Jun 23, 2015

Employee Engagement and the “Hawthorne Effect”

Does it ever baffle you that company leaders and HR Departments find it so hard to keep employees engaged? It does me. Why? Because all the way back into the 1920’s there has been evidence of what people want and need to be engaged at work. There was a study conducted by Industrial Psychologists in conjunction with Western Electric to discover what causes people to feel engaged and produce better and more results. It was eventually termed “The Hawthorne Effect” because these studies were carried out at the Hawthorne Works manufacturing plant. So, what were the studies and what were the effects?

One study centered around illumination of the work areas. Slight changes in the amount of light actually affected worker productivity. It didn’t matter if the illumination was brighter or darker, anytime the lighting changed, worker productivity went up.

Another study had to do with the raising and lowering of the work stations. The workers were first told that recent studies showed that raising the work station height increased productivity. And, it did. They cam back later and said another study showed that lowering the work station increases productivity. And, it did. Lastly, they said yet another study showed that putting the work station back to its original level increases productivity. Guess what? It did!

What does all of this mean for leaders and HR Departments? In spite of the critics of “The Hawthorne Effect”, there are some very real and actionable results from it. For instance, neuroscience has an acronym SCARF, which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. SCARF is a much more current motivational theory than taught in college and university courses still today. Neuro-scientists know that those five elements are what cause people to stay engaged because they are some of the most basic needs. Unlike Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that has several levels and says that the lowest level need must be filled before moving on to the higher levels of need, neuroscience says the needs must be met in a different way. There may be times when only one need has to be filled, other times when multiple needs must be filled, and times when all the needs have to be filled at the same time. This is similar to Tony Robbins’ and NLP’s “6 Human Needs”.

Another learning is also taken from Neuroscience. The human mind is always on the watch for what’s next. As an example, have you seen how easily we have become addicted to our smartphones, email, Social Media, etc.? We say we want to set these things aside, yet, it seems we can’t wait for that next “ding!” alerting us that some new information has just hit our smartphone, tablet, laptop, or computer. Having all of this information continuously coming in is like a dog surrounded by 100 squirrels! Whatever moves next is going to get chased! How does this connect with employee engagement? Just like “The Hawthorne Effect”, leaders and HR Departments need to realize that the tools that are used for motivation don’t need to be “big” things. Another study placed a dime on a copier machine in the office. The psychologists measured the level of happiness people had after leaving the copy machine when there was a dime on it, which they took, and those leaving the copy machine when there wasn’t a dime on it. Those that saw and took the dime were “significantly” happier! Think about your kids. You could buy them a $100 toy and what would they spend the most time playing with? The BOX!

Lastly, the most recent salary studies show that a person doesn’t become any happier than when they are making $50,000 per year. The thing that changes are the things that make them happy, but with no increase in happiness, itself. I believe leaders and HR Departments make the issue too complicated. As you can see from what I wrote above, it’s actually very simple.

Dr. Edward Lewellen is a Master Executive Coach, leadership and sales expert, and keynote speaker for some of the largest global organizations.