The Hawthorne Effect – Who's Watching You?

Today’s article written by Volunteer Coordinator Kim Toebbe

“I always feel like somebody’s watching me” goes the 80’s song by Rockwell with Michael Jackson in the chorus.  “He knows when you’ve been bad or good…” warns a common holiday tune. Do people behave better when they feel they are being watched?  Do we put our best foot forward when observed?  A theory known as the Hawthorne effect which was named by Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger states that “changes in participants’ behavior during the course of a study may be related only to the special social situation and social treatment they received.”

We have all been on our best behavior when we knew we were being observed.  We may sit up straighter and speak a little nicer if we are trying to impress someone.  We hide our true feelings at times and act happier than we really are in order to make a good impression.

How this theory relates to volunteers and donors is unclear.  Many donors say they do not want recognition when they give to JFCS.  Some volunteers balk even at receiving thank you notes for work they say is their pleasure.  It has been my experience that volunteers and donors usually do not give their resources and their time in order to receive fame.  On the other hand, if it is perceived that their efforts are unappreciated it can cause a backlash of resentment towards the non-profit organization in which they help.

Volunteers and donors who are caught doing good things usually enjoy being noticed and made to feel special as anyone would.  It feels good to do good is something most volunteers figured out a long time ago.  Organizations use different techniques to show appreciation for those who donate time and money with the simplest and most time-proven being genuine thanks offered for specific deeds.  “You are a big help” is not as effective as “When you drove Mrs. Smith to the beauty parlor it really brightened her day!  Thank you so much.”

Specific, personal thanks are worth more than any tchotchkes an organization can offer and they are absolutely free.  The next time someone does something nice for you, write a note expressing your gratitude. If it is a volunteer or a donor, don’t be surprised to be told with a big smile “you did not have to do that”.


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