Workplace Solutions Human behavior

Changing worker behaviors

If you observe workers, won’t they do everything correctly?

Responding is Chuck Pettinger, process change leader, Predictive Solutions, Pittsburgh.

This idea is a classic example of misinterpretation of the “Hawthorne Effect.”

Around the 1930s, Wester Electric employees assembling relays were part of a study on productivity. The researchers made various manipulations to their work environment in a special room and recorded the output rate relays completed. The five employees all increased their rate regardless of what the manipulation was. The common interpretation was that the employees would change their behavior when they knew they were being observed.1

Thus, many people have asked me how we can trust the data collected from safety inspections/audits/observations due to the Hawthorne Effect.

First, let me clarify the study done at the Hawthorne plant outside of Chicago. The employees being “observed” were working at piece-rate and were paid more if they assembled more telephone relays. So as the various manipulations to lighting, breaks and work area were implemented, the subjects’ performance improved.

What many people overlook is that the employees’ daily performance was talked about and recorded for the employees to review.2 We all know that performance feedback is the key to producing better results. Did they change their behavior? They did. Was this due to being observed? Not entirely. The workers were in a special room, were given performance feedback and made more money. Those were the contingencies that changed their behavior – not simply being observed.

In safety, we often perform audits, inspections and observations to make sure our workers are following procedures, are in compliance and are performing their jobs safely. Will workers do everything safely if they know they are being observed? That depends on many factors, but just the “act” of observing does not produce behavior change alone. What is done with the observation information has the strongest impact on the employees’ future performance.

For instance, if “Manager Dave” is fond of disciplining people if they are not in compliance, employees come to expect that consequence from Dave’s safety inspections. The employees are in “avoidance mode” and may change their behavior not because of the observation, but because of the potential consequence Dave will levy if they are “caught.”

On the other hand, if “Manager Scott” is fond of recognizing safe performance and provides corrective feedback, employees again may change their behavior. This behavior change is due not to the safety observation, but to what happens following the observation.

A third example is “Manager Josh” walking the factory floor, observing his employees but never commenting on anything safety-specific. Josh’s observations have no impact because they lack follow-through.

Finally, and most importantly, is the situation in which the employee is not aware he or she is doing something risky. In this case, the observation process will not affect that behavior either.

As the Hawthorne facility learned over 80 years ago, performance feedback is the key to increasing productivity. Today, we also know that safety-related feedback is a key to keeping our employees safe. But to positively impact the safety culture, managers need to be more like “Coach” Scott and less like “Policeman” Dave. People are generally more happy, inspired and motivated when they are working toward improvement than when they are working to avoid failure.

1. Mayo, 1933; Roethisberger & Dickerson, 1938; Landsberger, 1958
2. Parsons, 1974

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