What the Hawthorne Effect tells us about employee productivity

We’re in a golden age of Ice Cream. Many RadReaders have found trusted quarantine companions in pints of Ample Hills, Van Leeuwen, Jeni’s and McConnell’s.

That’s why I’ll never forget my first trip to Facebook’s NYC office in 2015. While I vacillated between the lunch options of braised beef tacos, made-to-order sushi and spicy curly fries – my lasting memory was a DIY Crumbled Cookies and Cream sundae (from the then-reigning ice cream champion Blue Marble).

Unsurprisingly, Facebook employees are quick to extol the laundry list of benefits that accompany the job. The free perks include dry cleaning, valet parking, and onsite health clinics. (And yes, even $1,200 baby cribs.)

All in the name of boosting employee productivity. After all, the Theory of the Firm dictates that a firm exists to maximize profits. Maximizing worker output is a clear first step towards that goal.

The concept of boosting worker output has been around for centuries. In the 1920s, the Chicago-based utility Hawthorne Works sought to explore the relationship between working conditions and worker output. In the book Nine Lies about Work Ashley Goodall and Marcus Buckingham describe how Hawthorne’s management team undertook a series of experiments centered around employee productivity.

They began by making their factories brighter. It worked! Worker output increased.

But in the spirit of experimental rigor, a few days later they turned the lights back down. Strangely, output went up again.

They followed up with a battery of additional experiments:

Making the work stations cleaner, keeping the factory tidier, providing more food during breaks, varying the length of the breaks, keeping the total break tie the same but dividing into smaller or larger chunks.

And every time a condition was changed, output increased. Yet when it was changed back to its original level, it increased again. And even more confounding, “when each experiment was concluded, output sank all the way back to its original level.”

What conclusions did Hawthorne’s management team draw from these inconclusive experiments? And what do they reveal about the complex web of incentives, awareness, and lasting behavior change?

Observation is a superpower

It turns out the perks didn’t matter. This provided a surprising revelation of what employees desired from their workplaces. Goodall and Buckingham concluded that the workers didn’t crave a “brighter workplace or a tidier one;” Nor “a darker one or a messier one.”

Instead, what the workers were responding to was attention. Each of these interventions demonstrated to the workers that management was interested in them and their experience, and they liked that.

And once they felt like management was interested in them, they began liking their work more.

“Change happens through observation,” says the consciousness researcher David Hawkins. He makes the compelling case that observing something we dislike about ourselves diminishes the power it has over us. Observing your breath can reduce stress and anxiety. Observing your spending can de-fang your money fears. Naming your inner critic can tame your negative self-talk.

It feels the spiritual application of Peter Drucker’s famous quote: “What gets measured, gets managed.”

And to this day, my favorite measurement unit remains the pint.

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