A Defense (of a sort) of Metrics

21 Feb

Written by Mark Hirschfeld and Leigh Branham

This post was originally published as a guest post by our friends Jason Lauritsen and Joe Gerstandt at Talent Anarchy. Do check out their web site for the entire chain of discussion on this important topic.


This message begins with a disclosure: We earn a great deal of our living helping collect, analyze and create metrics for employers across the United States.

We’re data guys.

You could call us data nerds or data geeks or data commandos and our feelings wouldn’t be hurt one bit. You are certainly welcome to keep this in mind as we respond to the remarks of Joe Gerstandt and Jason Lauritsen and their recent tête-à-tête at Talent Anarchy.

Jason and Joe have offered us a refreshingly candid discussion around a very important question, that being the use of metrics in the effort to build great workplaces. We’re grateful for the opportunity to weigh in on this topic.

Over 110 years ago a German physicist, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, brought radiography, or what we more commonly call x-rays, into practical use. The technology, as it was initially designed, had major flaws. For one, in the case of its use as a diagnostic tool in medicine, it creates a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object. Because of this weakness there are times when the radiographic picture is inaccurate. There is distortion. The image on a flat x-ray cannot accurately represent the length and width and girth of our body. Early applications of x-rays hurt patients, as well-intended medical researchers slowly lurched the technology forward.

Mark once read that what we know about predicting human behavior is roughly equivalent to medicine in the Middle Ages. That might be a bit dramatic, but it makes an important point—our ways of measuring things like employee engagement are still in their infancy. How we go about measuring human-related “stuff” isn’t as good as it should be right now.

But we’ll get better at it, and we think it’s worth the effort.

There are some crappy metrics out there and metrics being used in the wrong way. Profit, for example, may not always be seen by all as the most worthy goal, though it is highly measurable.  What is more worthy is creating something of value that employees feel good about, and feeling engaged in the creation of it.  The irony is that by initiating and tracking progress on the people metrics, the mystery of how to increase profits is often revealed.  Too many leaders just don’t get it that engagement, for example, is not a program or gold watch or “billion-business-book-of-the-month-club”. It is a leading indicator of customer service, profitability, and value creation…and that the building blocks of employee engagement can be measured in several ways.  Progress doesn’t have to mean “always more,” but it can mean “always better”.

In our travels we’ve met those who use metrics as a sledge hammer, seemingly thinking that employee engagement is about getting one more morsel of flesh out of employees. They may get their pound of flesh, but they’ll never get the sustainable business results for which they pine. One of our favorite horror stories is about an executive who heard that a “great workplace” used green M&M’s as a way of celebrating with employees when the company had a success. This executive decided to bring green M&M’s into his company as a way of creating a more engaged workplace. He was bitterly disappointed that a year later his employees still didn’t think it was good place to work. This ignoramus didn’t understand that the green M&M’s at this company he had read about were a symbol behind which there was significant substance, most importantly a remarkable culture that had been built and nurtured over many years. The best metrics in the world won’t save this dope from himself, nor his company from languishing.

We also have some folks out there, in some cases well-intended, who don’t understand how to use human capital metrics properly and, as a result, make a general mess of things. We often do a horrible job of helping leaders understand how to use tools and resources available to help them be more effective serving and supporting the workplaces they have the privilege to lead.

There are some things we may not ever be able to measure. We may not be able to measure honesty, compassion, and courage, but we can measure the results that those traits produce–lower voluntary turnover, lower quit rates, fewer grievances filed, more internal job progressions allowed, more customers returning more frequently and referring their friends, more managers coaching (often confronting), recognizing (more often) and giving constructive feedback, more new employees being hired through referrals from happier, more engaged employees–all measures of not just more, but of better places to work that do indeed serve as measures of progress toward becoming a remarkable workplace. 

Many of us dream of a world of work that is different than what most now experience. We hope for a workplace where leaders actually give a damn about the people in their employ. Wouldn’t it be great:

  • If a CEO was notified by employees that a new product offering “embarrassed them”, that the CEO took those concerns seriously and immediately changed the product because he always wanted his employees to take pride in their work and their company?
  • A company, in the midst of difficult times, encouraged and helped their employees find new jobs if they couldn’t get them enough hours in their current job?
  • Terminated employees who were a poor fit for a job would feel so positive about their work experience that they would refer family and friends to their former employer?
  • An employer would have such a strong, caring, engaging culture, that when they were forced to have layoffs that all their former employees willingly returned when the economy turned around?
  • An executive team would freely give up their employer funded 401(k) match so that money could be distributed to entry-level employees who participated in the company retirement program?

These aren’t dreams or hopes. Each of these is true.

They come from employers we have had the pleasure of learning about through our research. There may not be many of these places, but they do exist. We wish there were more, and one goal in writing Re-Engage was to inspire other employers that creating and maintaining an engaging workplace can be achieved and that the sometimes arduous, frequently challenging journey is worth it.

There are remarkable leaders out there like the ones we profile, who are doing remarkable things in the world of work. They care deeply. They have compassion and love in their hearts. And along with their hearts, they also have a passion for making sure they’re measuring how well they’re doing in their efforts to create and maintain a great place to work.  

To them this is not an either-or, false-choice proposition— either they care about folks or they care about metrics. With every fiber that is in them they embrace this paradox and care about both.

To them, engagement survey results or other metrics are just like the x-ray. They are crude two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional living organism called an employer. These leaders use metrics as a way to start a discussion with employees, not as the final answer. They use metrics to support having an honest conversation with a supervisor who isn’t captivating and inspiring her/his employees. They use metrics to inform their gut instinct, not replace it. They use metrics as a guide in making important decisions, not the final word.

One company we’ve worked with achieved a significant year-over-year increase in the results of the employee engagement survey we conduct. The increases were in areas like breaking down unnecessary silos that got in the way of employees working together and having managers who were perceived as more open and honest in their communication with employees. Employees felt more appreciated when they contributed to the success of the business, and perceptions that senior leadership truly cared about building a great workplace were on the rise. These survey results came from efforts on the part of a leadership team that has devoted themselves for over two years to build a more engaging workplace.

They also had one of their best years financially in a long time.

To them, and us, their financial success is not coincidental. These leaders did not achieve this by luck or chance. By thoughtfully and patiently building a great workplace their financial success was, in our view, an inevitable, even natural, result.

No metric we can create or conceive can turn a poor leader from wreaking pain, havoc and agony with every step they take to the employees who fall in their path. But the right metrics used in the right way in the hands of caring leaders can achieve much.

(pic courtesy http://www.sxc.hu/photo/565371)

One Response to “A Defense (of a sort) of Metrics”

  1. Eddie Colbeth February 23, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    Thanks for the great post! It’s unfortunate that by and large the leaders and companies that could really use a tool like this, either won’t use it or would abuse it. I see this pattern everywhere. People who are horrible at personal intercommunications rarely take a class on it, but people with decent to great skills would take the class.

    You can’t force a person or a company to be introspective, though I wish I knew a way to help hem see the light so to speak.

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