Change Management and the Hawthorne Effect

Published by Abby Darrah

The Hawthorne Effect was one of the first studies to evaluate organizational change, decades before formal change management methods emerged. The study showed that individual changes, whether positive or negative, could be successful when certain elements were present.

The Hawthorne Studies were conducted from 1927 to 1932 at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois. The original purpose of the experiment was to study the effects of light on productivity. The employees’ working conditions were adjusted with brighter lighting, dimmer lights, changing their working hours, giving them rest breaks, giving them food, among other changes. In all cases, their productivity improved when a change was made.  Why? The workers were always informed in advance before every change in their working conditions, and they provided feedback afterwards. This provided the workers a form of participation, and they felt like part of the team. Cooperation and loyalty formed. Productivity rose even when negative changes occurred.

Researchers concluded that it was not the changes in physical conditions that were affecting the workers’ productivity. Instead, it was:

  • Social connections within the work group (over individual aptitude).
  • Less formal relationships with supervisors.
  • The need for recognition, security and sense of belonging.

This experiment showed that changes, whether positive or negative, can be successful using effective change management techniques such as understanding the importance of each individual, their motivation factors, communicating openly and often, and providing visible management support. Observations made over 80 years ago in the Hawthorne experiment are still applicable for change management planning in today’s world. Keeping these factors in mind will lead to a more successful transition for staff from the old way to the new way of doing things.