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Photo credit: Steven Tiller

Schroedinger’s cat: how we are obscuring people’s potential in organisations

Ever heard of Schroedinger’s cat? It’s a thought experiment that poses if a cat is in a box, it can be simultaneously dead and alive because we don’t know unless we can see it. In other words, its status is affected by whether we can observe it or not. Or if you prefer a more fun definition, here are the loveable geeks from HBO’s TV series Silicon Valley explaining it (apologies for the poor quality):

What’s Schroedinger’s cat got to do with organisations?

I’m currently reading “Leadership and the New Science” by Margaret Wheatley, a book which applies some of the thinking from quantum science to organisations and leadership. As I was reading on my commute in snowy Stockholm this morning, I read the following:

“I realised I had been living in a Schroedinger’s cat world in every organisation I had ever been in. Each of these organisations had myriad boxes, drawn in endess renderings of organisational charts. Within each of these boxes lay “a cat,” a human being, rich in potential, whose fate was determined, always and irrevocably, by the act of observation.”

If a manager is told someone is a high performer, they’ll treat them differently, just like the teachers in the 1964 Robert Rosenthal experiment in which he picked several children at random and told teachers that tests had shown these had high potential. Rosenthal followed these classes over two years and those students the teachers believed to be especially talented had improved significantly more than their peers because the teachers had given them more time to answer questions, more feedback, and more encouragement.

Back to organisations. What if you’re viewed as a poor performer? Wheatley writes in her book that those employees who are viewed as “dead” by managers or peers are “thereafter locked into jobs that provide them with no opportunity to display any new potential.” They are, in effect, given a life sentence by the organisation never to reach their true potential.

Besides what managers are told or primed to think, how they view employees is predetermined by their worldview. And sadly, most managers today have been recruited and promoted according to an outdated way of thinking which we’ve inherited from the Industrial Age. As visionary former CEO of FAVI Jean-Francois Zobrist says, most managers have been conditioned to see employees as stupid, incompetent children who must be controlled and motivated. But of course, to treat employees like this means we will never release their full potential and the organisation will stagnate and ultimately die.

So what’s the antidote?

In my experience, these are some of the things we can do in our organisations to avoid creating a Schrodinger’s cat problem:

  1. Use alternative tools to liberate people’s potential — I believe most managers don’t realise how smart people in their organisations are. Sometimes it’s because they don’t have the right tools or give people the right opportunities in order to see it. I recommend Liberating Structures, a collection of 33 alternative ways to facilitate meetings and conversations that taps into the collective creativity and intelligence of people through creating the right conditions for equal participation and purposeful collaboration.
  2. Create a culture of psychological safety and learning — Research shows high performing teams have this but in order to foster such a culture, trust must be cultivated and not assumed. Have a read of Amy Edmondson’s brilliant book “Teaming” for more on how to do this.
  3. Presuppose that people are inherently motivated and want to improve — Most people want to do a good job and get better. Of course, some don’t and you can talk to them about that, but on the whole, we humans are capable creatures. We run our whole lives without the need for someone to control or motivate us!

As one of the founding fathers of improv, Del Close, says:

“If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.”

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Lisa Gill

Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.