How to Motivate Your Team Using Lessons Learned From the Hawthorne Experiment

This article will show you the foundations of how to motivate your team, taken from lessons learned in an experiment conducted almost 100 years ago. These lessons are still valid in today’s workplace.

In the 1920’s, management and psychology was not really thought of being much above Taylor’s Scientific Management approach; people were seen typically as elements of a process and had to work in the most efficient and repetitive way. 

At this time though, General Electric was seen as one of the most forward thinking companies when it came to dealing with employees and psychology. Whereas, people saw employees as a number and not much else, GE were creating a more employee centric work environment.

Mayo’s Research

In the late 1920s, Elton Mayo managed a series of experiments at General Electric’s Hawthorne plant, to understand how to motivate teams.

Initially, Mayo’s research team expected to see an increase in productivity through a direct improvement in working conditions. These consist of different lighting levels, applying regular rest breaks, pay incentives and better hours.

They conducted many studies over several years. One of which was comparing productivity levels with two groups.

One of the groups was separated from the rest of the business. Two women were selected and asked to choose additional workers to join their team.

This team of workers worked together for the next few years, assembling telephone relays in a separate room to everyone else.

The scientists then measured their productivity in comparison to the other control group.

During the experiment, they also had a dedicated supervisor who regularly discussed changes and ideas with them. Often, based on the workers’ feedback, the supervisor would implement their ideas and recommendations.

The scientists then spent six years measuring productivity against the different working conditions that they constantly changed these factors to test the results.

Confusing Results

What they expected to see, was a correlation between the working condition variables, and productivity. For instance, as pay went down, so too productivity; as the lighting conditions increased, productivity should increase; as the number of breaks reduced, productivity should reduce, too.

Instead, they found that productivity increased with every change, despite negative factors being introduced. Even when the lighting was reduced down to candlelight, productivity was still high. They were confused; how could changing the working conditions for the worse, still make a positive impact on productivity?

Some proponents stated that it was simply the act of the employees being monitored and watched, which meant that they consistently maintained high levels of productivity. After All, no one wants to be micromanaged and watched.

Whilst this may have had some element of truth, for productivity to be maintained at high levels for such a long period of time, it could be argued that there were other factors at play, as well. 

After analysing the results and a lot of discussions had, the scientists hypothesised the following key elements, which they believed played a direct relation to improved productivity:

  • The ladies helped choose the team – which gave them the feeling of empowerment and autonomy – due to this, they had high levels of engagement and their productivity was elevated too;
  • The team developed as a close-knit social group – Over time, they built a rapport and understanding. This led to established norms and better relationships, leading to improved productivity and engagement across the team;
  • They were elevated and treated differently – during the study, the supervisor listened and implemented some of their ideas. This helped elevate their status and feeling of worth. Being part of this group, also had merits in esteem and importance. In turn, this helped increase their levels of engagement and productivity.

In other words, despite the condition sometimes changing for the worse, the team were happy because they had built good relationships, were held in high esteem and they had an active part to play in outcomes.

How to Motivate Your Team in Today’s Environment

Today, we can still learn from this experiment when identifying how to motivate your team.

When you break it down, people are motivated mostly by how they feel in the workplace, not by money and external factors. 

Sure, money helps but it only goes so far. In fact several studies show that it doesn’t really motivate most people.

In fact, in a study by Tim Judge and associates in 2010, whereby he and his colleagues analysed 120 years of results, across 92 different studies. They found that there is statistically less than 2% correlation between pay and job satisfaction.

It seems that money is a necessity but not really a motivator. We need more in our work to be motivated.

You can arguably boil the results of the Hawthorne project, and what your team members really want, down to 4 key elements:

  • Your team seeks varying degrees of autonomy;
  • They want to feel important, listened to and appreciated;
  • They want good working relationships;
  • They want a leader that develops them based on their needs and desires.

In fact, since the 1920s, there have been a number of leadership thinkers that have corroborated these ideas.

From adair’s model of leadership, through to Hertzberg hygiene factors of motivation, through to Blanchard’s situational leadership model and even Gallup 12.

They all show that managing is much more than just focusing on results or pay – or even monitoring if employees are doing what they should be doing.

To get ahead, here’s how to motivate your team, using what’s been learned from the Hawthorne project.

  • Create a positive environment;
  • Spend time to listen and value your employees’ input;
  • Create clear and frequent communication;
  • Give them responsibility and autonomy within the team setting.

Create a Positive Environment

Focus on more of the intrinsic environment. This means working with employees to improve how they feel, based on what motivates them.

You can split this into two key parts:

  • Providing clear goals and direction;
  • Providing rewards and positive feedback to encourage self empowerment and growth.

Provide Clear Goals and Direction

Providing direction comes from agreeing the right goals. It’s a key ingredient on how to motivate your team.

The secret to good goal setting is to make it simple, and agree them together. No goal setting exercise should be created solely by the manager. Use it as a time to discuss ideas and objectives and to then agree goals that link to the bigger picture for the individual or team.

