25 Nov 2013  Research & Ideas

Hiding From Managers Can Increase Your Productivity

Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ethan S. Bernstein explains why decreasing workplace transparency can increase productivity.

 

Companies all over the world have striven for transparency in the workplace, literally tearing down walls in an effort to let managers and employees observe each other. Take, for example, one of the 14 key principles of The Toyota Way, Toyota Motor Corp.'s managerial philosophy: "Use visual control so no problems are hidden."

But recent research proves the virtue of letting employees do at least some work unobserved. In a series of studies, Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ethan S. Bernstein shows that decreasing the observation of employees can increase their productivity.

"What managers were seeing wasn't real. It was a show being put on for an audience"

What's more, in a curious phenomenon dubbed the Transparency Paradox, he finds that watching your employees less closely at work might yield more transparency at your organization.

Bernstein uncovered the paradox while studying the manufacturing floor at a leading, technologically advanced global contract manufacturer's plant in Southern China, where tens of thousands of workers assembled mobile devices under close supervision. The plant for years had operated myriad identical assembly lines, spaced closely together to facilitate visibility. The idea was that watching the workers would help managers improve operations and replicate innovations on one line across others, thus increasing productivity and driving down production costs.

A research team found the opposite was true.

WHAT MANAGERS SAW WASN'T REAL

In the summers of 2008 and 2009, when he was a doctoral candidate at HBS, Bernstein hired a team of five Chinese-born Harvard undergraduates to be "embeds" at the plant. They lived in factory dorms and worked alongside employees, who assumed that the embedded students were actual employees, too.

The two ways in which we achieve privacy.During the first summer, the embeds quickly discovered the crux of the transparency problem, which Bernstein recalls in his paper The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control, which won the 2013 Best Published Paper Award from both the Academy of Management's Organization and Management Theory Division and Organizational Behavior Division. "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.' "

Rather, veterans advised embeds to perform tasks strictly by the book whenever a manager was in sight, in order to avoid calling attention to themselves. As such, the researchers noticed that production seemed to slow down whenever the employees knew they were being watched. The level of workplace transparency meant that just as managers could see their employees more easily, the reverse was true as well.

The official company practices happened to be less effective than the tribal tricks of the trade—tricks that the employees hid from the higher-ups, thus thwarting the goal of learning by observing. Bernstein says that there was no ill-intent or cheating behind such hiding behavior, but merely a rational calculation about human behavior: Operators were hiding their freshest, most innovative techniques from management so as not to "bear the cost of explaining better ways of doing things to others."

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."

Said another worker: "Everyone is happy: Management sees what they want to see, and we meet our production quantity and quality targets."

"We assume that when we can see something, we understand it better," Bernstein says. "In this particular environment, and perhaps many others, what managers were seeing wasn't real. It was a show being put on for an audience. When the audience was gone, the real show went on, and that show was more productive."

Researchers found that a privacy curtain actually increased true workplace transparency.Similar results bore out in a follow-up quantitative field study at the same site the following summer, this time tracking the production of 3G USB mobile data cards. The research team studied 32 production lines for five months. On one set of randomly chosen lines, the employees worked out in the open, as they always had. On another set of lines, however, each production line was concealed behind a curtain, out of management's view. The researchers found that simply hanging that curtain increased production by 10 to 15 percent—major information for a competitive industry that operates on razor-thin margins.

In terms of respecting boundaries, it's important that managers consider not only individual privacy but group privacy as well, Bernstein explains. The curtain boosted productivity for a few key reasons: It provided privacy to tweak (and improve) line operations as temporary issues arose; it prevented unproductive distractions and provided workers with increased focus; and it let the line experiment with new ideas prior to explaining them to management. Indeed, the workers did purposefully share ideas with their supervisors after testing and perfecting them.

"There was a pride in ownership leading to the desire to share," Bernstein says. "And so they did. But only after they had data to support their new approach."

Hence, the transparency paradox: broad visibility of employees at work may induce secretive behavior, thus reducing real transparency, whereas boundaries may actually increase it.

"This race to full observability on everything can have consequences."

