The Hawthorne Effect: How Observation Helps You Maintain a Habit Change

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Have you ever had a job where the “big boss” or perhaps a board member or someone else significant to the company would stop by the office from time to time, causing the staff to quickly straighten up?

Or, think back to when you were doing behind-the-wheel testing if you have your driver’s license. Did you ensure all of the mirrors were perfectly adjusted and then remain driving in the perfect 10 and 2 position for the duration of the test? Do you still do that?

And here is one that I can relate to: When you’re expecting company, do you make sure your home is tidy and then (try to) make sure your kids are on their best behavior during the visit?

All of these changes in behavior are examples of the Hawthorne Effect. In this article, we will look at what the Hawthorne Effect is, the findings that came out of it, and how it can be used to motivate people. Then, we will look at 5 examples of ways that you can use this concept in your life in a positive way.

Let’s get started by looking more at the history of the Hawthorne Effect and its original findings.

What is the Hawthorne Effect?

The Hawthorne Effect is a phenomenon that shows how workers’ productivity increases due to their awareness of being observed.

This finding was the result of a study conducted in the 1920s, at Hawthorne Works, a factory complex of the Western Electric Company in Northern Illinois.

During the study, researchers analyzed the impact of lighting, monetary incentives, and break time on worker productivity.

This study then expanded to look at employee dynamics, social relationships, and human behavior within an organization as the researchers became increasingly interested in the informal social groups that workers had formed.

These social circles illustrated a group life among employees that was independent of their professional relationships that impacted their job satisfaction (and therefore, their productivity).

The researchers also recognized that the nature of the relationship between supervisors and their employees had an impact on workers’ performance, which is why company culture is critical to a company’s success.

The main points that researchers took away from these studies are:

  1. An employee’s productivity is impacted more by their social status within their organization than by their competence.
  2. Organizational culture and social systems within a workplace are established by the individual organization–as are the expected norms regarding daily productivity–which are usually followed by employees.
  3. One’s relationship with their supervisor has an impact on his or her productivity.   

It’s important to note that researchers and theorists have disagreed on the fundamental cause of the change in employees’ behavior that has led to what is known today as the Hawthorne Effect.

The most well-known skeptic was an industrial psychologist named H. McIlvaine Parsons, who disagreed that having improved working conditions and a feeling of being ‘chosen’ to be a part of the original study are what caused an increase in productivity.

One variable Parsons brought up that the original researchers failed to mention was the fact that the study participants had access to performance feedback through their supervisor’s “counters” which allowed output results to be posted on the wall every day.

Parsons argued that this could have been one of several other motivating factors that led to increased performance because the workers may have wanted to improve upon the previous day’s data each day.

However, whether the workers’ motivation was increased because they felt special for being picked to be a part of a study, they felt like there was someone looking over their shoulder, or because they were trying to climb a social ladder in the workplace, in each case, motivation and performance were increased when the worker had someone else’s attention on them.

This shows that observation is a motivating intervention for people. You’ve probably noticed this when working in a group setting–don’t want to be the one to let down the group, so you may put a little extra effort into your part so you can display your competence.

So whether the Hawthorne Effect happens by chance because your boss is tracking your work, or you choose this intervention to increase your motivation to reach a personal goal (e.g. by appointing an accountability partner), what is considered to be the Hawthorne Effect today is a clear illustration of our innate need for the acceptance and approval of others.

And that need can actually positively impact your life if you consider it in constructive circumstances.

Let’s look at five ways in which this is possible.

5 Ways the Hawthorne Effect Can Positively Impact Your Life

1. Job Interviews

How many times have you gotten in your car after a job interview, thrown off a layer of clothing, tossed your notes onto your backseat, and exceeded the speed limit as you headed home?

I have done this many times–and not because I’m in a huge rush to get anywhere, I just need to relax after being on my overly best behavior for two hours.

If you’re around people that you don't really know–but are trying to impress–chances are, you’re going to focus on putting your best foot forward.

This probably involves wearing clothes that you’ve pulled from the back of your closet, putting more energy into being a good conversationalist, and trying your best to show your most desirable character traits.

On the other hand, as soon as you get home and plop yourself in front of the television, you will change into old pajamas and eat popcorn by the handful.

The Hawthorne Effect positively impacts your life while preparing for job interviews because it gives you the motivation that you need to practice answering interview questions (because you know people will be analyzing your answers) and dressing appropriately for the job industry for which you’re applying so you will fit into the company culture.

This means you’re not going to necessarily wear what you wore to an interview at a startup company in Silicon Valley to an interview on Wall Street. Rather, you will make yourself appear as if you’re already a part of the team.

During the interview itself, you will likely adjust your demeanor depending on the person who is interviewing you and do what you can to make them feel like you fit in with the group.

