The Observer Effect and your Team

How to be mindful about how you interact with your team, and how it closely resembles some effects seen in physical and quantum systems.

Psychology tells us about a phenomenon called the Hawthorne effect. In essence, it states that people behave differently when they feel that they are being observed. It seems pretty obvious that we tend to react differently when we feel that we’re being observed, whether we actually are or not. Within teams this idea goes even deeper. The dynamics of a team creates such a complex interconnected system that it’s helpful to compare this effect to the Observer effect in physics.

The observer effect states that the act of observation changes the outcome of an experiment. Checking the pressure in a tire inevitably requires letting some air out in order to measure, altering the system. The very act of observation changes the thing you’re observing.

The observer effect means knowing when and when not to weigh in with your team. It’s one of the most important skills in good management.

You may not know it but your presence and your actions–however simple or slight they may seem–can fundamentally change the way your team works.

How we “Observe”

Observation doesn’t mean simply watching people work. Sometimes it’s the most subtle interaction, body language change, or side conversation that has a huge impact.

As a manager, you can change the behavior of people by just being there (or not). Are you physically sitting nearby your team, or in an office on the next floor up? Are you acting as an HR representative or a technical resource? Did you recognize the success of one project and not another?

There is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions. In most cases we switch between all of these different roles during the day as a situation calls for it.

The observer effect means knowing when and when not to weigh in with your team. It’s one of the most important skills in good management.

Managers sitting in a Slack channel can create a feeling of being watched. Team members feel like their under observation. It changes the way they work, the way they use that tool. Does your culture enforce a positive inclusive environment where your presence in that channel makes you more accessible or more managerial? Which do you want to convey?

Perhaps by simply attending a planning meeting, being attentive and engaged, is enough to start the change of the perception of an “aloof and disconnected” manager to “an active contributor and member of the team.” It’s sometimes the very act of being there that blossoms into a large measurable change in the culture and behavior of everyone around you.

When you mention a new interesting tech stack or productivity tool around the water cooler, you alter the entire landscape just a little bit. It may go nowhere or it may become an important milestone. It’s that little bit that might change the way someone tackles their next project.

The observer effect can be used to reinforce a good team, or be its downfall. Understanding when to push your team in a direction is a subtle and delicate art.

Embracing that your presence, your opinion, and your reactions have very real implications on the direction and evolution of your team is key. Managers and directors, sometimes by simply having those titles, have a responsibility to be mindful of their perceived role at an organization.

How is the observer effect in play where you work?