Bernstein hastens to add that not every company should erect walls or hang curtains. "I would never suggest that what works in one setting is necessarily going to work the same way in another," he says. "The message actually that's more important to me, which should be more important to managers, too, is that this race to full observability of everything can have unintended consequences."

TRYING NOT TO LOOK TOO WEIRD

The field study findings also offer an important message to employees—that productivity can depend largely on how well they manage their managers' attention.

"On the manufacturing floor, the workers were trying to manage the attention of the managers," Bernstein explains. "They knew that if they did something that looked weird, it would draw attention and, quite frankly, would disrupt their current work process. If they didn't look weird, then that wouldn't happen. And they knew that just for the sake of getting the production numbers, sometimes it would be good to attract attention and sometimes it wouldn't."

Bernstein elaborates on this concept in the paper "Seeing Too Much: Too Much in Sight or Too Little Insight?" The paper was chosen for inclusion in the Academy of Management's Best Paper Proceedings in September.

He explains that when a person starts paying attention to something or someone, it happens in one of two ways: executive control (that person deliberately chooses what to focus on) or attentional capture (the attention is captured by a stimulus in the person's sensory field of vision). Effective management requires a healthy balance 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."

At the factory, the workers were essentially "managing up" by protecting their managers, themselves, and their company from unproductive attentional capture. The findings indicate that it may behoove managers to acknowledge that when it comes to attentional capture, their employees may know best.

"Those managers who believe they can restrain themselves from becoming captured by something that looks weird—when that attention won't be productive—would likely prefer to see everything and then make a choice as to whether to attend and get involved," Bernstein says. "But maybe we aren't as good at battling curiosity or being overloaded by visual stimuli as we might think. The frontline people who perform a particular task 12 hours a day may be the best people to determine whether that task needs the attention of others.

"If you wanted to design a more productive organization," he continues, "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."

After all, they may already be controlling your attention anyway.

Note to managers: Are you interested in finding out whether the ability to observe employees helps or hurts productivity in your organization? Ethan Bernstein is pursuing additional field studies in non-manufacturing settings. For more information, please visit The Research Exchange.

About the author

Carmen Nobel is senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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Comments

    • Zulfiqar Deo
    • Founder, www.bizstuff.co

    I feel light touch management also allows the employees to be more creative and make greater use of the tacit knowledge they build up.

    Look forward to other comments

     
     
     
    • Etienne Douaze
    • Managing Partner, Jeremy Consulting

    This article confuses control with transparency. Transparency in the workplace involves communication, openness and accountability. It does not imply direct and constant observation/supervision.

     
     
     
    • Patrick O'Neill
    • Consultant, Mission Australia

    I don't know why we need academics to find out what has been obvious to us lesser peons for thousands of years. It's called 'delegation': ie living with the fact that others may do things differently from you, while still being productive. I'm sorry, but managers are not & never have been, the source of all wisdom, particularly when they try to 'micro-manage'.

     
     
     
    • juan aguirre
    • Professor, Universidad Latina

    The findings are interesting and show the ability of human to adapt and survive control.

     
     
     
    • Rebecca Mott
    • Manager

    I agree that there is little value to constantly watching employees. Processes should be designed in such a way tht employees have the freedom to innovate with safe boundaries. Hiding innovative ideas can not only hamper transparency within the organization, but it can also pose a risk and hinder long-term productivity and knowledge transfer. Also, changes in any system has impacts, and failure to openly discuss changes in processes can lead to problems and frustrations that management are not able to explain based upon their knowledge of what they believe the process is. So the next question is how do managers get employees to be transparent about what they are learning and innovations they are making? We have to put a process in place to allow that transparency to happen.

     
     
     
    • Daniel Setz

    The kind of production environment, as described in this article, where control seems to be more based on military principals than modern management practices, are generally more common in the emerging markets. As they will progress in their management practices they will understand that delegation, empowerment and motivation will increase productivity and output.

     
     
     
    • Hari
    • DM, Independent Consultant

    We have said that team work (sharing each other's strengths and weaknesses) improves productivity. Now we are saying do not be visible to managers with what we are doing?

