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What impact does being watched have on our behaviours?

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What impact does being watched have on our behaviours?

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There was a study published a few years ago that looked at ethics, and ethical behaviour at work.  It came to the conclusion that the mere perception of being watched can prompt us to behave in a more ethical manner.  The study found that a picture of a pair of eyes placed in the workplace was all it took to nudge us into more ethical behaviour.

If something as simple as a photo of eyes is enough to put us on the straight and narrow, what impact might actual surveillance have?  After all, not only is most of our work based computer behaviour monitored, but an increasing number of professions are deploying video cameras to track what goes on.

Whilst it’s easy to think that monitoring what we do is a way for those in charge to prove something after the event, it’s much more common for the recording devices to act as a deterrent in the first place.

For instance, an experiment conducted in conjunction with a Californian police department found that there were twice as many incidents occurring on shifts where no cameras were used, as on those where cameras were present.  The cameras kept both officers and the public more honest.

Other studies have shown a similar effect in restaurants, with monitoring technology reducing employee theft significantly.  What’s more, the improvement in honesty grew substantially over time, suggesting an improvement in the culture in each restaurant.  Interestingly, after the monitoring devices were installed, revenue at each restaurant also increased.  The researchers suggested that employees directed their efforts from stealing things to customer service, hence the rise in income.

Promoting good behaviour or preventing bad?

A study published last year by Ethan Bernstein highlights the flip side of monitoring what employees are up to.  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.’ “ 

There is a saying that the Queen thinks everywhere in the country smells of fresh paint, because whenever the Queen visits a town, they make sure it is spick and span for her visit.  The same can often be the case when employees know that they’re being observed.

Of course, when the observation is of a permanent nature, it limits the opportunity to do things by the book when being watched, only to revert to normal behaviour beyond the gaze of managers.  This may result in employees only doing what is expected of them however, and strangling innovation as a result.

Bernstein suggests that the key is mixing up the kind of chance observations you uncover through random encounters (attentional capture) with insights gained from deliberate observation (executive control).

“Focus too much on executive control and fail to attend to the unexpected crisis in your peripheral view,” he says 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.”

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.

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