Who watches the workplace watchmen?

an eye on the workplaceOne of the world’s best known and most enduring foundational psychological experiments does not appear to be as clear cut as we commonly think. It was back in 1961 that a team led by the American psychologist Stanley Milgram asked a number of ordinary people to administer what they believed to be increasingly high levels of electric shocks to a person in another room while listening to their responses.

The willingness of many to deliver what they thought were potentially fatal levels of electricity just because they were told to by an authority figure has cast a shadow on our understanding of people in the decades since, especially coming so soon after the world had learned of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the Gulags.

According to an analysis of a previously suppressed follow-up questionnaire carried out by Milgram, it turns out that the people with the propensity to deliver the biggest shocks were aware that it was all just an experiment. Those who were reticent were those least likely to be aware they were the real subjects of the study. As a consequence, the outcomes of the most famous experiment of its type are perhaps not what most people believe, even if it may be too late to challenge the laundered notions about it that we all know.

One of the inferences we can draw from this, apart from the way that an experimenter’s biases and presuppositions can distort their own research, is that people behave differently when they know they are being watched.

This is not just important to help us assess the outcomes of studies and research, but also because the act of observation can never be passive. As Rob Briner pointed out, the Brexit referendum didn’t just gauge people’s views of the EU, it formed them. Similarly, as I have highlighted before, asking people about workplace stress may increase their feelings of stress.

Even in the era of isolation and homeworking, firms maintain the impulse to monitor people in real time, rather than work with and manage them in other ways. A recent article in Bloomberg suggests that firms have been almost as keen to acquire management software as they have collaborative tools.

This is something we will have to bear in mind as we enter a new era of observing people in the workplace and elsewhere. Our attitudes to perpetual embedded surveillance are doubtless shaped by our relationship with technology, a subject covered in this excellent podcast, so the pushback against the increasingly pervasive measurement of what we do at work is likely to remain moderate.

What we shouldn’t do is suppose that the people being measured are behaving in exactly the same way as they would have without scrutiny. We will install the watchmen in the workplace, which now includes the homes of a growing number of people, but they too play an active role in the way we work and will have to be watched themselves.