     
     
     
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy

    Remember the "Three B's" theory of creativity? - that some of our most creative moments come in the warm zone between dreaming and wakefulness - often experienced in bed, in the bath, or on a bus. Creativity and innovative thinking in a workplace require time and space - sometimes with feet up, sometimes staring at the ceiling. This invariably looks bad and thus tends to be done when no-one is looking. A manager 'looking over one's shoulder' can be extremely disruptive to truly uninhibited and creative thinking. If you do manage by walking about and see someone staring into space with their feet up, come back later and ask what they were thinking about.

     
     
     
    • Dr A Jagan Mohan reddy
    • Associate Professor[HR], Institute of Public Enterprise

    Very insghtful article indeed. One of the main criticism against the Hawthorne experiments was that employees being aware of the survey displayed such behaviour which might not be true.The real takeaway for todays Managers is that this race to full observability of everything can have unintended consequences. Thank you so much for sharing.Happy knowledge sharing.

     
     
     
    • Greg Anthony Hawod
    • Business Entrepreneur

    Another interesting question sparked by this article is: "Why do employees don't share their innovative ideas to the management team?"

    One of the answers I found here is the burden to bear the cost of explaining later on. Employees may be hesitant because whatever they say may be taken against them if the management found that they don't like the premises used by the employees.

    Another reason could be that they fear management will nip their ideas in the bud if there are no solid result. As a consequence, employees conceal these innovative ideas do it right away. If there are good results and the managers found out, they will be in better position to explain.

     
     
     
    • Robert Ng
    • Director, Ergoworld Pte Ltd

    My personal experience confirms the finding is true and this evolves from different skill of worker and their willingness to share with others either individually or team. Manager needs to consider allocating time to work on floor levels to gain this trust of sharing better ideas from workers.

     
     
     
    • Tema Frank
    • CEO, Frank Online Marketing

    It seems to me that there may also be a cultural element here. In a culture where conformity has been valued and individualism punished, of course people are afraid of being seen doing something different.

    But in a culture where employees are encouraged to find better ways of doing things, I don't think you'd see the same impact. (Or at least, it would not be as strong. I think there's still a signalling value in allowing some privacy: it shows your employees that you trust them, and that is always motivating.

     
     
     
    • Natascha Thomson
    • CEO, MarketingXLerator

    Carmen:

    Great article and ample food for thought.

    From my experience, there will always be a bit of a dog and pony show in front of superiors in any line of work.

    The challenge I see is that most managers cannot handle any kind of uncertainty and - despite lip service to the contrary - are afraid of risk taking.

    Hence, employees keep their innovative approaches to themselves as opposed to having to defend themselves or even being told to "stick to the existing process".

    Especially in companies that are very consensus driven, do individual mangers not want to stand out as non-team players or rookies. But to have to get buy in from a "committee" on every decision is painful and time-consuming.

    As somebody already said,it's better to get proof that your idea works before floating it with management. The manger who can just listen as a sounding board is so rare. Maybe because, as infered by another comment, mangers think adding value means having an opinion on everything, and thinking they know best.

    Regards, Natascha

     
     
     
    • Mark Gonska, America's Career Coach
    • EVP, Dise & Company

    Being invisible to your manager(s) is also a great way to lose a job. Ask the thousands who believed, "my work will speak for itself."

     
     
     
    • Tom Dolembo
    • Founder, New North Institute

    In a lean conversion project, we have found that major long-term production issues were presented as a barrier to further management involvement. A completely failed data acquisition system allowed operators to innovate without having someone counting their errors during the learning period. Once the production innovations worked, the data system magically became a non-issue. Hiding in plain sight was a brilliant tactic .

     
     
     
    • Domenica Piga
    • Project Manager, Black Belt, The Joint Commission

    While there are some interesting points made in the article I think they misrepresent transparency. In the article Berstein explains transparency as watching, observing and monitoring employees. I disagree with this concept in regards to increasing productivity. No one wants to be watched! Of course this behavior would make the employees put on a show for the managers. Employees are number one at figuring out how to get around managers when they do not feel trusted, empowered or appreciated. Transparency should be about showing the numbers, data, and how we are improving or falling behind. The embeds where shown the real standard work, how the work is really done when no one is watching because they were trusted among the other employees. They became part of the team. If managers actually trusted their employees and empowered them, while working with them to increase productivity they would see a culture shift. No one comes to work (mos tly) thinking they are going to screw their organization. But managers treat employees this way this is the behaviors they get. Its not about privacy its about trust. And of course the employees know how to increase productivity better than managers. They are the ones doing the work. They live the work every day! Managers, learn to trust and give up the "power" of control. You don't have it anyway. You are only as strong as your team.

