Coaching and the Hawthorne Effect

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Isn't it nice to be noticed?
Isn't it nice to be noticed?

If you want to see an immediate boost in levels of motivation, fire up your word processor and create a quick questionnaire for each of your team members which asks:

  •  What aspect of your job do you most enjoy?
  • What aspect of your job do you least enjoy?
  • What aspect of your job would you most like to see stay the same?

Type up and issue one questionnaire for each member of your team. You may need to explain that you’re looking at ways to improve motivation and that the starting point is getting a better idea of what makes them tick.

You can get people to put their names on the sheets if you like or you can do it anonymously if you think you’ll get a more honest response.

If you think issuing questionnaires is a bit heavy-handed, pop the questions on a flip chart or white board and have an open team discussion around them. Alternatively if there’s a scheduled performance review or appraisal coming up, factor the questions into your one to one discussions.

In any event you’ll be gathering valuable information about levels and types of motivation in the team which you can use to develop a long-term approach.

However, I promised this tip would improve motivation straight away and it will. Here’s how it works: By asking people questions you’ll be paying them attention and you’ll benefit from the ‘Hawthorne effect’

Perhaps the most famous experiments in motivation were carried our by management researcher Elton Mayo and his team at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne plant in Chicago. Between 1924 and 1932, five sets of tests were conducted in an attempt to understand what made workers assembling telephone equipment more productive.

To begin with the experiments concentrated on improvements to lighting. Productivity indeed improved, but it also improved when the lights were dimmed. This odd result was repeated in experiments which looked at pay, incentives, rest periods, hours of work, and supervision. Mayo advanced two theories.

He firstly suggested that the very fact of being involved in an experiment encouraged the workers to be more productive. It created interest and involvement in their repetitive work, and their managers began taking an interest in how they felt. Mayo’s second theory was that social interaction had a critical effect on motivation because the experiment meant bringing workers together in teams with a positive relationship with a supervisor. In any event it seemed the workers simply appreciated the change the experiments brought about, felt more valued and generally happier and thus their performance improved. So just by issuing your questionnaire you’re showing that you’re taking an interest in your people and that you value their contribution. You should see results improve even if you did nothing more.

This questioning approach lies at the heart of management by coaching. If you embrace the coaching role you’ll be paying this sort of quality attention to your staff every working day. The improvements that follow can be quite staggering. With coaching as the prevailing style you can ensure a constant level of motivation, not just the quick fillip provided by waving the carrot or the stick.

Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks for this tip Matt. I have used this before with success! Will use again with my new team.

    Are you at this years Connect?

  2. Hi,
    I just wanted to add some potentially helpful comments by way of balance to this piece.
    There are several researchers who dispute the Hawthorne effect, eg MA Kompier (2006); The Hawthorne effect is a myth, but what keeps it going?, Scandinavian Journal of Work and Environmental Health, Vol 32 Issue 5 pp 402-412.
    The sustained performance benefits of a single shot questionnaire are unproved. You might well find that if nothing really changes for the people concerned, morale is much lower after 3-6 months than it would have been if you’d never sent out the questionnaire in the first place.
    While a questionnaire might be a useful way to kick off a move towards a coaching culture, unless the context is clear its impact will be much reduced.
    What is clear is that it’s the follow up, not the questionnaire, that makes the difference.
    I hope you find these comments helpful.

    1. Thanks Mark – your comments are most welcome.

      A questionnaire itself is unlikely to make much positive difference, especially if only discussed once or if people are just too brow-beaten to see such a thing is a positive light.

      Where I’ve seen this sort of approach used successfully it’s invaribaly where the questionnaire (or similar) provides the catayst for the start of a series of more honest conversation between boss and team member.

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