Are You an Evidence Based Leader? Five Questions to Consider

By: Adam Pressman, Mercer | Sirota Business Segment Leader, US

If you follow the news these days, there are probably times when you feel confused by conflicting reports and contrasting storylines.  This is exacerbated by the complicated web of media sources with various special interests that provide us information.  Depending on where you live, what you read, or who you listen to, you may have a very different view of the truth from other well-meaning citizens.  Trying to make sense of this increasing complex world is more of a challenge than ever before. 

Leaders face similar challenges as it relates to their organizations.  Given the continuous flow of information you receive at work, how do you make sense of it all?  How do you get to the truth of what is really going on in your organization?  At Mercer | Sirota, we have worked with numerous leaders over the years to help them understand critical leadership priorities.  We do this by presenting hard evidence to leadership about what is enabling and getting in the way of employee engagement and performance.  When we ask HR leaders about taking action based on survey data, only half of them feel their leaders do an effective job*.

Based on what we have observed in the way leaders process and react to this type of evidence, the following behaviors are common:

  • Over-Reacting – leaders can reach incorrect generalizations about their employees, managers or work environment when receiving data and evidence.  This often happens when the leader gives too much weight to a data point by pointing to anecdotal examples about something in the work environment.  This over-reacting might cause them to incorrectly identify the source of the problem without collecting additional evidence.  This often leads to ineffective follow up.
  • Under-Reacting – a more common behavior when receiving evidence is to “explain away” or discount the data.  It is very difficult for many leaders to change their view about an issue in the work environment when they have a previously held belief.  No matter how compelling the evidence.  Leaders will often point to pieces of evidence that contradict the data being presented.  Or they may question the methodology used to gather the evidence.  The result is often a failure to address a critical problem appropriately.  This can result in the problem identified to worsen over time. 
  • Spinning – we often see leaders twisting data and evidence to suit their purpose.  Sometimes it is to make the evidence fit into a narrative that they have been previously communicating (confirmation bias).  Other times it is to protect themselves or someone on their team.  These leaders might request that we present the data in a certain way against very specific comparisons in order to mask a problem or issue.  Or they may even ask that we suppress certain pieces of information.  This leads to incorrect conclusions and persistent organizational problems.

Evidence based leaders are more effective in that they accurately diagnose problems and drive necessary actions more effectively.  At Google, for example, they have adopted the mantra “all people decisions are based on data and analytics.” Being an evidence based leader requires a data-savvy mindset. 

Here are five questions to consider to evaluate yourself, your colleagues, or your direct reports:

  1. Do you regularly seek facts?  We’ve found that the best leaders value real data and information.  If you want to be an evidence based leader, you need to ask people to provide you evidence when they make an assertion.  Use data to validate your suspicions.  Site data sources when you state an opinion to others. When a lack of real evidence is available, work on a plan to gather it.  Leaders who fail here have an over-reliance on gut instinct. Ego and one’s own pride can be a barrier here as it is not easy to admit that one does not have all the answers.
  2. Are you aware of your biases?  We all have biases in the way we filter the world around us.  This might be based on our values, our self-interests, or our relationships.  Be aware of your own tendencies to over-weight or under-weight certain pieces of information.  Keep an open mind to the evidence that is being presented.
  3. Do you consider a broad set of findings?  A common mistake leaders make is to use bits and pieces of information to form broad opinions about certain topics.  One can find evidence to discount most theories that exist whether in the workplace or the world in general.  But that doesn’t mean those theories are not highly supported by mountains of other evidence.  It is important to look across the data that you have and not over-weight any specific pieces of evidence.  Some best practices in this regard are found in this report from CIPD.
  4. Do you understand the stats?  This seems like a simple prescription but many leaders misinterpret various forms of data they receive, which can lead to the wrong conclusions.  Understanding things like what sample size is important to have representative data or what types of difference scores represent meaningful differences based on my population size are critical to accurate interpretation.
  5. Do you validate conclusions?  You may have heard the old leadership mantra “trust but verify.”  This holds true in being an evidenced based leader.  It is always important to gather a variety of opinions from the people around you to get an accurate read on a situation. However, it is important to know and understand your sources.  Understand the motivations of each source and potential biases that might exist.  Ask for additional data or information to validate what you are hearing.  

More information is coming at us than ever before, and this will likely only accelerate in the future of work.  The extent to which leaders can accurately understand information, use data and evidence to arrive at conclusions, and take action on critical priorities will be what separates the most effective 21st Century leaders from the others.  For more information on why we need evidence-based practices in HR, see this article from Science for Work.  


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