Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Managers and the Hawthorne Effect


When you've been around businesses and projects for a while, you start to see patterns emerge. One pattern I see on a regular basis is management who think they're solving a problem, but it's really just the Hawthorne Effect at work.

If you've never heard of the Hawthorne Effect, all you need to know is that people who know they're being monitored will be more productive than those who aren't.  It's common sense really.

The most frequent scenario I see is this:  Let's say senior management are absent a lot, due to golfing commitments, vacations and other "extra-curricular" activities that means they can't put in a regular day's work at the office.  When things go awry and projects slip, they blame it on "poor communication", "lack of accountability", etc.  

If the problem is big enough, they get to the point where a meeting is called.  Then they berate everyone, lose patience, and then say that "things are going to change".  At this point, they impose a bunch of new rules, new processes, and spend a few days implementing it.  

At the end of those few days, they notice that productivity is up, people are communicating, and things are running smoother.  What they don't notice is everyone is ignoring the new processes as much as the old ones, the new rules are being flouted as much as the old ones, the workers are now all riled up because they've been berated at, and so forth.  So what's the cause of the increase in productivity? 

It's the Hawthorne Effect.  

It's nothing to do with the rules, processes and stuff like that, and everything to do with the fact that the manager is there observing what's going on.  Thus, it's really obvious what's going to happen when they think they've solved the problem and then don't turn up for the whole of the next week due to three golf commitments, and a long weekend in NYC.

What I can never work out is why some people cannot see the benefits of actually "managing" people, so when they fail to do that, they go round making the problem worse.