The Over Reliance on Metrics

Guess what? Teams work best in a safe psychological environment. As reported in the New York Times, shortly after Google released the results of its multi-year study on team work, “There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anythiphoto-1448932223592-d1fc686e76eang else, was critical to making a team work.” This may not sound like a major headline, but after years of extensive research, this is precisely what Google’s in-house management experts concluded. In a nutshell, when people feel safe, they work better on teams, even if and when the teams are comprised of people who are not–on their own–exceptional thinkers or leaders.

When Google announced these findings last winter most commentaries had one of two reactions. First, why did the company take years to reach this conclusion when it seems obvious (at least to any experienced manager)? And second, did Google’s Project Aristotle simply demonstrate the fact that sometimes we rely on data when common sense may be just as effective?

So are we relying too heavily on metrics to make decisions about talent and team management and if so, at what cost?

The Value of Metrics in Talent Management

There is no question that metrics matter. They can help you recruit more effective employees and even tap hidden talent (candidates who do not have a traditional background or set of experiences but who stand out nevertheless). Metrics can also help you keep track of everything from what your employees are doing on the job to the relation between customer service interactions and sales at a given time of day or in a specific location. With metrics, we can build better products and offer more effectives services–products and services that are tailor-made to meet the needs of anyone in any location at any moment.  The value of metrics is not in question. What is in question is the potential that our reliance on metrics is making us question everything–even the wisdom of managers with years of experience on the job.

The Overuse of Metrics in Talent Management

While it may sound flakey, at least some managers will tell you that sometimes, a “gut reaction” or intuitive response just can’t be ignored with or without metrics to back it up. Talent Management talked to Valerie Kendal, an associate dean at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, who has spent close to three decades serving on hiring committees in higher education.

Three years ago, Kendal was leading an important search for a director of diversity and inclusion on her campus. She assembled an expert team to help–the college’s head of advising, the chair of the college’s diversity committee, and three faculty members with expertise on issues of gender, race relations and LGBTQ issues. “We brought five great candidates on to campus,” explained Kendal, “And at the end of the third interview, which seemed to go fine from my perspective, as soon as the candidate left the room, a lesbian member of the committee said, ‘No way, he’s a huge homophobe –we can’t hire him.'” As Kendal explains, immediately, another member on the committee shut her down–even accusing her of racism, since the candidate in question was an African American man. “It was very awkward,” says Kendal,  “But I concluded that based on the committee members reaction, the candidate had to be off our list. After more than 25 years in this business, I’ve done hundreds of hires. Those really strong reactions to a candidate have to be trusted and honored, even if there’s no clear evidence to support the reaction.”

A photo by Vladimir Kudinov.’s approach may sound unorthodox–after all, trusting a personal and even visceral response may in fact also perpetuate discrimination (in this case, how was one to know that the White lesbian member of the committee was not having a racist reaction to the African American candidate?)–the situation at the very least reminds us that experienced managers, who have watched many hires and assessed their outcomes, may possess insights that can’t be easily captured by even the most sophisticated algorithm. “I can’t tell you exactly how many times I’ve seen a hiring committee do a hire, let’s say on the basis of a candidate’s pedigree, and then regret not hiring someone who had less impressive credentials but was more likable. I don’t have data on these outcomes, but yes, it happens all the time, so I do let committee members’ intuition come into play whenever I can and within reason.”

Finding a Middle Ground

What’s the take away? It seems clear that while metrics are here to stay, the wisdom and experience of seasoned managers also needs to be taken into account. While metrics can tell us a great deal, they remain unable to adequately capture intuitive responses to people and situations and these intuitive responses at times also carry great value in the field of talent management.

September 9, 2016   Updated :September 9, 2016      

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