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Updating "Classic" Management Theories

Updating "Classic" Management Theories

What classic management theories do you use?

Dan McCarthy | Great Leadership

June 01, 2010

According to my Google Analytics statistics, this blog has a lot of gen X and Y readers, so chances are, you’ve never heard of the Hawthorne Effect. Here’s an explanation, from About.com:

It’s a term referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment. Individuals may change their behavior due to the attention they are receiving from researchers rather than because of any manipulation of independent variables.

This effect was first discovered and named by researchers at Harvard University who were studying the relationship between productivity and work environment. Researchers conducted these experiments at the Hawthorne Works plant of Western Electric. The study was originally commissioned to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light workers received increased or decreased worker productivity. The researchers found that productivity increased due to attention from the research team and not because of changes to the experimental variable.

So can we still rely on this study to guide our decisions today? To some extent, I’d say yes. If you put a lot of focus and attention on something, people will realize it’s important and change their behavior accordingly. It’s called “inspect what you expect”. That part still fits.

However, today’s workers and working conditions are VERY different than the early factories of the 1920s. In today’s knowledge-based society, employees are much more used to being treated with respect (hey, it’s all relative) and having more autonomy in how they perform their work. The rate of change has also accelerated, so we’ve built up more of a change tolerance and immunity to the effect of small changes.

It’s also important to note that later research into the Hawthorne effect has suggested that the original results may have been overstated. In 2009, researchers at the University of Chicago reanalyzed the original data and found that other factors also played a role in productivity and that the effect originally described was weak at best.

Yikes, in some ways, it seems like management and leadership advice is about as useful as advice from nutritionists and health experts. Is coffee bad or good for you?

So what’s a practitioner do to? I’d recommend:

1. Be a lifelong student of leadership development

2. Read and respect the classics and keep up with the latest

3. Periodically question conventional wisdom and keep an open mind to new ideas

4. Never start a sentence with “when I was your age….”

5. Drink all the coffee you want.

How about you? Can you think of a “classic” management model that’s timeless, or one that no longer is relevant?


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