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Leadership Development: 3 ways to escape the Hawthorne Effect

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At its heart, leadership development is very simple – we want people to learn some leadership principles, practice them in a safe environment, and put them to work. So what gets in the way? Why does it feel so hard sometimes? I’ve been supporting a client as she’s been travelling the world, working with her team of trainers and coaches to do just that. My role is a sounding board, while she is at the ‘coalface’.

Her efforts went into delivery quality. We deliver Masterclasses and Supervision support for her coaches. And we update trainers in the latest learning and facilitation methods for groups and teams through a blend of methods. All of which produced good results and happier participants.  But how long do they last?  And do they escape the Hawthorne Effect?

Yes we all need to refresh our skills. And the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ tells us that these kinds of support will boost performance, simply by being used. [I know you know what that is, but just to recap, it’s the idea that just paying attention to people increases the desired behaviours.]

Escape the Hawthorne Effect through compelling leadership development

Escape the Hawthorne Effect with compelling leadership development programmes

And yes, the impacts do diminish over time, so the skills refreshers need to be really that: refreshing and different.

So method 1 to escape the Hawthorne Effect is to create compelling learning opportunities that provide positive energy and escape the gravitational pull back to inertia.

But what has been really interesting is the underlying shift towards the awareness of what we mean by ‘the coalface’. It’s not just about refreshing and improving the skills and approaches of the L&D team. They saw that their role can’t just end with the programme.

What shifted was in seeing where the key gaps lay. In the leaders themselves.

My client’s mistaken assumption was that her team’s work stopped when the participants went back to the workplace. It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption to make – the L&D task is done.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, they’ve put in action learning sets – focused on ‘special projects’ – based around strategic issues proposed by the Board and facilitated by the L&D team. So here was Method 2 to escape the Hawthorne Effect – establish special projects. You’ll get plenty of results from those projects, because they get the Board’s attention.

What wasn’t happening was any difference in the day to day work. The real ‘coalface’.

Leadership, as rated by the employee engagement scores, remained stubbornly static. If anything, staff reported lower feelings of connection between their job and the organisation’s direction. Attributed, in part, to the leaders putting their time, effort and attention into the special projects, and not onto their teams.

So what’s the solution?

You know there’s no single magic bullet. The support and refreshers for the L&D team continue, as do the special projects. But what has been added in is support for the leadership development programme participants, back in the workplace.

Seeing leaders as part of the L&D team.

Leaders need to apply their skills in real situations. Not the neat, clean, environment of the ‘special project meeting’. But day to day.  Getting things wrong. Putting them right. Building trust between themselves and the team. And between each other.

So we offered a simple method that works on our open leadership programmes. Method 3 to escape the Hawthorne Effect: a virtual meeting-place where people don’t need to be perfect. To review what worked – and what didn’t work.  We set these in the context of leadership behaviours – what are they noticing, what are they learning about applying those behaviours. What happened, and what didn’t. In the spirit of learning and development.

As independent consultants, our facilitators provide an objective and supporting role. And what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. In this environment people are willing to share and reflect on failures – as well as successes.

And is this just more short-termism? All I can say is that an independent study of our work from the University of Queensland, Australia, found participants applying and valuing their leadership skills 18 months after the end of the programme.

So if you want to have a conversation about leadership development. Support for your L&D teams and better leadership in the workplace, do get in touch. Here at Forton, we see leadership development as a partnership where we can deliver specialist services in support of your own L&D people: trainers, coaches, and the leaders themselves.  If you share our passion for igniting excellence in leadership, just get in touch.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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