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

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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