Stop the Surveillance: Why Some Managers Feel the Need to Monitor Workers, and What to Do Instead


There is much in the news these days about companies using technology to keep tabs on their employees, and it’s worth addressing because three out of four remote workers are concerned about it.

Some companies may be monitoring to maintain data security—to protect client information or prevent fraud, for example. Others may be using technology to help them feel in control under new hybrid work arrangements.

There are valid brain-based reasons for hybrid concerns, but responding with surveillance for the sake of ensuring work is getting done might be more costly than you think.

Why so much mistrust, now?

The office was comforting to managers. In the old way of working at the office, managers were able to see employees when they first walked in, providing immediate reassurance that their teams were ready for the day. At any time, managers could walk into an area and interrupt employees if they had a question or a request, and the employee had to stop what they were doing to pay attention to the manager. Essentially, managers could spend the day using their physical presence to control others.

That all changed when the workforce went remote. Attendance—which once provided certainty that the team was working—was no longer obvious. The manager’s ability to walk into a room and be recognized as the one in charge disappeared. Exercising control over others became a challenge requiring technology, scheduling, and often the willingness of others to accept meeting requests that fit into their plans for the day.

The disappearance of those comforts is threatening.

Human behavior is driven by social threat and reward in the areas of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness—the five domains identified in the NeuroLeadership Institute’s SCARF model. Threat signals can make us feel as if we are out of control and that our social safety is in danger. Some leaders react to those feelings of threat with attempts to regain control through surveillance.

In one recent study, a whopping 74 percent of bosses said that “remote work made them feel a lack of control over their business.”

That lack of control may lead bosses to perceive threat in each one of the SCARF domains. When there’s no presence in the usual sense, bosses no longer have the usual ways to demonstrate their status, to be certain work is getting done, to autonomously direct employees, to feel relatedness with people they can’t see, and may think it’s unfair that their role has changed so drastically.

Neuroscience tells us that social threat can send signals in the brain similar to physical threat—both can send the brain’s limbic system into fight-or-flight survival mode. When people are feeling threatened and their limbic system is engaged, their prefrontal cortex may struggle to make smart choices. Regardless of whether our physical safety or our psychological safety is threatened, and whether that threat is real or perceived, the reaction is the same: we seek safety where we can find it.

When bosses adopt a surveillance mindset to regain their own social capital in status, certainty, and autonomy, the employees are the ones paying for it.

There are three non-obvious downsides to a surveillance mindset.

Downside #1: Productivity, culture, and innovation take a hit with surveillance

Monitored employees are less effective when they’re operating under threatening conditions.

The goal may be to ensure employees do the right thing, but research tells us that surveillance doesn’t always make people do it. In one study, certain types of monitoring and the manner in which it was presented did reduce undesirable behavior somewhat, but monitoring did very little to promote effective behavior. This may be because the mistrust they felt lowered their sense of status, their sense of autonomy, and their psychological safety.

By its very presence, the act of monitoring reduces the autonomy and sense of safety we need to be authentic. People tend to become performative, based on what they perceive the monitor needs to see, limiting “the opportunity to present oneself in the manner of one’s own choosing.” They may begin to fear being caught operating outside the box and go into avoidance mode, ensuring they are seen doing only what they are told, and avoiding doing things that may seem to be wasting time or effort. Employees in avoidance mode developed a fixed and tentative mindset which stifles creativity and engagement—the opposite of the desired effect.

Downside #2: Surveillance gets less bang for your managerial buck

Even during a pandemic year, companies invested over $82B in training, over $1,100 per employee. Training is a necessary investment, particularly for managers, but it’s completely wasted on those with a surveillance mindset.

Placing managers in an oversight-looking-for-trouble role takes them out of a leadership position and puts them in a position of enforcers and babysitters, essentially paid to prevent people from misbehaving. Not only is this a waste of managerial talent and money, it sells the manager short of their capabilities as leaders and motivators.

Managers using surveillance to seek greater status and certainty may end up with less of both. Managers-as-monitors often display socially threatening signals of mistrust, which will lead their employees to mistrust them. A mistrusting manager is less likely to have a positive impact as an organizational leader, reducing the certainty of positive results as well as the certainty of their own success.

Downside #3: Surveillance rolls back all the hard work you’re doing in DE&I (and A)

Some forms of surveillance may inhibit people who need to work a different way, like neurodiverse employees or anyone requiring accessibility accommodations.

In President Biden’s Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce, he called on the largest employer in the nation to provide equity, inclusion, and accessibility to under-served people, including those “who face discrimination based on pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions; parents; and caregivers.”

When managers become so rigid in workplace methods that they are monitoring time at desk and methods of task completion, they may disregard the achievements of people who have to work in non-standard ways. Such disregard can halt hard-won progress in reversing systemic inequity.

Organizations that value productivity, leadership, and inclusion need to shift from a surveillance mindset to what we at NLI call an “outcome focus.”

There are three non-obvious upsides to being outcome-focused.

Upside #1: Employees receive autonomy, the gift that keeps on giving

A leader with an outcome focus provides clarity on expected outcomes, not how to achieve them, making autonomy the star of this show. We already know that productivity, culture, and innovation actually improve when autonomy is provided in hybrid conditions. These improvements are largely because autonomy puts people in control of creating the optimal work environments for achieving individual greatness. Autonomy is a win for the employee that leads to plenty of wins for the organization.

As it turns out, autonomy at work is good for employee health, too. A 2020 research study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that having the ability to make decisions about how we accomplish work, even if those work demands are high, can actually reduce our risk of dying. The wellness of an organization’s workforce is a significant contributor to production, culture, and retention. Anything managers can do to help employees feel a little more in control of their day is a step in the right direction towards wellness which is a win for everyone.

Upside #2: Focusing on outcomes provides greater certainty and status for both managers and employees

Managers looking for employee accountability need to look beyond the minutiae and keep their eyes on the prize. By establishing goals and conducting periodic check-ins to provide support as needed, managers will be recognized as supportive leaders, which will give them a nice boost in status. Knowing that tasks are in progress will provide certainty too. It’s a double-whammy of positive reward signals for a manager’s brain.

When employees feel supported, not micromanaged, it sends a signal of trust and worthiness—giving the employee a nice status boost too. When employees know without a doubt what they need to do to achieve success, they enjoy the comforts of certainty as well. When managers and employees all get to feel secure and valued, the culture will thrive.

Upside #3: Focusing on outcomes is the ultimate power move for equity

Another upside to establishing clear goals for job requirements is that it can help mitigate the unconscious biases that may exist in people processes like hiring, assigning, rewarding, and promoting. This is one of the single biggest impacts an organization can have in improving their efforts towards diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

At NLI, we say “if you have a brain, you have bias” and those biases can creep in if we don’t actively mitigate them where we can. Any steps we can build into our systems to help mitigate those biases will help prevent us from accidentally being influenced by them in decision-making processes.

Detailing what great looks like prevents us from making incorrect assumptions based on things like what we expect to see—which may or may not be relevant to the end result. When expectations are clear, dependability and quality go up.

Authors: Joy VerPlanck, D.E.T. , Sherilyn George-Clinton

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