Unintended consequences of constant surveillance, or the transparency paradox

Ethan Bernstein writes about the transparency paradox:

[The] transparency paradox: broad visibility, intended to increase transparency, can breed hiding behavior and myths of learning and control, thereby reducing transparency.

Bernstein, E. (2012). The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control. Administrative Science Quarterly, 57(2), 181-216. Retrieved March 17, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43548317

So called “smart workplaces” are great for surveillance. From the perspective of employers, knowing everything about their workforce is good. They are thinking,

We need to know what you are doing. The more we know, the more
we can help you do it better.

Bernstein. “The Evolution of ‘Transparency” in Management”

According to WRLD SMART WORKPLACE MANAGEMENT, with a smart workplace you can

  • Understand and monitor your workspace
  • Improve workplace productivity
  • Attract top talent with a smart office

With the help of AI, employers or managers can learn a lot of stuff about workers. But the problem is that workers respond in two unintended ways: They play it safe or they hide stuff. As Bernstein writes,

[When] we feel over-observed at work, our performance suffers. This can take two forms. One response is to just do exactly what the watchers want to see. Observers may get compliance, but they won’t get much innovation. We’re just not likely to try something different if we’re being watched to make sure we’re doing our jobs right. Another response, no more to a company’s advantage, is to find ways to hide. Put employees in open offices and they’ll work from home—and feel more productive. Track more data, and they’ll find a way to stay under the radar. Monitor their work smartphones, and they’ll get a second one, as many people do. Make all written work accessible, and people will stop writing things down. Track email, and they’ll use Slack instead. These are all real
examples. So rather than learning more, management may end up learning less, or even learning things that aren’t true.

So if you never want your employees to try new things or if want them to get really good at hiding stuff, keep them under constant surveillance.

Bernstein found that factory workers would develop “better ways” to accomplish tasks–“productively deviant behaviors”–but would hide these techniques from supervisors. They would even teach new workers (Bernstein’s embeds) these techniques while telling them not to use the techniques when observed by supervisors:

[When] under observation, embeds were trained in the art of appearing to perform the task the way it was “meant” to be done according to the codified process rules posted for each task.

Bernstein, E. (2012). The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control. Administrative Science Quarterly, 57(2), 181-216. Retrieved March 17, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43548317

Clearly, workers have been breaking rules and doing things their own way forever, but the dominant theory says that doing thing their own way is counterproductive. But what’s interesting about this study is that the “deviant” behavior was productive; it was good for the company. Citing George Simmel and others, Bernstein observes that human beings need privacy; throughout the day, we rhythmically move in and out of social interaction.

Bernstein goes on the writes,

A review of the philosophy literature on privacy supports the logical
conclusion that it is accomplished in only one of two ways: either by blocking observability of people’s actions through visibility boundaries, such as private offices, team meeting rooms, war rooms, or phone booths, or by blocking understanding of people’s actions through encryption boundaries, such as the codes used by the mafia. . . . We either
close the door, window, or curtain, or we speak in code that only chosen others can interpret.

p. 206

People are free to react in this way—counter to the goals of management—because of the operationally closed nature, or operative closure, of psychic systems. Organizations cannot discipline minds; they can only discipline communication. People working for an organization retain their own thoughts, motives, etc.

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