The Hawthorne Effect:
Can You Hawthorne Yourself?

WRITTEN BY Dave Nicolette

The Hawthorne Effect

My home office has a window. The window has plantation shutters. When I work at home, I usually open the shutters all the way to fill the room with natural light.

One fine day not too long ago, I opened the shutters just a little. The room was lighted more softly. I felt energized and I had a great work day.

On an internal Slack channel, I told my colleagues that I had Hawthorned myself. I had changed the ambient lighting in my work space, and the result was improved effectiveness.

They didn’t buy it.

What?

Sorry? Oh, yeah. I should explain. There’s this thing they call the Hawthorne Effect.

Companies, governments, and such have always had a keen interest in squeezing as much work out of people as possible; you know, for building railroads, for agricultural work, and other things. With the advent of the Industrial Age, worker productivity became more important than it had been previously. There was suddenly great urgency to produce massive quantities of unregulated canned meats and other essentials that people didn’t realize they needed until mass production was invented.

Companies tried the strategies that had always worked before. Threats. Beatings. Lock-outs. Dogs. Corrupt police. Straight-up murder, to set an example. When those methods didn’t work, companies did what we humans often do when something doesn’t work: More of the same, and harder. But somehow the tried-and-true methods just weren’t doing the trick anymore. It was a puzzler!

Eventually, they learned that humans perform at their best when they are treated as humans rather than as machine parts. Obvious in hindsight, I guess, but it took quite a while for the idea to catch on. In the early 20th century, it wasn’t as clear (except maybe to the workers themselves).

So they came up with this idea called Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Sounds cool, huh? Yeah. They wanted to learn how to manipulate people more effectively so they could squeeze more work out of them. But there was a problem: They weren’t very good at designing experiments or interpreting the results.

An Experiment

In the 1920s at a Western Electric plant called the Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois, near Chicago, researchers conducted an experiment. They made adjustments to working hours, break times, and lighting in the work areas. The changes appeared to result in improvements in worker productivity. Temporary changes, it’s true, but less strenuous than beatings and cheaper than buying politicians. The observed behavior came to be known as the Hawthorne Effect when Henry Landsberger wrote about the experiment later, in his 1958 book, Hawthorne Revisited.

By the way, did you notice the use of the words “conducted” and “electric” in the same sentence, back there at the beginning of this section? I just wanted to point it out in case you had missed it. There’s so much stuff to read these days, people tend to skim and overlook the nuances.

Speaking of overlooking nuances, those who tried to understand what had occurred at the Hawthorne Works couldn’t quite figure it out. Had the workers responded positively to the fact management seemed to be paying attention to them, for a change? Maybe. It seemed like a good enough explanation. Good enough to coin the term Observer Effect as a synonym for Hawthorne Effect, anyway.

But a more popular (and equally speculative) explanation was that simply adjusting the lighting caused people to work more effectively. That explanation has helped many psychologists obtain PhDs and lucrative consulting gigs, even though it seems to have been debunked; same general pattern as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators or any given Agile scaling framework.

Hawthorne-ing Myself

That brings us back around to the shutters in my home office. Can I make myself more effective just by changing the light level in my work space? It doesn’t seem reasonable, does it? Still less so, when we realize the whole Hawthorne thing isn’t real.

What is real, then?

I believe I got myself into a productive state of mind when I adjusted the light level in my home office, but I can’t prove it scientifically. Maybe scientific proof isn’t necessary. After all, people have been making hay out of the Hawthorne thing for nigh on a century, and I achieved a positive result in a matter of seconds, with no science. So, I saved myself decades of effort. That’s pretty efficient, if I do say so myself. And I do.

Maybe we can control our state of mind through conscious effort, to an extent. You know, like that thing where you smile on purpose to make yourself feel happy. A smile is a result of feeling happy, but it turns out the circuit works in both directions. So, why not wire it up and punch it? Do something whimsical, like slipping the word “nigh” into a blog post. Beats the alternative, right? (Well, unless you like the alternative.)

Full disclosure: It isn’t quite true that I only changed the light level. The day I posted that on our Slack channel was the first day I had the office back up and running after painting the room. Painting the room involved clearing everything out and reviewing what to keep and what to discard, as well as thoroughly cleaning every piece of furniture and every piece of equipment. I also reorganized the space so that I could see, identify, and reach everything at need. The result was a very pleasant and highly functional work environment, devoid of clutter and distractions.

So there was more going on (or maybe less) than the Hawthorne Effect. After a stimulating and thought-provoking discussion with colleagues on the subject, as well as some reflection on my part, I think there are two key factors at play here. I’m sure they are obvious to you, as well:

The Lean 5S thing comes from five Japanese words that have to do with setting things in order and keeping them that way. The five words all start with S, so 5S is a super clever name for it. Sometimes I just want to pause and bask in the cleverness of it for a moment. The idea comes from Lean Manufacturing, but it applies very well to software work, too.

People seem to do better when their work area is organized and they can find the tools and information they need easily. I guess that’s not surprising. Immediately after cleaning, painting, and reorganizing my office, it was in great shape for productive work. Whether I can keep it that way is an open question at this point.

And the berserkers? Well, they were an elite group of Viking fighters who whipped themselves up into an emotional frenzy just before battle. They were like special forces, in a way. They endured harsh northern winters alone in the wilderness as a way to harden themselves. They entered battle in a state of near insanity and near nakedness (not unlike people who work at home).

It must have been quite terrifying to face them. They are reported to have done things like rip a man’s jaw off his face bare-handed. One warrior is said to have eaten his own shield as he amped himself up, and then killed six of the enemy’s best fighters.

This is exactly the same as smiling to make yourself feel happy.

I think it’s very possible to Hawthorne yourself. The fact academics can’t figure out how it works doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. There’s a lot of stuff academics can’t figure out. That doesn’t have to stop the rest of us from doing things that work.

You’re basically whipping yourself up into a frenzy of effectiveness, like a happy berserker.

Try it!

Just be careful not to eat your own shield accidently in all the excitement. Trust me: It’s inconvenient.

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