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Why Your Boss Should Leave You Alone

Rick Newman
The Exchange
Source: Getty Images

Cubicle culture isn’t just dehumanizing it might even harm a company's bottom line.

Openness and transparency have dominated the workplace for the past couple of decades, as semi-private workstations and offices with doors have been replaced by communal set-ups in which office staffers, assembly-line workers and even some executives work elbow-to-elbow. The close quarters supposedly aid collaboration, while helping cut costs and allowing managers to keep better tabs on what their employees are up to.

But it may have gone too far. New research by Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein reveals that too much oversight may lead workers to behave by the book when the boss is watching, while improvising more or relying on informal techniques when unsupervised. That means the boss may have a misleading impression of how his underlings really work.

Beyond that, those improvised tactics may be more effective than the corporate way of doing things, because workers on the front lines often come up with the most productive way of getting the job done. So a boss who checks on his workers too frequently may be unwittingly discouraging innovation and degrading the performance of his own division.

"Boundaries matter"

“Boundaries matter,” says Bernstein. “The boss may have the best intentions and want to help other people, but being observed is something we don’t necessarily want.”

Bernstein conducted two separate studies at one of the world’s largest mobile phone factories, located in China, with the agreement of the company. He doesn’t identify the company in his research, but says it was a well-known global manufacturer employing model business practices. The most surprising findings may be that workers innovated in groups when the boss was away, not just individually, and often became more productive even though there was nothing for them to gain personally.

In the first study, Bernstein recruited three interns who served as plants among the assembly-line workers, laboring among them and learning their secrets. In the second study, two additional interns worked as part of a group operating four different assembly lines hidden behind a curtain, out of sight of any supervisors except when bosses stepped behind the curtain. As a control group, 28 other assembly lines continued to operate as normal, with no curtain and all the usual supervisors looking on.

In each case, the assembly lines operated more efficiently when the bosses weren’t around. With nobody looking over their shoulders, workers employed “a ton of little tricks” (their words, translated from Chinese) in order to generate “‘faster, easier, safer production.’’ But if a supervisor saw what they were doing, they’d “get in trouble,” so when the boss showed up, they did things exactly as management expected.

Hiding innovation

“It became clear almost immediately that operators were hiding their most innovative techniques from management so as not to ‘bear the cost of explaining better ways of doing things to others,’’’ Bernstein wrote.

Productivity suffered as a result. In the first study, “a bird’s-eye observer of the floor could observe bubbles of less-productive behavior surrounding any outsider walking the lines.” In the second study, which was set up to produce more-measurable results, output on the four assembly lines behind the curtain was 10% to 15% higher than on the other assembly lines — for five consecutive months.

Bernstein calls this phenomenon the “transparency paradox” because workers hid their true behavior when the boss was looking on, while revealing it -- to co-workers, at least--when behind the curtain. Those findings also contradict the conventional wisdom that greater workplace transparency — corporate-speak for more oversight and micromanaging by middle managers — ought to improve productivity. In Bernstein’s studies, the opposite happened, because supervisors turned out to be more hidebound and risk-averse than the people who reported to them.

Could this happen where you work? You probably already know the answer to that, but here’s the expert’s opinion: “I believe this would apply beyond a manufacturing setting,” says Bernstein. He highlights certain caveats, such as the need to follow precise techniques when the safety of a product or service is at stake. But he also points out that even executives preparing a presentation for senior management sometimes need to sequester themselves and try out unconventional ideas to come up with a “killer slide.” For most companies seeking bottom-up innovation, as many claim they do, the best approach may be giving workers goals and targets while also giving them more leeway in terms of how to meet them.

As for bosses, the lessons seem obvious: A hands-on style may be self-defeating. Your employees may have better ideas than you realize. And a bit more workplace privacy probably wouldn’t hurt.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman .