Personal Consulting and Coaching

The Monkeys on Hawthorne’s Back

Most of us have heard, at least vaguely, of the Hawthorne Effect: behavior is modified when people know they’re being observed. Even though the Hawthorne Effect may ultimately turn out to be unscientific folklore, it still has that ring of truth that also seems to square with common sense.

 The principles behind the Hawthorne Effect are definitely part of how and why coaching works, and it’s embedded in a lot of management ideas that have fancy names and big time gurus. Management by Walking Around – one of my all-time favorites – is an obvious example.

 What happens when people know they’re being observed? Mostly good things, actually – more honesty, more productivity, more accountability. Sure, some people in some situations may feel put upon – intimidated even. But that’s not really where most of the difficulties come from.

 So what’s the problem? In a celebrated business article written in 1974, the authors (Oncken & Wass) entertainingly posed the question, “whose monkeys are on whose back?” – very cleverly highlighting time management as a key managerial skill. More precisely, it’s about managing management time. So, from the other direction, managers are urged – not just to delegate – but to actively rebuff attempts by employees to put “monkeys” on their backs.

 I can see how managers can come to resent, or at least view negatively, an employee’s need to be reassured, reinforced, praised, validated, or “checked-in” with and communicated with, so constantly. Since managers are usually squeezed for time themselves, their ideal employee is a self-starter who takes initiative, works fast and efficiently, doesn’t make mistakes, doesn’t need hand-holding and – above all – doesn’t take up managerial time.

There are workplaces where that’s what happens, but not many. Human nature is ubiquitous and relentless. Plus, the self-starters move up (or move on) quickly, usually replaced by an employee closer to the norm – someone wired to abhor isolation, and to at least minimally need basic reinforcement, and regular communication with the supervisor, to stay on track.

Two plus two equals four, the sun rises in the East, and – like it or not – employees need to know the manager is coming, intends to check in, and that he or she will figure out what’s going on by observing and asking questions. Managers who keep wishing it wasn’t the case are in for a rocky career.


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