monitoring performance to death

Supervising can damage performance.

In economics opting for the middle ground is usually best. But in this case, the extremes seem to be a better choice: monitor hard, or do not monitor at all. A little bit of monitoring only annoys the good workers, causing them to slacken off. And sometimes the wisest thing is just to let people get on with their job.

So says this week’s Economist, reporting on research that has just come out in which volunteers were given a task to do under various degrees of supervision. The unsupervised group performed well, on time, with few mistakes. The extremely supervised group was more careful, more accurate, and slower. The slightly supervised group made the most mistakes of all and was also slower. “This means that resources devoted to monitoring were wasted.”

Great paradox. If you pay someone to work for you, you want to know that they are doing a good job, but as soon as you start monitoring, the performance goes down. Unless you are completely draconian.

How many times have we seen this?

In teaching and medicine and other vocational professions where intrinsic motivation is high and monitoring is hard, ‘pseudomonitoring’ — like making people fill in time sheets — simply hacks people off so that they start clock-watching and feeling resentful.

Kids and homework? The same thing. Either you have to hover over them and ensure all is done and done well. Or you go to the kitchen, pour yourself a glass of wine and leave them to it. They have the intrinsic motivation of being interested or the extrinsic motivation of fear of the teacher’s reprisals. But parental slight monitoring makes performance worse and resentment creep in.

In situations like mine in agricultural research for development, where work is not 100% plannable and your supervisor is rarely an expert in your field, monitoring is a great way to fill time while irritating people to the maximum. Making people follow office hours, wanting to know what they are working on. These have nothing to do with what people are working on with vocation and passion. And they are sure ways to decrease performance.

We always knew this instinctively. Now the Economist has said it, so it is a fact!


  1. Reblogged this on thinkpurpose and commented:
    I love statements that have the word “fact!” With an exclamation mark. It’s like “And THAT’S science, bitch!”. All sassy like. This piece, from the improbably but literally named incognitoinrome, contains actual science AND fact.

  2. […] monitoring performance to death | Becoming Better. […]

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