The need for social acceptance and approval when trying to get hired for a job is a product of the Hawthorne Effect, which ends up positively impacting you as you make the required effort to get a job offer.

2. Mastermind Groups

If you have hit some sort of motivational plateau in your life or fallen into some bad habits–whether that’s in your job or in your personal life–you’re probably on the hunt for some new sources of motivation and unique ideas to get your success back on a roll.

One strategy you can use is to follow the advice of motivational speaker Jim Rohn, who famously said, “You're the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

The video below explores the five key lessons you can learn from Rohn's quote and how it can help improve your life.

A mastermind group is a group of people who have a similar interest or goal who come together to generate new ideas and motivate each other to end up with a result that is greater than the sum of its parts.

While mastermind groups have been popular in business settings, they’ve grown to be used in politics, educational settings, the military, etc.

A popular modern day example of a mastermind group is the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO).

This global network offers a platform for entrepreneurs to engage in B2B learning and allows its members to network, engage with each other, and create connections for people to learn and grow. This type of group is mutually beneficial for everyone involved.

So think back to when we were talking about the Hawthorne Effect and its impact on working in group settings. When you’re in a mastermind group, you’re able to get instant feedback from other members and hear other people’s perspectives on a matter.

And, while a single perspective may not help you but so much, gaining a multitude of viewpoints can help you discover new strategies or generate new ideas.

The Hawthorne Effect can positively impact your life when you’re participating in a mastermind group because everyone you interact with will have full intentions to be productive, efficient, and a valuable team member.

If you feel like you’re in a productivity rut and you consider the implications of the Hawthorne Effect, it makes sense for you to try to find a mastermind group to get your progress momentum going again.

3. The Importance of Listening

The Hawthorne Effect reinforces the commonly mentioned concept of mindful (or active) listening.

The original experiment demonstrated that employees’ productivity increased dramatically when they felt like they were being heard. In today’s modern workplace, those in a leadership position need to listen to the ideas of their team and show appreciation for any positive input that’s offered.

Because the Hawthorne Effect suggests that people are motivated more by emotional factors (such as receiving attention and being an accepted part of a team), than other potential rewards for success, it’s important for employees to feel like their opinions and ideas are valued.

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Hawthorne Effect reinforces the commonly mentioned concept of mindful or active listening.

If you are in a management position, knowing this can positively impact you because it suggests you don’t need to make a big (or financial) change if you’re trying to improve your employees’ productivity or motivation.

Sometimes, using a small tool such as listening and making your employees feel valued can make a big difference.

Alternatively, if you’re on the other side of this and you’re an employee feeling a lack of motivation or you haven’t felt inspired lately to do your best work, reflect on whether or not you feel like you’re being heard within your organization.

There may be some changes that you could make to improve your job and your job satisfaction by directly expressing your needs or ideas to your superiors.

Here is a quick personal example: There is a very long file review form I have to fill out rather frequently at work.The form is awful–it’s repetitive, it’s wordy, and it’s 21 pages long.

Recently, I found myself starting to cut corners when doing this task, even though I know it’s an important document to have for licensing standards.

With the Hawthorne Effect in mind, I spoke to my boss about completely revamping the form, which would end up benefiting my colleagues as well.

As soon as I got the “go ahead” on that project, I felt instantly motivated to improve the process for everyone by simplifying the form, which has consequently made people much more productive because this task no longer takes several hours.

This example shows three things related to the Hawthorne Effect:

  1. The positive relationship I have with my boss motivates me to take the initiative of proposing new methods for doing old tasks.
  2. When I felt my needs were being heard and taken seriously, I was able to contribute in a way that not only benefited myself, but also reduced the workload for my colleagues, which was appreciated and voiced by many.
  3. While creating the new form, I knew that many people would be using it moving forward, so I wanted to give it my best effort. I was careful to make sure the final version was free from errors, succinct, and easy to follow because other workers would be judging my work.

Whether you’re the listener or the speaker, being aware of the impact that can occur simply as a result of feeling heard can have a positive impact on your life, both personally and professionally.

4. Accountability Partners

The power of having an accountability partner can greatly improve your life. An accountability partner is someone with whom you have a mutual agreement that involves encouraging each other to reach whatever goal you’re working on and offering feedback on a regular basis.

You meet with your accountability partner frequently to talk about each other’s progress, challenges, small wins, and the upcoming work you’re planning to do to get closer to reaching your goal.

These meetings give you each a chance to celebrate your progress, but they also serve as a reminder between sessions that you have someone who is counting on you to follow through with your intentions to be productive, which serves as a motivating factor to not procrastinate.

The Association for Talent Development (formerly known as the Association for Training and Development) conducted a study that resulted in some staggering statistics:

Here is where the Hawthorne Effect comes in, because making a social commitment dramatically increases your probability for success.