     
     
     
    • Domenica Piga
    • Project Manager, Black Belt, The Joint Commission

    While there are some interesting points made in the article I think they misrepresent transparency. In the article Berstein explains transparency as watching, observing and monitoring employees. I disagree with this concept in regards to increasing productivity. No one wants to be watched! Of course this behavior would make the employees put on a show for the managers. Employees are number one at figuring out how to get around managers when they do not feel trusted, empowered or appreciated. Transparency should be about showing the numbers, data, and how we are improving or falling behind. The embeds where shown the real standard work, how the work is really done when no one is watching because they were trusted among the other employees. They became part of the team. If managers actually trusted their employees and empowered them, while working with them to increase productivity they would see a culture shift. No one comes to w ork (mostly) thinking they are going to screw their organization. But managers treat employees this way this is the behaviors they get. Its not about privacy its about trust. And of course the employees know how to increase productivity better than managers. They are the ones doing the work. They live the work every day! Managers, learn to trust and give up the "power" of control. You don't have it anyway. You are only as strong as your team.

     
     
     
    • Peter Lee
    • Remuneration Consultant, Remuneration Data Specialists Pte Ltd

    Interesting. What is missing is contextual details i.e. what sort of material or non material incentives when prodn quotas are met or not met or exceeded. I suspect that employees were not properly rewarded for exceeding quotas; i.e. if prodn goes up mgmt may raise the bar further without commensurate rewards so employees see this an an disincentive.

    Obviously trust is also a factor & the working environment is probably far from conducive in respect of organisation-sharing and collaboration (except among close colleagues - good thing Berstein used embedded researchers otherwise such details would not have surfaced).

     
     
     
    • Stephanie Lepp
    • Strategist, BBMG

    This is not about transparency but about freedom. Curtains wouldn't matter either way if managers gave employees the freedom to experiment and innovate.

     
     
     
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private limited

    Transparency is necessary, undue overseeing and close watch/control is not. Yes, achievement of tasks and goals is important. The manager needs to watch performance from a distance without pestering the employee who be allowed to develop creatively. Much good is ultimately the outcome of such an approach. If you carry control too far the employees feel annoyed, frustrated and dejected. They will try to show off a working style which they would realize the manager likes. However, this is not to the ultimate good to the organization.

     
     
     
    • Sally Applin
    • Doctoral Candidate, UKC, UK - Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing

    (Applin and Fischer 2013), "Watching Me, Watching You. (Process Surveillance and Agency in the Workplace" might be useful here as well.

    Our paper describes the human response to a management structure and often software driven mandatory business process environment.

    Here: http://posr.org/w/images/0/0d/ApplinFischerISTAS13PREPUBDRAFT.pdf

    and

    Final version (paywall) here: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/login.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6613129&url=http%3A%2F%2Fieeexplore.ieee.org%2Fiel7%2F6596466%2F6613092%2F06613129.pdf%3Farnumber%3D6613129

     
     
     
    • Jackson Daniel Lamme
    • hack, dishwasher, farmer, jacksonsprints.com jacksonl.biz jacksondaniel.net

    Very promising findings generated in the study, I enjoyed reading.

    I've been at my job for 3 years so management has pretty much stopped breathing down my neck, but that anxiety of them looking for errors will drive you to perform poorly no doubt.

    Bosses do it on purpose, for personal satisfaction, and as a form of dominant, agonistic behavior; they think they're head of some kind of a quasi religious, worship centered cult group.

    People in social settings in their leisure time will engage in similar behavior that "throws you off", causing nice guys to stumble over words, experience panic and generally finish last.

    That quest for intimidation (academic credibility) is what drives people to use words like "myriad" without a preposition, because they know it's chic in the rough and tumble world of academic ferocity to do so. It also causes our peers to "leave us hanging" after we ask a question; they want just that little bit of posture to feel secure in their person against us.

