The Transparency Paradox: Why We’re Less Productive When We Know Someone’s Watching

When employees know the bosses are watching, they put the brakes on productivity and innovation. So are wearables at work doomed?

The Transparency Paradox: Why We’re Less Productive When We Know Someone’s Watching
[Photo: Flickr user Deb Nystrom]

Smartphones and laptops are common everyday devices seen in workplaces across the globe. Introduced to improve our productivity and make our workplaces function more effectively, our devices have simply become part of our workday.


Wearable fitness trackers have revolutionized the wellness industry and may soon be changing workplaces across the country. Fitbit, Nike Fuel Bands, and Jawbone Up bands can track how often you move, the number of calories you’ve burned, how long and how well you’ve slept.

Biometric sensors such as OMsignal offer a much deeper look into how our bodies are behaving, tracking heart rate, breathing rate and depth, activity intensity, calories burned, and heart rate variability. The latter are mostly still in development and haven’t made their way out of the realm of professional athletics and into workspaces quite like the wearable fitness bands, but could be the next step in this emerging trend.

Many companies are now issuing tracking devices like Fitbits, FuelBands, and Jawbone Up bands to employees as a way to encourage a healthier workplace while keeping tabs on whether employees are keeping active and sleeping well. But just how willing will employees be to share the data they collect on their devices?

A 2013 survey by Cornerstone OnDemand showed 66% of millennials and 58% of employees overall would be willing to use wearable technology if it allowed them to do their job better. But Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Harvard Business School says monitoring employees’ wearable data may have a counterproductive effect.

Bernstein has studied the “transparency paradox,” which says when employees know the bosses are watching, they can put the brakes on productivity and innovation. Simply put, people change their behavior when they know they’re being watched.


His recent article in Harvard Business Review argues despite the effort to design physical and electronic spaces that are more open and observable in the hopes of increasing transparency, humans’ natural behavioral response to this openness is to hide everything.

“When you design openly transparent environments, what you get is actually less transparency,” says Bernstein. He argues employees become more risk-adverse, and are less likely to go outside the box and to be innovative when they’re being watched for fear of not fitting in. Introducing wearable devices in the workplace and making them observable to others may have the opposite effect of improving employee health or and motivating more productivity.

Bernstein himself regularly wears a Jawbone Up band. “I love it. It helps me to regulate my sleep, or lack thereof. And I use it in my classroom because I’ve found there’s a correlation between how energized and engaged my students are and how many steps I take in the classroom,” he says.

While Bernstein admits wearable tracking devices have helped him to improve his overall health, he says these improvements would likely be limited if the data was being viewed by anyone other than himself. “If I had a boss watching it, maybe I’d be sitting here during this call tapping it on the desk to expand the number of steps it thinks I’m taking,” he jokes.

It’s not that Bernstein is a cheater, but he says it’s simply what we do as human beings when we know we’re being observed. “If we know someone’s monitoring us, we make sure they see the kind of data they want to see because we want to live up to other people’s expectations,” he says.


But that’s not to say that the trend toward providing employees with wearable fitness trackers to improve their well-being is a bad thing. In fact, Bernstein says wearable wellness can be effective, but only when done within four boundaries:

1. A Limited Audience

Setting parameters on who can view the data, whether it’s only the individual wearer, or a small group of coworkers or a boss will impact how the individual behaves when the tracker is on.

2. Feedback, Not Evaluation

Whether the data being collected is being obtained for the purpose of providing feedback or for the purpose of evaluating the individual against a set of preset criteria will affect how an individual reacts to the tracking device.

3. Inform Versus Decide

If the data being collected is used in an attempt to inform the individual of their current status rather than as the basis for making decisions it will affect how the device is viewed. Tying one’s performance on their Fitbit to their health insurance premiums, for example, is sure to lead to an employee falsifying their results by not behaving how they normally would were they not being tracked.

4. Time Limitation

The sharing of data shouldn’t be a permanent occurrence. Some companies seek to encourage employee participation in Fitbit programs by hosting contests on who took the most steps or group challenges where employees’ data is observed and tracked for only the time it takes to hold the contest.


Mitigating the urge to alter behavior when being monitored requires keeping these four boundaries in check. “Within these four boundaries, I think wearable wellness devices are a wonderful trend and can generate value,” says Bernstein.

About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction