The observer effect is not about cats in boxes

The observer effect:  the surprising role of structured questions

Philip Carden Employee experience, Engagement, Feedback, Motivation

How do we measure things like engagement and experience? We ask questions. But what if asking the question changes the very thing we are trying to measure? Here’s a newsflash: That’s exactly what happens. And it’s not a bad thing — in fact it’s a huge opportunity, because the questions themselves can be subtle but powerful change agents.

The observer effect: simply observing a situation or phenomenon necessarily changes that phenomenon (a fact commonly cited in physics).

We’re huge fans of open questions, but here are three good reasons why interactions should start with carefully chosen structured questions. Three good reasons that have nothing to do with measurement and everything to do with the hidden power of questions.

1. Setting the tone.

A common notion in journalism is the “premise of the question” i.e. the assumption that something is true being implied by the question itself. The first question you ask in any set of questions will set the tone. For example, if you ask someone to rate their agreement with the statement “My contribution to the company is fairly recognized”, they will naturally infer that contribution matters, that it should be recognized and that fairness is important. The fact that you are also measuring progress on a key pillar of employee experience is almost a secondary benefit.

2. Reinforcing manager expectations.

That questions affect employees’ assumptions is reasonably obvious. What is less obvious and perhaps more important is the ability of questions to set expectations of manager behaviour. This can often be the subtle, powerful role of the follow-up question. For example, a selection question where respondents can select possible answers to “I have been recognized for (select as many as apply)” reinforces with managers the areas they should be looking to recognize employees (e.g. customer service, results, suggestions, achievements, values) without teaching experienced professionals “to suck eggs”.

3. Shifting from power to status motivation.

We have written elsewhere about the importance of shifting motivation from power to status — a somewhat academic notion, but key to building the fairness culture that underpins a great employee experience. Open questions and follow up conversation are a great way to do this because they reinforce the relative importance of respect and esteem (status) versus control (power). They’re also a great source of insights, but that is another story.

Here are some examples of question sets that follow the tone-expectations-open format suggested above.


  • My contribution to the company is fairly recognised.
  • I have been recognised for — customer service, results, suggestions, achievements, values, none, not sure.
  • How could we make recognition fairer?


  • My manager cares about helping balance my constraints and ambitions.
  • Consideration has been given to my — health, safety, family commitments, training, career-path, workload.
  • How could we do better?


  • Opportunities for new challenges are based on merit.
  • To maximise my chances, my manager has helped guide my — training, experience, collaboration, network, career-plan.
  • How can we improve?


  • Our work environment and tools enable the team to achieve its potential.
  • We do these things well — safety, respect, comfort, health, tools, fun.
  • Do you have suggestions on the work environment?