How Many Data Points, How Strong The Evidence, To Win You Over?

It’s one thing for managers, or anyone, to insist on evidence, it’s another thing how they use this evidence. You must have noticed that evidence in the face of skepticism only goes so far? How many of us, when being pointed out that we are wrong, even in the face of strong evidence, would immediately acknowledge our mistakes in front of others? And change our minds and behavior forever after? I am not referring to innocent little mistakes that we easily discharge with a light, “Sorry, sorry, my bad.” Admitting to faults, serious and significant faults, isn’t easy for most of us. It’s not always because the ego is getting in the way; often, what we need is time to reflect, perhaps do more research on our own, regroup and rethink.

Back to managers, though, how often do managers actually insist on evidence? Most managers are enamored with following procedures – exercising due process – rather than examining the data with truly informed care, i.e. understanding context. (see my previous post)

This is evidence of ignoring social some would actually "jump off" the bridge.

This is evidence of ignoring social psychology…now some would actually “jump off” the bridge.

I am not talking about public figures who have to address their wrongdoings. Nor am I addressing debates in the political arena. They are all interesting, but their dynamics are different than individuals’ exchanges or discussions in the small group setting in an organization. I have observed and heard stories about managers who go on a crusade based upon evidence favoring their position. But even though the evidence favors the manager’s position, he ignores social psychology at his own peril. A staff member using evidence to convince a manager is generally perceived very differently than a manager employing evidence to gain an upper-hand against other managers. When people in positions of power use evidence, they are likely to be perceived as self-righteous. And who likes that?! So, ultimately, it becomes how a manager uses the tool of evidence. Treating evidence like a stick to brandish the unbelievers isn’t going to get very far; using evidence in conversation and discussion has a better chance to win some minds and even hearts, but it does take time and requires patience. In modern organizations, we seem to be very short on both.

Physical scientists would argue that evidence speaks for itself. In some ways, they are right; their debate in the journals and conferences inspires more research and hopefully drives to a consensus. Still, that takes time, and the dynamics get much muddier when it comes to funding. Sometimes, scientists forget that they too are after all human beings. Further, one-shot evidence is seldom enough, especially in the “hard” sciences where reproducibility of experiments and multiplicity of observations are the standards of proof. Time and patience, and lots of observation and reflection, are the norms for “hard” science. It’s a lot messier in the social sciences, and even much more so in reality.

I cannot stress enough the importance of distinguishing between reliance on evidence and data vs. reliance on due process. Relying on due process, letting a superficial collection of data dictate procedures without understanding the context (see my previous post) is short-sighted and leads to decisions that, upon later reflection in better context, are stupid or even tragic. Here is a story that exemplifies such lack of distinction: “In D.C. a 13-year old prodigy is treated as a truant rather instead of a star student.

Avery’s piano competitions, recitals, performances, as well as her role as an “ambassador for an international music foundation” had taken her away from school more than 10 days during the semester and triggered “truancy” status. Even though her parents informed the school before every absence and presented a plan for Avery’s schoolwork while traveling – and she is a straight-A student – the school administration just couldn’t seem to comprehend the situation. In their collective “mind,” there is no difference between Avery’s absence (which they could have accepted legitimately if they had bothered to grasp the context) and another student’s playing hooky.

This is a quintessential example of mindlessly following due process. It’s simpler and easier, right? As I have said many times, why don’t we just let the computer system take care of data keeping, analysis, and issuing results.

Avery’s parents decided to pull her out of school and commit her to home schooling for the time being. In the meantime, the school principal’s lame excuses have not helped the school’s reputation.

Data, evidence, spreadsheet, records…these are important tools for organizations. But they are just tools. People and relationships are about stories. Even at work, at the end of the day, we come home with good and/or bad stories. We don’t engage our friends and families with animated conversation about data. Behind the memorable business transactions – good or bad – it’s the stories that accompany them that motivate us to either go back to the same site or not. Please, nurture those relationships that yield great stories, won’t you?

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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