Leadership Styles in Change Management – The Amazing Story of the Hawthorne Effect

George T. Taft

I have long held the view that the successful strategies for managing change and the leadership styles in practical change management that support those strategies are people centric rather than totally process oriented.

Whilst undertaking research for a section of my website I came across a very interesting experiment.

A major business improvement research project was conducted between 1927 and 1932 at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois.

This research project was not about inspirational motivation, or leadership, or change management – but an attempt to examine the physical and environmental influences of the workplace (e.g. brightness of lights, humidity) and later, moved into the psychological aspects (e.g. breaks, group pressure, working hours, managerial leadership).

However, the major finding of the study was a totally unintended and unexpected consequence of the study.

What they found was that almost regardless of the experimental manipulation employed, the production of the workers seemed to improve! This has become known as “The Hawthorne Effect”.

Stated simply the discovery was that: people work better together when they are allowed to socially interact with one another and are given supportive attention.

The primary [at the time startling] discovery was that the workplace is a social system. The Hawthorne researchers came to realise that the workplace is a social system made up of interdependent parts.

In summary 3 further general conclusions were drawn from the Hawthorne studies:

(1) Individual production is strongly influenced by social factors – far more so than individual aptitude.

(2) Informal organisation affects productivity – there is “a group life” among the workers – and the relations that supervisors develop with workers tend to influence the manner in which the workers carry out directives.

(3) Work-group norms affect productivity – work groups tend to arrive at norms of what is “a fair day’s work”.

So the obvious first change management lesson of this is that people benefit from a leadership style that addresses their need for your supportive attention.

Also the second lesson is that in the practice of change management leaders need to recognise and work with and through the informal social structures of the workplace.

Properly applied, this is exactly what a people-oriented leadership style will deliver when employing the holistic and wide view perspective of a programme based approach to change management.

And, to ensure that you ARE employing successful strategies for managing change – that are appropriate to your organisation – you need to know how to apply: (a) these people oriented leadership skills, AND (b) how to apply the supporting programme management based processes – to ensure that you avoid the catastrophic 70% failure rate of ALL business change initiatives.

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