The Hawthorne Effect: Let Your Light Shine on Others!
I’ve met a lot of great men and women in my life. Greatness comes in many shapes and sizes. From the owner of a tiny general store in Salem, Georgia, where I grew up, to titans of industry on Wall Street. Let me tell you what all of the most effective leaders have in common: They know how to shine a light on other people.
In the early 1900s, Chicago’s Hawthorne Works paid for a study that resulted in what we now call the Hawthorne Effect. The goal was to find a way to increase productivity among the factory workers. So the researchers divided the Hawthorne Works’ employees into two groups. The control group didn’t know they were being studied and went ahead with business as usual. The other group was told they were participating in a study about productivity. After letting this group in on the secret, the researchers increased the brightness of the factory floor by just a little bit. Well, the productivity of the people who knew they were being studied increased—a lot.
After some analysis, the researchers determined that it wasn’t the light that boosted productivity but the fact that someone was paying attention to the workers. Even though the researchers didn’t lavish the workers with praise or celebrate their contributions, the employees worked harder because they felt seen.
Now here’s the interesting part: As soon as the researchers stopped watching, productivity went back to normal. In essence, the Hawthorne Effect links observation to an improvement in behavior.
What all that means to you as a leader is that when you pay attention, so do the people who are following you. And when you stop paying attention, your team does, too. Of course, I’m not saying you should just stare at everybody or peer over their shoulder while they type their reports. For attention to work best, it must be positive attention. People need praise like plants need water. Don’t just pay attention to your team when they’re stumbling. Find ways—even small ones—to make them feel valued, recognized, and proud of themselves. People who feel good about themselves are more productive and more successful as a result.
Shine a light on folks and watch them grow. But as soon as you stop watering a plant, what happens? It dies. Recognizing people and shining a light on them is enormously effective, but it requires consistency. You need to make sure you’re shining lights all the time. As soon as you stop, the people you’re shining a light on will notice and whither.
I once heard a story about a British journalist who, in the late 1800s, was set to meet with William Gladstone and then with Gladstone’s political rival, Benjamin Disraeli.
The journalist hoped to determine which of the two was a better man. Her response to the meeting was incredible. Not only does it support the Hawthorne Effect, but it also echoes the impact great communicators have on those around them. This is what she said:
“After talking with Mr. Gladstone. I came away feeling he was the smartest man in England. But then I dined with Mr. Disraeli and quickly forgot about Mr. Gladstone. Because after talking with Mr. Disraeli, I felt as though I were the smartest woman in England.”
Call it shining a light, call it the Hawthorne Effect, call it good old-fashioned manners. Great leaders make people feel important.