The Hawthorne Effect is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals change or improve their behavior simply because they are aware of being observed. The effect has been a noted factor in a variety of experimental studies, and is thought to be unavoidable in any type of study or experiment that uses humans as subjects. People act differently once they know they’re being watched—and this can contaminate results.
Although it may seem as if the Hawthorne Effect is only applicable to scientific studies, the effect has been observed in the workplace. In fact, the original Hawthorne Study was created to study the effect of lighting on employee’s productivity at a factory. During the study, productivity did indeed improve—regardless of the lighting variables, however. Workers were more productive when there was more lighting as well as when lighting was diminished. It was discovered that this increase in production was due to the attention focused on workers, not changes in work conditions or practices.
In another example, a study of medical staff found that when medical workers knew they were being watched, they complied with hand-washing protocols 55% more often than when they were unaware of being watched. Other studies on hand-hygiene protocol have found that the variability in hand washing could be explained by the presence of a direct observer. Researchers have concluded that observers can and do influence behavior, at least in certain circumstances.
What does this mean for observation and improvement in the workplace? As managers conduct training or go on Gemba walks to observe processes, it’s important to keep in mind that frontline employees may act differently if they know they’re being studied. A good example is a construction worker who always wears their hard hat when their supervisor is nearby, but takes the hard hat off when they are working by themselves.
When people know they are being watched, they tend to adhere to safety and efficiency protocols more closely. This may range from washing their hands to meeting a productivity threshold to donning protective equipment. The consequences also range: an employee may simply have difficulty completing tasks if they are left without supervision, but, in some cases, the Hawthorne Effect can lead to management being unaware of unsafe circumstances. Safety, and the production process, cannot be improved if managers aren’t clued in to the real situation.
It has been suggested that using hidden observation may help avoid the Hawthorne Effect. Another proposed solution is to refrain from silent observation and instead engage with the workers who are being studied, asking questions and having a conversation in order to determine how familiar they are with the process. The Hawthorne effect can make an impact, and it is a phenomenon that every manager should be aware of—but there are ways to prevent it from occurring in your workplace so issues can be resolved and safety can be improved.