framework that can be used by any type of organization, including public, private or community organizations, and for any type of project, irrespective of complexity, size or duration (Danish Standards Association, 2021).
Doing Projects: A Nordic Flavour to Managing Projects (2nd edition)
The DS Handbook is written as the companion to the ISO 21500:2012 Standard, Guidance on project management. It provides a Nordic interpretation to the ISO 21500, and thus propose a management which centers on empowering practitioners to develop their own practices in collaboration with others. The overall intention of the book is to provide the reader with the foundation to transform the well-known processes suggested in the ISO 21500 standards into contextualized actions, together with others, to achieve a meaningful purpose.
Was There a Hawthorne Effect?
An article describing how the evidence for a Hawthorne effect has been tested, by examining the quantitative data on individual output levels collected over five years during the original Hawthorne studies. Contrary to the conventional wisdom in much research and teaching, he found essentially no evidence of Hawthorne effects, either unconditionally or with allowance for direct effects of the experimental variables themselves.
The “Hawthorne effect” is a myth, but what keeps the story going?
This article demonstrates that the Hawthorne studies does not pass a methodological quality test. Even though methodological shortcomings were waived, there is no proof of a Hawthorne effect in the original data.
- ↑ Elston, D. M. (2021). The Hawthorne effect. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 1–2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2021.01.085
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Vannan, K. (2021). History of the Hawthorne Effect. The Encyclopedia of Research Methods in Criminology and Criminal Justice: Volume II: Parts 5-8, I, 264–248. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119111931.ch47
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 Turner, C. (1939). The Real " Hawthorne Effect " Augustine Brannigan and William Zwerman. 55–60.
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 Kompier, M. A. J. (2006). The “Hawthorne effect” is a myth, but what keeps the story going? Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, 32(5), 402–412. https://doi.org/10.5271/sjweh.1036
- ↑ Sedgwick, P., & Greenwood, N. (2015). Understanding the hawthorne effect. BMJ (Online), 351(September), 1–2. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h4672
- ↑ (IPMA), T. I. P. M. A. (n.d.). Compentence Baseline. Http://Ipma.World/Certification/Competence/Ipma-Competence-Baseline/.
- ↑ Melorose, J., Perroy, R., & Careas, S. (2015). Was There Really a Hawthorne Effect At the Hawthorne Plant? an Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments. Statewide Agricultural Land Use Baseline 2015, 1(January), 224–238.
- ↑ Jones, S. R. G. (1992). Was There a Hawthorne Effect ? Author ( s ): Stephen R . G . Jones Published by : The University of Chicago Press Stable URL : http://www.jstor.org/stable/2781455 Accessed : 11-04-2016 14 : 11 UTC Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of. 98(3), 451–468.
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 Trahair, R. C. S., & Zaleznik, A. (n.d.). Elton Mayo: The Humanist Temper. Transaction Publishers. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=OQ9PTLTVJVQC
- ↑ (IPMA), T. I. P. M. A. (n.d.). Compentence Baseline. Http://Ipma.World/Certification/Competence/Ipma-Competence-Baseline/.
- ↑ Standard, D. (2021). Dansk standard Kontekst og koncepter Project , programme and portfolio - ISO21500.
- ↑ 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Geraldi, J., Thuesen, C., Oehmen, J., & Stingl, V. (2017). Doing Projects: A Nordic Flavour to Managing Projects (2nd editio). Danish Standards Foundation.
- ↑ Merrett, F. (2006). Reflections on the Hawthorne effect. Educational Psychology, 26(1), 143–146. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410500341080
- ↑ Griffin, R. W., Ebert, R. J., Dracopoulos, G., Starke, F. A., & Lang, M. D. (2013). Business. Pearson Canada. https://books.google.dk/books?id=nIqNMQEACAAJ
- ↑ 15.0 15.1 Kumaran, M. (2012). 2 - Managers and leaders. In M. Kumaran (Ed.), Leadership in Libraries (pp. 45–75). Chandos Publishing. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-1-84334-658-6.50002-4
- ↑ 16.0 16.1 Wickström, G., & Bendix, T. (2000). The " Hawthorne effect " — what did the original Hawthorne studies actually show ? Institute of Occupational Health , the Danish National Research Centre for the Working Environment , and the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health Stable URL. The Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, the Danish National Research Centre for the Working Environment, and the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health, 26(4), 363–367. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40967074
- ↑ Wickström, G., & Bendix, T. (2000). The " Hawthorne effect " — what did the original Hawthorne studies actually show ? Institute of Occupational Health , the Danish National Research Centre for the Working Environment , and the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health Stable URL. The Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, the Danish National Research Centre for the Working Environment, and the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health, 26(4), 363–367. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40967074
- ↑ Sonnenfeld, J. A. (1985). Shedding Light on the Hawthorne Studies. Journal of Occupational Behaviour, 6, 111–130.