Schrödinger’s Cat and The Role of the Observer in Employee Performance

April 8, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

Cat behind closed blinds

I wouldn’t say I’m very adept at science. (I’m pretty sure Mrs. Rouse, my very, very patient high school science teacher would back me up on that.) But I’ve always had a fascination for quantum physics, and in particular Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Perhaps I just take a perverse satisfaction in knowing that quantum theory turns Newtonian physics on its head. But I think it is bigger than that. In standard physics there is a certain inevitability that I find discouraging. The idea that if you do A, then B will always happen. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If you hire a certain employee, and treat them in a certain way, they will perform in an absolutely predictable way. If you provide a cash incentive, all employees will perform better.

Only they don’t always. Real life is messier than that, isn’t it? It takes a lot more effort to impact behavior. Because human interaction and human resources are an inexact science—as much an art as a science, really. And there is too much chaos in the system for it to ever be entirely predictable. As Tom Stoppard wrote in his (brilliant) play Arcadia:

We’re better at predicting events at the edge of the galaxy or inside the nucleus of an atom that whether it’ll rain on auntie’s garden party three Sundays from now. Because the problem turns out to be different. We can’t even predict the next drip from a dripping tap when it gets irregular. Each drip sets up the conditions for the next, the smallest variation blows prediction apart, and the weather is unpredictable the same way, will always be unpredictable.

Like people. Which is why I love the Uncertainty Principle. Strictly speaking, it says that the “position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory”.  But what I really like about it is a related piece called the Observer Effect. It tells us that the very act of observing something changes that thing forever. It is not possible to observe a system without changing the system. Which is itself a sort of control in an unpredictable world.

The Uncertainly Principle came about because of a problem scientists were having with light. If you measure light like a particle, it turns out, light behaves the way particles behave. But if you measure light like a wave, guess what? It performs the way waves behave. And this is true for much of the microscopic world.

This led to a rather famous thought experiment by Erwin Schrödinger, where he sought to illustrate the Uncertainty Principle on a larger scale. He imagined a scenario with a cat in a sealed box with a vial of poison. In quantum terms, the cat’s life or death depends on the decay (or not) of a subatomic particle. If it decays, the cat dies, if not, the cat lives. (Here’s a fabulous 2 minute video that explains it.) According to the uncertainly principle, the cat remains in both an alive AND dead state until the box is opened. It is the observation itself that determines the condition of the cat.

People who did much better in high school physics than me are still arguing about all of that. But I’m inclined to believe in the Observer Effect, because in the world of people management it has proven to hold true. Only here it isn’t called the Observer Effect, but the Hawthorne Effect.

In the 1920s and 30s, a Western Electric factory outside Chicago, called Hawthorne Works, commissioned an experiment to see if workers were more productive in lower or higher levels of light.  When the lights were turned up, productivity increased. But when the experiment was over, productivity slumped. The things is… the same EXACT thing happened when the lights were turned down. During the experiment, productivity rose, afterward, it slumped.  A researcher called Henry Landsberger determined that it was not the changes in lighting that were motivating the workers to increase their performance. It was the fact that “interest was being shown in them.” They were being observed.

I think we’ve all experienced this effect, which has been recreated in countless experiments since. It happens when the boss is on the floor, or you see a state trooper in your rear view mirror. The act of paying attention causes us to up our game and take more care.

So what do the Observer Effect and the Hawthorne Effect have to do with talent management?  After all, the workplace is not a lab. Most companies cannot conduct experiments 365 days a year, and managers cannot possibly observe every employee’s every moment.

But actually, someone is witnessing the performance of your employees almost constantly. Your other employees. And if that witnessing could be turned into observation, and measured via recognition… as employees let their peers know they are being observed and doing well… Well then, the Hawthorne Effect suggest that that very act of measurement—of noticing— could have a significant positive impact on your workers’ productivity.

That means peer-to-peer employee recognition has power, just by its very implementation, to affect your workers’ performance for the better.

It might not be as dramatic as a cat in the box, but you have to admit it could be pretty powerful, in the unpredictable world of people management, to put that uncertainty to work for you, for once.

Plus, who doesn’t want to say they’re harnessing the power of quantum physics for talent management!? That’s just cool. …Or maybe that’s just me. =)

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these companion posts:

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