Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 40;   October 2, 2002: Getting Around Hawthorne

Getting Around Hawthorne

by

The Hawthorne Effect appears when we measure employee attitudes or behavior — when people know they're being measured, they modify their behavior. How can we measure attitudes with a minimum of distortion from the Hawthorne Effect?

If you're a manager, how can you tell how good a job you're doing? Take a survey? Do a 360 assessment?

When you measure something, you influence it. For instance, investors value companies according to their profits. Knowing this, many executives make decisions that favor short-term profits over the company's long-term well being, and some actually fudge the figures.

A vernier caliperApplied to organizations, this phenomenon is called the Hawthorne Effect — when people know you're measuring something, they try to make the measurement turn out "right." Most measurements of employee satisfaction run afoul of this phenomenon. How can you measure without Hawthorne distortion?

Begin by looking at what you're measuring. The good news: we measure way too much. We try to measure the immeasurable, and we use those measurements to try to control the uncontrollable. By reducing our overall measurement effort, and accounting for Hawthorne distortion, we can measure less and get a lot more value from the effort. Here are three keys to effective measurement:

  • Measure only what is objectively measurable. Judgment isn't objectively measurable.
  • Measure only what you hope to control. Have in mind actions you can take that directly influence trends in whatever you measure.
  • Understand the Hawthorne Effect: if people know they're being measured, they alter their behavior to optimize the measurement.

Too often, we try
to measure the
immeasurable to
control the
uncontrollable
The name "Hawthorne Effect" comes from some early work (1927-1932) on organizational measurement done at the Western Electric plant in Hawthorne, Illinois, where management tried to determine optimum levels of factory-floor lighting. Because the employees knew about the study, they responded to each adjustment in light level by increasing productivity.

But the Hawthorne Effect can be much broader. In one approach to controlling software quality, we measure defects by severity category. Since software isn't releasable unless defect counts are below acceptable levels, there is pressure to downgrade the severity of any defects in categories that are over threshold.

Measuring with discretion is one route around Hawthorne. Here are some trends you can measure outside the awareness of most employees. Most must be measured per capita per month. Their interpretation depends on your particular situation, though some are obvious.

  • Voluntary turnover
  • Number of hits to corporate gripe sites
  • Posted Dilbert cartoons
  • Fraction of posted Dilbert cartoons that involve Ratbert the HR manager
  • Percentage use of sick days and vacation days
  • Average usage-hours of parking spaces
  • Employer-funded education credits earned
  • Number of complaints per month about peers
  • Number of "Tweaking CC" emails (see "The Tweaking CC," Point Lookout for February 7, 2001)
  • Number of known feuds
  • Fraction of posted Dilbert cartoons that involve the pointy-haired manager
  • Fraction of desks with Dilbert desk calendars
  • Vending machine candy consumption
  • Percentage of meetings rescheduled
  • Project lateness, in dollar-days per capita

Would you like to know trends in any of these measurements? Can you think of other measurements you'd rather make? Go to top Top  Next issue: When Naming Hurts  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenQvviRgayJctFkpFTner@ChacIMlewsoYtZdhlVhAoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Approaching the Emerald City from the Yellow Brick RoadLet's Revise Our Rituals
Throughout the workday, we interact with each other on many levels. Some exchanges are so common and ritualized that we're no longer aware of them. If we revise these rituals slightly, we can add some zing to our lives.
Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, who tried to halt the launch of Challenger in 1986Towards More Gracious Disagreement
We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right, or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some thoughts to help you kick the habit.
Three adult male chimpanzees during a grooming sessionFavors, Payback, and Thoughtlessness
Someone at work who isn't particularly a friend or foe has asked you for a favor. What happens if you say no? Do you grant the favor? How do you decide what to do?
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin (left) with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan GreenspanThe Paradox of Confidence
Most of us interpret a confident manner as evidence of competence, and a hesitant manner as evidence of lesser ability. Recent research suggests that confidence and competence are inversely correlated. If so, our assessments of credibility and competence are thrown into question.
A piece of chocolate cakeEgo Depletion and Priority Setting
Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Probably not the kind of waiting we have in mind hereComing July 26: Strategic Waiting
Time can be a tool. Letting time pass can be a strategy for resolving problems or getting out of tight places. Waiting is an often-overlooked strategic option. Available here and by RSS on July 26.
Srinivasa RamanujanAnd on August 2: Linear Thinking Bias
When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're less than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution. Available here and by RSS on August 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenTZJJkqJDzAJfqCiWner@ChacuPiRgLgWnmVYCMDBoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.