    I think the article overstates to some degree what I see as a tricky contrivance to allow the politically correct presupposition that if we all sing cumbaya and dance around the fire, both sides win out in the end.

    The "tribal" practices aren't always gold potted rainbows; I think the fact that managerial acceptance of the employees own methods, not the companies, would constitute 1 type of increased transparency to a degree, but it won't always work out like that, a boss finding out could result in the creation of an environment with less transparency, and les job satisfaction, whether that policy is good or bad for the company. It's far from : "What managers were seeing wasn't real. It was a show being put on for an audience" he didn't discover the holy grail or philosophers stone, I've worked jobs where literally nothing was done on site, we sat for hour upon hour with boredom racking our minds, then demanded a juicy paycheck and felt justified doing it.

    The politically correct individuals will just jump on board the opinion (or scientific conclusion) ship and sail off into whatever horizon will gain them the most profit socially or monetarily. They won't push the envelope out of fear of the agonists. That's why when you remove the observing boss from the equation, they still fear the boss and work hard, but, exactly as the article points out, they spend more time thinking, and less time doing, and so have a slight increase in productivity for a time (while still being subject to countless extraneous factors in these presumably inadequately designed experiments)

    How's that for TRYING NOT TO LOOK TOO WEIRD

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    The article is interesting. However, the findings here in my opinion is not conclusive. Because, what is true in one particular industry will not be true for another.

    I worked in power and desalination industry as an engineer before i completed my PhD in finance and i found the opposite. I worked with different people from different countries everyone has his own believes (based on their culture) and from those believes they act.

    I think it is better that an organization motivate (ethically) its employees to do their best despite they been supervised or not.

     
     
     
    • Russell G. Brown, Ph. D.
    • Former roboticist, current manufacturing technology student, Loyalist College

    I am indeed intrigued by the results reported here though, as others have pointed out, there is a significant difference between observability and transparency as regards workplaces and productivity.

    I think these results primarily point to the problems inherent in not being able to trust one's management. In general, I think we want our managers to (i) understand what we're doing, (ii) be able to lead (not command, not order, not rule, but LEAD), (iii) be honest with us, (iv) defend us, as far as reasonably possible, from external threats (starting with the next level of management), and (v) not to slow us down without good, honest reason. It's clear that the employees in the initial study didn't believe their managers were doing more than one or two of those things with any reliability, if that. Transparency, in the sense that's important here, includes being able to see the manager's agenda and knowing if they, in fact, HAVE an agenda beyond making themselves look good.

    I am curious why Jackson Daniel Lamme thinks "myriad" needs a preposition, since it can function as an adjective, but perhaps he means to refer to the abhorrent class of manager who goes around using words like "surveil." Perhaps suitable immunity to the temptation to use buzzwords should be item (vi) on the list above.

     
     
     
    • Athula Dharmawardhana

    Is it correct saying work under observation or not improve creativity? Under observation some instances productivity may go up if workers fear of loosing the job. Other instances no observation may increase productivity if workers feel no stress due to observation by the supervisors. Thus, the reason for improving productivity may be due to how workers feel and the situation they work on.

     
     
     
    • Dean Marc Co
    • Principal Adviser - Engineering | Design | Innovations, Dungeon Innovations

    As always, it is insightful to read a rigorously contrived essay based on rigorously done research along with the essential conversation that ensues from everyone.

    This very dynamic reflects the necessary dynamic in most circumstances involving social and communication dynamics among people.

    Context and circumstances set the stage that drives a lot constraints in how we go about things.

    But not all shows on stage are good.

    This puts emphasis that context and how one utilizes it has to be treated with equal importance.

    I agree that we may be correlating transparency with control mistakenly.

    Just like there is good management, the opposite is prevalent. The problem is not transparency (while too much of something has its repercussions). It is simply ineffective management and leadership.

    But we must not forget that even with the presence of ineffective management that stifles productivity, some of these successful companies are well, successful (perhaps not as successful as it can be but successful nonetheless).

    Identifying and driving towards the right metrics of what matters is critical.

    But in the end, people matter more, for ill or not.