The age of the data junkie – good or bad?

I’m surrounded by brilliant minds at Henley Business School. It’s an inspiring place to be. People who actively seek out real data to prove a hypothesis to be true; people who love a solid, unquestionable piece of evidence to back up their research. There’s no doubt how valuable data can be in informing our decision-making processes and progressing our learning. World class research wouldn’t be world class if there wasn’t any empirical evidence to support it! It’s a fact!

Or is it?

I read an article in the Telegraph recently about whether too much data is a good thing. It talked about an interesting study of professional gamblers. The more information they had, the more confident they became with their bets. However, the additional data and the increased confidence didn’t equate to an increase in the size of their prize money! It remained the same.

The article also talked about the value of employee satisfaction surveys that ask 50 to 60 questions in the hope of building enough evidence to drive the changes required to increase employee happiness at work. It concluded that less was more, ask fewer questions but make them stronger and more meaningful, and if you’re serious about workplace happiness, a survey that allows you to differentiate by seniority, gender or age, for instance, might be useful.

However, I’m sure most of us could have come up with at least 3 of the top 5 questions that best predict workplace happiness without seeing the results from an employee satisfaction survey, 50 questions long! In-fact, we could probably make a good stab at assessing overall workplace happiness if only we just took the time to look around us and notice. To check in with our EQ antennae and trust our instincts. I know this is easier for some!

The top 5 questions in predicting happiness at work were about:

  • Feeling that you are being developed
  • Being treated with respect
  • Being proud to work for your organisation
  • Doing something worthwhile
  • Feeling that the business cares about your wellbeing

Interestingly hygiene factors such as pay didn’t make the top 5!

At times I wonder whether we get bogged down by the data and don’t pay attention to the more obvious messages that are often starring us right in the face. Perhaps we choose not to see them because we haven’t got “the data” to back it up, particularly in relation to managing people or, indeed, managing ourselves. Although, it’s not hard to understand that being treated with a lack of respect makes someone feel less happy than normal, is it?

In my coaching sessions I often find barriers to change appear due to the “evidence” that individuals have collected along the way to “prove” that their story is true. I often hear “I’ll never be able to do ‘blah’ again, because when I was 25 I did ‘blah’ and ‘X’ happened. This caused ‘Y’ terrible thing to happen”. The fact that the terrible thing happened is obviously true, but where’s the evidence / the data to suggest that it’s likely to happen again, just because it’s happened before?

I’m not good at statistics, and I’m sure there is a small probability of that terrible thing happening again. It’s a fact! But when it comes down to managing people and/or managing our own behaviours, we can blow that probability out of the water every single time… as long as the driver for change is compelling enough and we really REALLY want it to be different. There are enough case studies of amazing people out there to prove that to be a fact!

So data or no data? Good or bad? I’m not sure there’s a black and white answer to that, just maybe a note to self to consider data as another piece of useful information and not necessarily the be all and end all.

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