Parents are warned about the harmful effects of comparing one of their children to another. Yet we find ourselves today in an era of hyper-accountability, where every outcome is measured and then compared to an outcome for another person or group.
Margaret Wheatley suggests that measurement often has precisely the same effect on an organization as the parent who openly compares one child’s effort, ability, or talent to another’s. Instead of motivating the one child with the example of the other, the act of comparison can generate resentment in the one, and embarrassment in the other. An incessant focus on numbers is almost always counter-productive, as Wheatley explains:
Assumedly, most managers want reliable, high quality work. They want commitment, focus, teamwork, learning, and quality. They want people to pay attention to those things that contribute to performance.
If you agree that these are the general attributes and behaviors you're seeking, we'd like to ask whether, in your experience, you have been able to find measures that sustainthese strong and important behaviors over time. Or if you haven't succeeded at finding them yet, are you still hopeful that you will find the right measures? Do you still believe in the power of measures to elicit these performance qualities?
Wheatley goes on to say that these behaviors are “never produced by measurement . . .” She describes them as “performance capabilities that emerge as people feel connected to their work and to each other. They are capacities that emerge as colleagues develop a shared sense of what they hope to create together, and as they operate in an environment where everyone feels welcome to contribute to that shared hope.”
Yet Wheatley acknowledges that “. . .measurement is critical. It can provide something that is essential to sustenance and growth: feedback. All life thrives on feedback and dies without it.” Adam Smith recognized the extent to which measurement and comparison are natural human tendencies:
Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges of the like faculty in another. I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love. I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging about them.
So measurement itself is not the issue; it’s how we misuse it, or how we react to it, that are typically the source of the problems. We need leaders who understand that numbers are not “sacred,” but rather a means for gathering feedback. And when our leaders present us with measurements, we need to approach that data with a sense of intrigue rather than sensitivity. We need to evaluate the quality of the feedback and use it to foster the commitment, focus, teamwork, learning and quality that are known to contribute to high performance.