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The dubious value of looking over employees' shoulders

Published:Sunday | August 3, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade

There's a common belief among managers in Jamaica that employees need to be watched closely. Without constant supervision, the reasoning goes, they are likely to slack off and shirk their duties; people perform better when they know they are being observed. However, there's intriguing new research that shows exactly the opposite.

In experiments performed at a plant in Southern China, Professor Ethan Bernstein discovered that removing employee surveillance increased productivity. His research team employed a novel technique - they slipped in five 'embeds' into the plant, researchers disguised as employees who lived and laboured alongside regular workers.

The 'embeds' were taught two important lessons by their peers. The first was that there were several tricks of the trade - shortcuts - they needed to learn to do the job effectively. These were passed on from one worker to another and helped enable "faster, easier and safer" production. The second was to avoid using these tricks when managers were nearby because "they'll get mad".

Why would managers "get mad"?

Their behaviour is explained in part by the fast-moving times in which we live. In today's working world, the real experts are no longer managers who have performed a job for years before being promoted. Instead, jobs are changing so fast that those who do the work every day are more likely to know how to use the most recent technology and information. As a result, they are using tools in ways managers don't understand, relying on insider knowledge their bosses simply have never seen.

Managers often respond to this loss of power with fear and insecurity, which they attempt to mitigate by keeping a close eye on employees. However, the more they put the worker under a microscope, the more he/she puts on a show, according to Bernstein, hiding the latest tricks and shortcuts when managers come by to spy.

This employee tactic actually saves time. Around Jamaica, there are perhaps thousands of workers who know more than their managers do, but also don't want to slow down to educate them. So, they do things the old, inefficient way when managers are around, and revert to the more efficient way when they are not looking. They let managers, with their egos, see what they want to see.

In Bernstein's follow-up experiment a year later, he also showed that workers performed better when they operated behind curtains. Privacy allowed them to conduct improvement experiments, out of management's view, which increased production by 10 to 15 per cent. Curtains gave workers a chance to try ideas first and explain later. In keeping with what we know about peak performance, it also allowed them to focus on the task at hand without distractions.

If you suspect that your workplace is producing a similar negative effect, here are some remedies:

1. Examine your mindset

If your governing assumption is that workers want to do a bad job, check your thinking. Unknown to you, your mindset may be the cause of the poor results you observe. When workers are treated as if they are slackers, high performance never emerges.

It's a case of 'what you see is what you get'. There are few people who have never experienced the joy of working with someone who truly appreciates their contribution, therefore bringing out their best. If you aren't able to do that, you may want to ask why, and question your own mindset.

2. Check your communication

Most professionals have been on the receiving end of a colleague's complaint about a direct report. By the end of the tale, it's difficult to imagine that the individual is anything but evil, that is, until he/she shows up in person and the manager is overheard talking to him/her in the worst possible way. Then, it all makes sense. Changing the aggrieved manager's style of communicating is the very first step.

If you suspect that you might be talking down to employees, and it's having an effect on their performance, get some feedback from another manager you trust to improve your style.

3. Ask everyone to innovate

In the old style of managing, the boss did all the thinking and the workers did all the doing. Your organisation may not have changed with the times, robbing employees of the chance to innovate.

In this respect, your newest employees may be a great asset, seeing things others can't, and it's best to harness their unique point of view. Train all your employees in methods used to make things better, and give them the tools (such as process improvement) with which they can structure change efforts to drive bottom-line value.

These might be monumental changes in your company. However, they are the only way to create an environment which encourages innovation, rather than stifling it. The research shows that micro-management may produce the opposite effect and that long-term productivity may not come from actions driven by mistrust.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To give feedback, email