Who’s Afraid of Data-Driven Management?

This article from Harvard Business Review by Jeff Bladt and Bob Filbin offers insight into who will embrace a data-driven culture and who will resist. The authors’ assessment of the psychology may help you leverage the positive and overcome the negative.

From a management perspective, making decisions based on data is a clear win. Yet it’s often difficult to adopt a data-informed culture. In every organization, there are teams and employees who embrace this transition, and those who undermine it. To convert your biggest data skeptics, the first step is to understand the psychology of their resistance.

A data insight without a subsequent action is like a key without someone to turn it: worthless. A good data scientist can identify which coworkers will use insights from data to open new doors for the business, and which will continue to rely on intuition. This is because employees who act on data will do so for two main reasons: to improve their perceived or actual performance. From our perspective, there are four types of employees in any organization:

  1. Highly regarded, high performing
  2. Highly regarded, low performing
  3. Lowly regarded, high performing
  4. Lowly regarded, low performing

And their willingness to embrace data looks something like this:


Now intuitively, you would think that the first group (high-high, your overachieving all-stars) would be the easy converts to a data-informed culture; of course they’ll want the best tools and analysis at their disposal. But in our experience, the high-highs are the most likely to be data skeptics. Quantifying their domain and performance offers little upside. They are already perceived as doing quality work; adding hard numbers can, at best, affirm this narrative, and at worst submarine the good thing they have going. There is a reasonable fear that the outputs used to measure their performance will not fully capture the true value of their contributions. Skepticism is especially strong in any workplace where attribution is difficult (think marketing and media).

But, this group can be convinced: involve them early, give them a voice in creating the new metrics that will underpin the data-informed culture, and give them opportunities to push back. These efforts can make the data culture feel like their creation, not something that was forced upon them.

Your main challenge lies next down the list: the high-lows. These are your data antagonistics. Coworkers love them, but deep down they always fear they will be found out. Their ideas are occasionally fantastic, but too often they are just shooting in the dark. When things go right, they are never exactly certain why (their instincts are just that good), and when things go wrong, they instinctively turn to ass-covering mode. Quantifying their work (on someone else’s terms, no less) only has downside. Swinging for the fences every at bat is great, until the manager and fans learn to calculate (and value) on base percentage. Then, 30 home runs with a .150 OBP is no longer getting the job done.

There’s not a lot that can be done for this group. The malleable ones will eventually come around, but those stuck in their heuristical ways will undermine and cavil the creeping in of a data-informed culture.

After this group, you have the low-highs. This group will be your biggest champion. Too long have they toiled on the lower reaches of the totem pole. Giving these overachieving, underappreciated employees the information and framework to make their work comparable — to allow their true value to be understood — provides only upside. Give this group early wins by focusing on tying their outputs to organizational success. They will love you for it, and they will help promote your cause. And senior management will be impressed.

This brings us to the last group, the low-lows. They aren’t going to fight data culture. Or embrace it. They’ll simply turn their heads 10 degrees and think: data? In general, low-lows either swim with the current, which means they’ll come around when coming around is the safe thing to do, or against the current, meaning they won’t be around long enough to matter.

Data-informed decision making, and the culture change inherent therein, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Asking what do the data say before acting is a disruptive action, displacing prior norms. There will be employees like the low-highs who welcome this kind of change, and those like the high-lows who subvert it. Understanding the psychology underlying these behaviors is the necessary first step toward pushing past intuition and silencing the data skeptics.

Source: Harvard Business Review Blog Network

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