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

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? rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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:

The George Foster Peabody AwardIllusory Incentives
Although the theory of incentives at work is changing rapidly, its goal generally remains helping employers obtain more output at lower cost. Here are some neglected effects that tend to limit the chances of achieving that goal.
Signers of the 1938 Munich AgreementHow to Reject Expert Opinion: I
When groups of decision makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
An example of a Weaver's PathwayStill More Things I've Learned Along the Way
When I have an important insight, or when I'm taught a lesson, I write it down. Here's another batch from my personal collection.
The Politics by Subject Matter matrixIssues-Only Team Meetings
Time spent in regular meetings is productive to the extent that it moves the team closer to its objectives. Because uncovering and clarifying issues is more productive than distributing information or listening to status reports, issues-only team meetings focus energy where it will help most.
A red flagRed Flags: I
When we finally admit to ourselves that a collaborative effort is in serious trouble, we sometimes recall that we had noticed several "red flags" early enough to take action. Toxic conflict and voluntary turnover are two examples.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A beach at sunsetComing August 4: What Are the Chances: I
When estimating the probabilities of success of different strategies, we must often estimate the probability of multiple events occurring. People make a common mistake when forming such estimates. They assume that events are independent when they are not. Available here and by RSS on August 4.
Main Reading Room of the U.S. Library of CongressAnd on August 11: Many "Stupid" Questions Aren't
Occasionally someone asks a question that causes us to think, "Now that's a stupid question." Rarely is that assessment correct. Knowing what alternative assessments are possible can help us respond more effectively in the moment. Available here and by RSS on August 11.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!