Pursuit of an Understanding of Goodhart’s Law and the Hawthorne Effect

I’ve been fascinated with human behaviour for quite a few decades now. Firstly in the context of high risk activities by special operations groups, and over the last couple of decades more in the context of behavioural change within organisations.

I have come to recognise that in order to be most effective in leading this type of change, and understanding of human behaviour in response to measurement and observation is crucial.

Two significant concepts that shed light on this phenomenon are Goodhart’s Law and the Hawthorne Effect. Named after economist Charles Goodhart and researcher George Elton Mayo respectively, these principles illustrate how individuals and groups react to metrics and observation, often in ways that can undermine the original objectives of measurement systems.

In this article I wanted to explore both concepts, their interrelationship, and the implications for designing measurement systems aimed at positively changing employee behaviour.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is succinctly summarised by the statement: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Charles Goodhart, a British economist, observed this phenomenon in the context of economic policy. The law highlights the tendency for metrics to become distorted once they are used as targets for policy or management decisions. When a specific measure is identified as a target, individuals and organisations may manipulate their actions to achieve that target, often leading to unintended and undesirable outcomes.

For instance, consider a company that sets a target to reduce costs by a certain percentage. Employees, in their efforts to meet this target, might cut corners in ways that compromise quality or long-term sustainability.

The original purpose of the cost reduction measure—to improve overall efficiency and profitability—can be undermined by behaviours that focus solely on meeting the target, regardless of the broader implications.

The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect, derived from studies conducted by George Elton Mayo and his colleagues at the Hawthorne Works factory in the 1920s and 1930s, refers to the phenomenon where individuals modify their behaviour in response to being observed. The studies initially aimed to examine the impact of physical working conditions on productivity, specifically changes in ambient light in the workplace.

However, researchers found that any change, including simply being observed, led to increased productivity. This effect underscores the psychological impact of observation and attention on human behaviour.

The Hawthorne Effect suggests that people tend to perform better or alter their behaviour when they know they are being watched. This effect is driven by the desire for recognition, validation, and the human inclination to present oneself favourably under scrutiny.

The Interrelationship Between Goodhart’s Law and the Hawthorne Effect

While Goodhart’s Law and the Hawthorne Effect stem from different contexts, they both highlight the impact of measurement and observation on behaviour.

Goodhart’s Law focuses on the distortion of metrics when they become targets, while the Hawthorne Effect emphasises behavioural changes due to the awareness of being observed.

Both phenomena reveal that the act of measurement or observation can significantly influence outcomes, often in ways that are not aligned with the original intent.

When combined, these concepts offer a comprehensive understanding of the complexities involved in using measurement systems to drive behavioural change. Goodhart’s Law warns of the potential pitfalls of setting rigid targets, while the Hawthorne Effect highlights the motivational aspects of observation and attention.

Implications for Designing Measurement Systems

For organisations aiming to implement measurement systems to positively change employee behaviour and achieve specific improvement goals, it is essential to consider the implications of both Goodhart’s Law and the Hawthorne Effect.

Here are some key considerations:

1. Balanced Metrics

Avoid over-reliance on a single metric as a target. Use a balanced set of measures that reflect different aspects of performance to reduce the risk of distortions.

2. Transparency and Communication

Clearly communicate the purpose of measurement systems. Employees should understand how metrics are used to drive overall organisational goals, rather than merely seeing them as targets to be met.

3. Regular Review and Adaptation

Continuously review and adapt measurement systems to ensure they remain relevant and effective. This includes monitoring for unintended consequences and making necessary adjustments.

4. Focus on Intrinsic Motivation

Leverage the Hawthorne Effect by fostering a positive work environment where employees feel valued and recognised. Intrinsic motivation can drive sustainable behavioural change more effectively than extrinsic targets.

5. Holistic Approach

Combine quantitative metrics with qualitative assessments to gain a comprehensive understanding of performance and behaviour. This helps mitigate the limitations of purely numerical targets.

In Conclusion

Goodhart’s Law and the Hawthorne Effect provide valuable insights into the dynamics of measurement and observation in organisational settings. By understanding these principles, managers and leaders can design measurement systems that not only drive positive behavioural change but also avoid the pitfalls of target fixation and superficial compliance.

A thoughtful, balanced approach to measurement and observation can lead to more effective and sustainable improvements in organisational performance.

Global Leadership Skills Program

For more information about George Lee Sye and his work with his Global Leadership Skills program, visit www.9skillsfactory.com where you’ll discover what is possibly ‘the most extensive and effective change leadership training and development program in Australia today‘.

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