Without goals, your employees are left to do the best they can under their own direction. That’s an incredibly hard way to maintain motivation.

Instead, by agreeing what to work on and what success looks like, it sets the tone and framework for how you and your employees can work together to achieve this.

The one minute manager is a great example of how you can quickly create goals in, you’ve guessed it, a minute.

  • Focus on the 20% of the team tasks and projects, which generate 80% of the output;
  • List them down;
  • Now ask what should we do to achieve the business’ goals;
  • What activities and targets do we need to achieve to do this;
  • List these down as well.

When you’ve done this, together you should be able to identify maybe 5 to 6 key things that your team should be working on and their respective goals, to achieve success.

Reward and Recognise to Motivate your Employees

Recognition helps provide good feedback to good performance. When managing your team and providing feedback, focus on behaviour, not the person. This is objective and matter of fact.

So, when people are implementing the right standards and behaviour, you should be very quick to reward and recognise it.

This sends a good message to maintain these levels of performance.

A simple but well constructed praise is very powerful to an employee’s sense of worth and engagement levels.

Never underestimate the power of recognising good work and rewarding it.

In fact in an IBM Analytics research, they found that more than half of employees who don’t receive recognition, are thinking about leaving their job. In contrast to this, only 25% of employees who receive recognition, aim to leave in the next year.

They also cite that employees who receive recognition are more likely to be engaged. 

A 2016 study from Workhuman supports this too. They identify that 79% of employees say that recognition makes them work harder.

Start to recognise efforts by seeking good performance and behaviours. Don’t just say thanks. Instead, provide the following:

  • Explain what you saw that was good;
  • Tell them how it made you feel and why it was so good;
  • Encourage them to keep going, thanking them for their efforts.

Make Them Feel Valued: Listen to Them

If you are a manager that manages your team from your desk, now is the time to change that habit.

If you want to really motivate your team, you have to be there with them. This means managing by walking about. Be active with them.

Checking in regularly and asking questions to see how they are getting on, what their challenges are, and their thoughts to improve the situation, is one of the most important things you can do as a manager.

Learn how to coach rather than tell. Watch and observe, and seek ideas from people who are struggling rather than giving them the answers.

This can only be done by walking around with your team and taking the time to engage in what they are doing, helping them internalise issues and identifying ideas for improvement.

Each time you do this, you build trust and solicit faith in them. Both of these help improve engagement levels.

Provide Clear and Frequent Communication

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous elements of motivating your team. Without communication, people can feel stagnated, directionless and unmotivated.

By increasing communication and frequently discussing things that matter, you can improve effectiveness and engagement.

Communication can extend to the following examples:

  • Regular one-to-one reviews with each team member, asking how they are getting on, what challenges they face and discussing goals and personal development on a monthly basis;
  • Daily stand-up meetings with your team to discuss what’s working and what’s not, as well as agreeing actions and tasks to complete for the day ahead;
  • A weekly review of your team’s progress to define lessons learned and agree ideas to improve for next time;
  • Regular coaching sessions during the day and week, based on your managing by walking about approach, mentioned above;
  • Rewarding your staff and recognising good performance, by seeking opportunities to praise;
  • Encouraging teamwork, whereby employees actively work together for small periods of time during the day, to develop learning opportunities and relationships;
  • Encourage the team to take the same social breaks together to improve communication, discuss ideas and to build relationships.

How to Motivate your Team? Give Them Responsibility

Responsibility goes hand-in-hand with autonomy. There’s evidence that responsibility and autonomy are major factors in keeping people motivated at work. If you give people autonomy in tasks and projects, they will feel more engaged and empowered.

You need to know how much autonomy you can give someone though. This will change based on each individual’s skill level and their motivation to do that project or task.

The best approach to take when giving people autonomy is to follow the situational leadership model. This allows you to change your leadership style to suit the competency and motivation of each employee.

Where you can, try to give complete autonomy in a project. In other words if someone is capable, give them the entire project to complete, not just a task or two. People need to feel that they are trusted to be relied upon and can develop in their roles.

To Conclude

Just like the Hawthorne project, you need to move away from extrinsic rewards and solely improve the external working conditions to motivate your employees.

Instad, people generally like to be a part of a team.

They like to feel autonomy in their actions and job role. That means to have some saying how they work.

Listen to them and take action based on their ideas. Regularly engage with your employees to agree goals, reward them and recognise their efforts, and coach them regularly to seek improvement in processes and skills.

Don’t be the saviour. Instead, spend time to reflect on challenges with your team and ask them for ideas to overcome issues, granting them time to try new ideas.

How to motivate your team? A good team is a result of good leadership. This means allowing them to develop through delegation and empowerment and support from you.

Move away from being the saviour. Instead, ensure your employees reflect on what they are doing and how. Work with them to identify new ideas to try. Your role is to help empower them along the way.