Quelling Initiative

I just read in Le Monde about the increased use of electronic tracking systems for children. I’m sure these gadgets are hot among parents around the connected world, and not only in France. Arguments go the way of “the children gain in independence, the parents don’t have to worry”, or “if you know you are watched you won’t do anything silly” and “if you play by the rules you have nothing to fear”.

I don’t really care what parents choose to do when it comes to surveying their kids, it’s really their business. But to add to the debate, and draw a parallel to grown ups, I just have to mention an article in the Harvard Business Review that I read a while ago.

[Digging through my pile of magazines… found the October issue!]
The article was written by Ethan Bernstein and brings out different perspectives about surveillance and transparency, and the effect it may have on people’s behaviour. Apparently, the more people feel watched at work, or the more information they are made to share about their work, be it with management or colleagues, the more they start hiding what they are doing. Not because they are doing anything bad, but because they may be caught doing something wrong, or why not, they may be copied by their colleagues and lose out on good feedback that would instead go to someone else. If people watch you to make sure you follow a process to the last dot, or that you don’t make any mistakes, you will not experiment to try to find better solutions, and you won’t want to do too much, for fear of being reprimanded, or copied.

In the end, efficiency and new solutions are lost.

On a closer note, a friend of mine used to think that the fact that her boss was watching over her every move was because she wasn’t good enough at work.  It made her feel queasy, frustrated and most of all, unsure about what she was doing. (Typical girls’ thoughts, you may say. What if it is, women still represent a large part of the working population so all resources must be managed to optimize a company’s competitiveness.) She is someone who takes pride in doing a good job, and enjoys taking initiatives and propose solutions, but the more she was watched over, the less she did by herself and the more she went back to her boss for feedback. Until the day the boss told her she was not independent enough, and that she lacked maturity. With ten years of work experience, that came as a pretty big blow to her self esteem. Strangely enough, the boss also said that she was fully competent for her role, and did not need to come for feedback all the time. How is that for a contradiction.

She later found out that she was not the only one feeling the same way, other colleagues, including men, did too. In a sense, this helped her deal with the situation and regain her lost confidence. The article in the HBR helps to explain the reactions of these people, and shows that it is not necessarily a question of personal weakness or lack in self confidence for an isolated few.

To get back to the kids, who knows, maybe being surveyed on the way to school will stop children from making new friends, or finding that super secret hideaway that you should have as a child, or stop you from climbing that tree in the park five minutes away. We have all done that, we all needed it, it is part of developing as a human being. At least I want that for my children.

There is an important lesson to be learnt, both for companies and for parents. Too much surveillance or transparency will kill our natural capacity and want to take initiatives. Today, that capacity is more valuable than ever to be able to face the ever quickening pace of the world.

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