The Observer Effect and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle


My apologies to the physicists who might be reading this. I’m no expert on quantum mechanics. But I am a lifelong learner.

So when I saw an article recently on “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,” I read further and learned about what is called the “Observer Effect,” which, in physics, is described as the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation. I was fascinated that by trying to observe and measure particles or waves we actually change them.

I sat with that knowledge for a while and realized that it has applicability to how each of us interacts with others, with our environment, and even with our technology.  We human beings are always part of a system or systems. And when we enter a system, we change it. Sometimes that is with real intent but so very often it just happens without us noticing it.

We can’t change the Observer Effect, but knowing about it can help us understand how our teams, as systems themselves, function – with or without us.

A client was speaking with me the other day about developing his subordinates and the Observer Effect came up. He acknowledged that it existed and realized that any time he entered the system he would be changing its dynamics. That knowledge helped him as he talked about how to approach a goal of eliciting more independence from his people. The first step was to invite them to host their own meetings.

My client discussed a number of approaches: 1) He could attend the meetings and teach the individuals how he wanted them to work together; 2) He could invite everyone and then just sit in the background and watch; and 3) Alternatively, he could ask everyone to be there and not attend, providing some outcomes in advance that he’d like to see.

As we talked about his approaches, I asked him what he had done so far with his ideas. I was curious about his intent.

He thought about it for a while, paused, and said, “My intent is not to be so involved in every level of information and the decisions surrounding them. I want to be liberated from being the person who always has to be “in the know.” Instead, I’d like people to come to me only when they can’t solve the handful of dilemmas that they haven’t been able to work out together.”

The client went on, “If I can harness that intent, then my team grows in their capabilities and I get to expand my range in the process.”

“So, which of your three approaches do you favor?”, I asked.

“Well, probably a combination of the three because I need to set the stage for my people, communicate my intentions to them, and then be ready to accept the outcomes they achieve.

Being in the room will affect the system, that I know, and then leaving them to work by themselves will let them achieve results without being observed.”

I paused for a moment and smiled, noting, “I think I’m hearing you say that you are seeking growth in those you work with so that you can become a better leader. You’re setting the stage within the system and then sitting back and letting it function on its own!”

It is instructive for each of us to know that there is such a thing as the “Observer Effect,” and it helps us realize that we have the opportunity as leaders to know and act upon it. We can’t be in the room – or “in the know”- all the time, and we can also set the stage at the same time without being there.

People are not exactly like waves or particles in quantum mechanics –we can adapt and change based on very real intentions – and yet knowing the Observer Effect helps us understand a bit more the wonderful complexity and diversity of this world – and ourselves.

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Dave Bushy
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