June 9, 2021

The 7 Common Success Traps, Part 4: Overreliance on Data

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The seven common success traps are the traps I’ve learned about over the course of my career working with clients and collaborators from some of America’s top organizations, including Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies. These traps are based on both my personal experience and the stories shared by my clients and collaborators. 

These success traps can and do happen to the best of us. They can even destroy massively successful, well-established companies. It behooves us to understand what they are so that we can recognize when we’re in their vicinity and, if we can’t avoid them altogether, at least make it out alive.

That’s why I’ve written a book about these traps and why I’ll be exploring these seven traps on Recruiter.com over the coming months. I hope that my books and articles will help companies overcome these traps — especially now, amid one of the most challenging economic climates we’ve ever seen.

Read the rest of the series:

Part one
Part two
Part three

This is one of those “Don’t even get me started — I could write a book on this topic alone” articles. In fact, the very first serious book idea I ever had was along the lines of this subject. That should hopefully show you how passionate I am about it, and therefore more sensitive to the effects of this success trap than most.

Today, many people believe that data is king. It is pretty impressive — and a little alarming — what we humans have created and can do with data. Companies like Facebook and Amazon have access to what seems like every move and need of their customers. That provides them with key information on how to run their businesses, manage their employees, and serve their customers.

I’ll pose a few questions before I jump into my perspective on this matter.

If data really were king, the business messiah of all messiahs, then why does the data (see what I did there?) continue to show that companies are highly dissatisfied with talent and talent is just as dissatisfied with companies? Why are so many people so unhappy at work that, even in the middle of an economically turbulent pandemic, 64 percent of them still want to change jobs?

I don’t claim to have all the answers here, nor do I think data is inherently bad. Rather, I think that treating data as if it were infallible — without using one’s own critical thinking and building trust with staff and customers in human ways — is disastrous to the well-being of your company.

Data Matters — but Don’t Forget About Your People

Richard Coulson is the most tenured manager in the technology department of a major technology company. Recently, I had the chance to interview him about the history of the company, its successes, missteps, changes, and so on.

When I show him the seven success traps and asked if he had seen his company make any, the one he pointed to was this one: overreliance on data. I was surprised by this because Coulson works in the technology department of a leading technology company. Generally speaking, people in these positions are most likely to subscribe to the belief that data is king.

According to Coulson, the company has switched projects on its staff five different times in the past three years, all because of the data. This pace of change was excessive, and company leaders didn’t seem to see how these rapid shifts disrupted staff morale.

My takeaway from this story is that overreliance on data — without factoring in the human element — is a surefire way to sabotage company success. Leading a business or team requires emotional intelligence as much as hard data. If companies weren’t so obsessed with data, they might notice more easily when employees aren’t as productive, engaged, or enthusiastic as usual. Leaders might be able to step in and address the issue before it becomes a crisis.

Imagine if someone were paying me to write this article, and they told me to completely change the subject three times based on readership data. Talk about frustrating! I would definitely feel discouraged, resentful, and rebellious. I would likely react brashly or shut down completely — maybe some combination of both.

Coulson also noted that the people on his teams love their work; they take a lot of pride in their jobs. When the company kept rapidly firing changes at them, workflows were disputed and staff members felt their work went unappreciated.

Even if the data is accurate and could drive better results, companies need to consider the more intangible things like morale and productivity. It doesn’t matter how good the data is if employees are disengaged and, therefore, unlikely to deliver their best work.

Personally, if I had someone tell me to change this article three times before I had finished a single draft, I would very likely quit working for them. On the other hand, if we had collectively decided to change the topic once based on new data, then I’d be far more enthusiastic about it.

Make Data Collaborative

To avoid this success trap, start by being aware of the frequency of the changes you make based on data. Data and information — as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us — is always changing. Changing course at every sign of a new data trend will destroy employees’ morale and, likely, sanity. Instead of relying solely on data, use it as one of several decision-making tools.

Sometimes, you have to make decisions based on new data. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when you do, I highly recommend sharing this data with the employees who will be affected by your decision. If you can take a more collaborative approach and get employees to see the benefits of making the pivot, you’ll see much quicker adoption and much more engaged staff.

That said, you should always anticipate that any change you make will have some short-term speed bumps. A business is like a giant sailing ship, not a speedboat. Changing course requires some finesse and time.

Balance data with critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaborative decision-making. Pay attention to the needs and challenges of your staff and customers on a human-interaction level. Phone calls and face-to-face conversations can be just as valuable as hard numbers.

Data is not perfect, and companies often collect information that shows only a small measure of truth. They aren’t getting the whole story unless they also engage their staff and customers directly.

Scott Engler is an internationally recognized branding thought leader and LinkedIn specialist. Connect with him on LinkedIn to learn more.

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Scott Engler is an internationally recognized branding thought leader and LinkedIn specialist who has worked with Fortune 50 and 500 clients such as LinkedIn, BBVA, Hewlett-Packard, and Merck & Co. Along with a powerful and dynamic group of vetted specialists in different areas of marketing and branding (once referred to as the "LinkedIn A-Team), Scott now focuses on helping small to mid-sized companies build their brands. Any inquiries about the work he does can be sent directly through LinkedIn.
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