The Hawthorne Effect and Low, Lying Fruit

By Barry Maher

 Benefit from the Hawthorne effect.

This is a phenomenon first noted way back in 1924–several years before the era’s leading “can-do” guru, Herbert Hoover, led the nation into the Depression. Elton Mayo was trying to study the effect of lighting on productivity at a Western Electric plant in Hawthorne, Illinois. He divided workers into two groups. For the test group, he increased the illumination in their work area. Productivity went up. For the control group, he left the lighting the same. Productivity went up.

That made no sense to Mayo, so he tried another study. He took a group of female workers, gave them regularly scheduled rest periods, company paid lunches and shorter work weeks. Productivity went up. Eighteen months later, all those perks were eliminated. And productivity? It went up once again.

Mayo concluded that productivity increased every time he paid attention to workers.

Tip: Pay attention to your people.

You might never get them to leap out of bed at 6:00 AM with delight at the prospect of heading off to work. But you can make them a lot happier and a lot more productive once they arrive. And you can keep them from ever asking, “Why am I wasting my time here?”

Of course there’s always the school of management exemplified by the CEO who told Fortune magazine, “Leadership is demonstrated when the ability to inflict pain is confirmed.” If that’s what you believe and you think that fills the glass for you, good luck to you.

You’re going to need it.

Low, Lying Fruit

Still, Hawthorne effect or no Hawthorne effect, effective long term management means rewarding behavior you wish to encourage, and only that behavior. Don’t claim you want long range planning then base bonuses on the short-term fix. Don’t expect innovative thinking if you give the best evaluations to employees who march lockstep to the company beat. Don’t look for streamlining and promote those who create ever more complicated controls. Don’t expect cost cutting when departments that exhaust this year’s allocation get more money next year, and those who don’t spend every cent face cutbacks.

Tip: Rewarding accomplishment is usually more effective than rewarding behavior. Whenever possible set quantifiable goals, track progress towards those goals, then reward their accomplishment.

Reward each employee according to what motivates them personally: more responsibility, more recognition, pats on the back, perks and privileges, more freedom, more challenges, fancier offices, exposure to decision makers, titles, parking spaces, staffing, more flexible hours, the opportunity for more creativity. Even a lunch or dinner with you can be an extremely meaningful reward for some people. Just as it could be the worst possible punishment for others.

Additional training can be a particularly effective reward. It demonstrates the commitment the company has in the employee’s future. Yet it’s giving them something they give right back to the business.

Never reward indiscriminately. In Granada there were more medals awarded than there were soldiers in the campaign. You don’t find a lot of people bragging about their Granada combat citations or framing them and hanging them over the mantle.

I know of one manager who sends out a steady torrent of “You’re Fantastic” cards. Everyone gets them. For everything. All the cards are the same, and none ever mentions a specific reason for the acknowledgement.

“He probably fills them out in advance at home at night then writes in the name as needed,” one of his clerical people decided.

Most of the cards quickly find their way into the trash. Some people do save them: for the “Pearl Harbor files” they keep to defend against possible disciplinary action or dismissal. And more and more of these people are keeping Pearl Harbor files. Though all they ever hear from the boss is how wonderful they are, he’s developed such a reputation for insincerity that nobody trusts him. He’s not gay, but that reputation, coupled with his favorite cliché, has earned him the nickname, “The Low, Lying Fruit.”

Once while flying back from a successful European trip, George Bush senior took the time to personally write 40 notes of appreciation to various members of his presidential staff. When aides compared the various notes, they discovered that every single one of them was different. To me, the sheer volume of notes might call in question their sincerity and devalue the worth of any one of them. But I’ll bet each of those 40 people appreciated his or her note. And most of them probably still have them.

Tactic: Compliment people who deserve it. Always individualize the compliment with specifics. When the same compliment is given repeatedly to several different people, it rings false–even when it isn’t.
Tip: Compliment the action not the individual’s character.

“Gee, you’re so intelligent,” is general, may be embarrassing and can sound insincere. But, “Damn, that was a smart idea you had in the meeting today,” rings true, and it’s less likely to make the recipient self-conscious.

Still, as Elton Mayo discovered in Hawthorne, Illinois, back in 1924, any attention is better no attention.


Barry Maher consults, writes and speaks on professional development, motivation, management and sales. His book, Filling the Glass: The Skeptic’s Guide to Positive Thinking in Business has been cited by Today’s Librarian as “[One of] The Seven Essential Popular Business Books.”

© Copyright 2008, 2013,  Barry Maher & Associates, Las Vegas, Nevada, Los Angeles, California

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