MUCH IS BEING reported about advances companies are making in monitoring employees’ activities in the workplace. While many of these efforts are lauded for their efficiency in providing analytics, there is the occasional caution about the inevitable negative consequences. But what is the entire motivational impact of implementing these technologies and acting upon the data received?

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Analyzing recordings of telephone conversations, emails, time spent away from the work area and tone of voice in departmental meetings all can add up to indications of who might be ready to move to the next level of management and who may need executive coaching. How well, though, this level of scrutiny and micromanagement plays with employees is the other side of the story.

Workplace monitoring has existed for decades, originally consisting of “management by walking around,” which was done by many in a critical, controlling manner, i.e., to catch any slacking off (although for some it was an attempt to be relational). This came out of the Theory X approach to leadership, where workers were assumed to be trying to operate at less than full effort.

I have had students report that this approach to leadership is still very much present in today’s workplace. One diligent student reported how his department manager would announce his departure for an out-of-office meeting for a few hours only to surprisingly return after about 20 minutes away. He was playing “gotcha” in the eyes of the department. In another situation, one manager boasted about his newly-appointed supervisor, proclaiming, “What a manager she is! She knows exactly what her people are doing at all times!” There were many complaints about the oppressive work atmosphere in that department.

Anecdotal reports abound about the tense relationship that exists between monitoring and controlling. There are underlying motivational variables that must be taken into account when initiatives are undertaken to acquire, and use effectively, the increasing amount of data on individuals and their activities on the job. Here are three categories of motivation that are vulnerable to being impacted by data analytics.

Excessive control

One of the innate motivational needs we all have is for a level of freedom in how we do our work. The procedures that organizations put in place can stymie this need. In some firms, it is standard to clock in and out electronically. At other companies, employee badges are electronically read and provide a huge data base of individual activity.

Of course, even without these data-driven devices, there are limits to how much influence we are able to have at work, and the amount of freedom will often vary due to a number of factors, e.g., a manager’s communication style, the use of incentives and punishments, etc. Also, employees who are less knowledgeable or experienced will not enjoy the same level of influence as an individual with a proven track record on the job. However, managers should realize that the more control that is used, the less self-motivation will be present in their workforce.

Unreasonable expectation

Excessive monitoring of such things as average response time for emails and the return of phone calls, time spent away from one’s work area, let alone participation in meetings and tonal analyses provide much opportunity for managers to have a detailed view of their employees’ activities and outputs. All these efforts are intended to improve efficiency, but in order to preserve motivation, expectations must be realistic. Humans are humans, and not machines. There needs to be room for some level of fun or interesting challenges at work.

Studies have shown that having stretch, as when we are engaged in a new task, ignites self-motivation. When the data are utilized judiciously, these new technologies have the potential to help expedite the training process. To safeguard the impact on motivation, a manager should be clear about his or her intentions when feedback is offered. Otherwise there’s a strong inclination to perceive the efforts as manipulative and the manager/employee discussion can negatively impact the need we all have for competence.

Distrustful tone

As with any feedback given to an employee, be sure the intention is for growth and not to merely employ a new instrument for control. Consistent with this is the use of assertive language, as opposed to aggressive. “I believe these new procedures will prove helpful in getting the job done” is a lot easier to hear than “You really need to get behind this.” Research has shown that our need for connectedness is an important aspect of work motivation.

Managers who do not express care or concern, which includes the solicitation of feedback from subordinates, are missing the opportunity to strengthen a sense of team. Another step that might be taken is to meet with the department as a whole when instituting large-scale change efforts (regular team meetings are also a good idea). One thing you want very much to avoid is creating an “us/them” situation; a “we are in this together” environment goes a long way to enhancing self-motivation.

At the end of it, we have these innate psychological needs. When they are satisfied, we flow motivationally, whether at work, school, home, etc. When these needs get frustrated by a manager or an organization’s conduct, our intrinsic motivational system crashes. It is vital to think about how all these monitoring activities impact those being studied and analyzed. The consequences are not benign; they are either positive or negative.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation, with Fordham University; a former senior line executive in the television industry; and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at pbaard@baardconsulting.com.

Monday, October 14, 2019