  • When you tell someone else that you will achieve something, you’re 65% likely to do so.
  • When you commit to one person to be your accountability partner and schedule regular accountability meetings, you have a 95% chance of reaching your goal.

Why does having a sense of social accountability largely increase the likelihood that you will achieve your goals?

If someone commits their time to helping you succeed, you will feel compelled to pay them back (due to the reciprocity principle, which claims we automatically feel indebted to anyone who gives us something).

And, aside from helping an accountability partner keep track of their own goals, the best way to give back to your partner is by achieving the goals that you committed yourself to–because otherwise, you’ve wasted their time.

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Having an accountability partner can greatly improve your life.

An important thing to note here about an accountability partner is that this can not be something that comes in the form of an app. It has to be an actual person in order for this to have a positive impact on your life.

It may be a challenge at first to find the right person, but once you do, it can make a huge difference in your success, no matter what your endeavor is.

5.  Educational Settings

The Hawthorne Effect can help you learn new things, whether you’re in a traditional educational setting or you’re setting out to learn a new skill.

Everyone learns in different ways, but one thing that all learners have in common is the positive impact of receiving meaningful attention from someone in a teacher position.

When you’re learning something and you know that someone who has already mastered the information or skill is watching you, it helps you pay attention and therefore comprehend the information.

Having continuous observation leads to ongoing feedback and meaningful, thoughtful conversations. This interaction between a teacher and a student adds a sense of meaning to the learning experience, which makes it much more memorable.

Knowing that you have “eyes” on you when you’re learning something will also help increase your focus and attention, which will help ensure you gain a comprehensive understanding of the material.

Furthermore, if you collaborate with other learners, it can lead to new, unexpected knowledge and open doors for additional learning opportunities.

Final Thoughts on the Hawthorne Effect in Your Life

The interesting thing about the Hawthorne Effect is how it can motivate you to sustain positive behaviors in your life. And–you can proactively use it to benefit you by surrounding yourself with others who tend to behave in a way that resembles the type of person that you want to be.

If you feel like you’re socially a part of a group, you will act accordingly, and it’s easier to succeed if those around you share your goals and values (for example, if you’re trying to quit drinking, you’ll want to hang out with other people who don’t drink instead of a group of bar-hopping friends).

Simply by being in their presence, you’ll want to remain accepted by them, so you’ll behave in ways that will help you progress toward your mutual (and personal) goals.

From the original study in a factory, to modern businesses, schools, and our personal lives, the impact that people can have simply by being in the presence of others is subtle, yet powerful. Rewards don’t have to be offered and orders don’t have to be given in order for change to occur.

So whether the Hawthorne Effect positively impacts your life simply by chance, or now that you know about this phenomenon you’re planning to make some concrete changes to the company you keep and how you interact with others, this widely criticized study can make a big difference in your productivity, motivation, and success.

And if you're looking for more resources on how to make sure you maintain habit changes, learn to be accountable. These blog posts might help:

Finally, if you need help with building habits, then check out this nine-step blueprint that walks you through the entire process of creating lifelong habits.)

Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.

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5 thoughts on “The Hawthorne Effect: How Observation Helps You Maintain a Habit Change”

  1. Good ol’ ego, right?

    We want to look good in front of others – especially people we respect (I think it might work for efficiently if the person was someone who we respect).

    My water drinking habit is going well (I think I am good at keeping myself accountable – all thanks to the things I have learned through blogging :D).

    For my other habits, like managing time well, especially when blogging, I use apps like Focus Booster and Rescue Time (Great for monitoring how I spent time online). I have been monitoring the amount of time I take for commenting ~ roughly around 10-15 mins per post now, mostly because of typing. So, working on developing a proper typing technique 😀

    I am certainly looking for more habits to pursue, so thanks for the habits list, Scott 🙂

    • Yes, I’m finding it’s increasingly important to set VERY public goals where you’re accountable for your habits. Glad to hear you’re water habit is going well and the time management stuff. The one app that’s helping me currently is the Downloaded it the other day and so far it’s been a great experience. You might want to check it out as well.

  2. I started WP blog mainly to track my daily ‘business’ activities and you are right SJ, no one reads it 😛
    But it makes me more careful in what I do and what I write there.

    • I agree — just the simple act of putting your thoughts for the world to see, makes you more conscious about following through. BTW, thanks for the “props” on So far, I LOVE this app.

  3. unfortunately my life has been an example of the more i disclose or state publically a goal the less likely i’m able to attain it as a result i’ve missed out on a BUNCH of progression and task completion. i’m wanting to make BIG strides and willing to change myself to do it. But i’m very skeptical. Accountability is good. Let me work on a way to make this work, for me.

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