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Are you watching what your employees do?

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Harvard Business Review featured an article recently highlighting research conducted by Ethan Bernstein that explored the role observation played in employee productivity.

The focus of his research was a manufacturing company in China, who very much bought into the mantra that you can’t manage what you can’t measure, with a key part of the measurement process one of observing what employees were doing.  Assembly lines were structured in such a way as to make visibility possible, thus allowing managers to improve operations and replicate innovation across the factory.

Except that didn’t happen.  Bernstein found that the factory was littered with hidden tricks that employees used when not under the gaze of management.

“First the embeds were quietly shown ‘better ways’ of accomplishing tasks by their peers-a ‘ton of little tricks’ that ‘kept production going’ or enabled ‘faster, easier, and/or safer production,’ “ he writes. “Then they were told ‘whenever the [customers/managers/leaders] come around, don’t do that, because they’ll get mad.’ “

When the managers were around, employees would therefore operate strictly by the book, which wasn’t necessarily the most productive way of doing things, and the apparent transparency on the factory floor meant that employees could spot managers on the prowl and adjust their behaviours accordingly.

Bernstein discovered that there was no malevolence in their actions, merely that they wanted to be left to do their work without having to take the time and effort to explain their innovative behaviours to their bosses, and often then to the rest of the factory.

In the paper he recalls a worker telling an embed, “Even if we had the time to explain, and they had the time to listen, it wouldn’t be as efficient as just solving the problem now and then discussing it later. Because there is so much variation, we need to fix first, explain later.”

The findings provide an interesting comparison with the 2012 report into social business by Deloitte legends John Hagel and John Seely Brown where they suggested that the inherent value of social business was to be found in the cracks.

The paper reveals how many organisations still operate under the belief that they function according to best practice, yet 60-70% of employee time is spent dealing with exceptions to those rules.

They suggested that social business comes to the fore when making these previously invisible exceptions visible.  They suggested that it should be used to both identify when these exceptions occur and then make a record of these interactions and behaviours that were previous hidden.

As Bernstein notes however, capturing this knowledge out of the cracks only tends to work if employees consent to revealing their tricks.  His research explained that a good deal of attention was given to managing what their bosses saw.  He broke the observational process down into two distinct types:

  1. Executive control, which occurs when you deliberately choose to watch someone/something
  2. Attentional capture, which is when you happen to chance upon something

He suggests that the key is to produce a healthy combination of the two.

“Focus too much on executive control and fail to attend to the unexpected crisis in your peripheral view,” Bernstein says. “Give attentional capture too much weight and you spend the entire day as a slave to your own curiosity and every little out-of-place thing around you.”

So in a world where managers desperately want the best practice employees are doing to spread, but where employees hide it from them when they actively observe them, what can the manager do?

It seems the best approach is to not be prescriptive at all, and rather, apply your energies towards building the kind of system whereby employees are both encouraged and empowered to share that best practice amongst themselves in an easy and effective manner.

“If you wanted to design a more productive organization,” Bernstein concludes, “you might actually think about actively putting the agency for attention in the hands of the people who are doing more of the frontline work.”

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