This article was published on May 23, 2014

How to tell if you’ve been blindsided by data

How to tell if you’ve been blindsided by data
David Hassell
Story by

David Hassell

David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that delivers a full suite of integrated tools - David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that delivers a full suite of integrated tools - including continuous employee feedback, objective tracking (OKRs), pulse surveys, and peer recognition. Named "The Most Connected Man You Don't Know in Silicon Valley" by Forbes Magazine, David has also been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc., Wired, Fast Company, and the Financial Post. You can learn more about 15Five and David Hassell at

David Hassell is the CEO of 15Five. This post originally appeared on the 15five blog.

We work in an age where detailed information and data are available across so many areas of our businesses, driving our decisions because the numbers don’t lie. But when it comes to assessing our people, quantitative analysis is only half the story.

The other half of analyzing employee performance and team dynamics involves listening to your employees to hear a story more subtle and complex than the numbers alone can convey. This qualitative analysis provides a complete picture of the health of your people-centered organization.

So how do you evaluate potential and arrest the growing problem of employee attrition? It’s actually pretty simple. You start by asking the right, qualitative questions on a regular basis.

By the numbers

We are addicted to data. We get caught up in dashboards, numbers, and charts — trends that go up and down. These numbers are created by the activities of front-line employees. The managers who evaluate those numbers are often four or five degrees removed from the people who actually influence those metrics.

We look at a dip or rise in revenue and make assumptions and conclusions. We might applaud a boost in revenue without realizing that it was a short-term fluke, the result of cutting off a product that would have resulted in 5x growth six months from now.

Managers often look at these figures in a vacuum instead of taking a step back to see what employee behaviors influenced them. It can be dangerous to run a business this way. We remove the story of what’s going on from the people who are making it all happen.
Guesses can be costly. For example, a company can look at sales figures as a KPI, without taking a step back to look at the quality of demos that were done or the number of customer phone calls. Was productivity low? Take another step back and find out why.

The bigger picture

Americans tend to get caught up in the quantitative — measuring success based on metrics like GDP, output, and production. In contrast the country of Bhutan focuses on GNH, or Gross National Happiness. Admittedly the Bhutanese economy is not a huge output engine. Many of their citizens live in poverty, but as a people they are much happier than we are.

Our happiness is declining despite advances in technology and healthcare, and an elevated standards of living. I am not saying that we should trade production and financial success for happiness, but there is a way to have the best of both worlds.

How do you feel?

Organizational health is a direct result of employee engagement, productivity and satisfaction. There is tremendous value to taking the pulse of your company, and the way that you interact with each person seeds the foundation of strong relationships. Listen to your employees and be present to their needs instead of merely focusing on particular ailments like low output.

In 1998 Daniel Goleman conducted a controversial study linking emotional intelligence to measurable business results. Goleman published his results in a Harvard Business Review Article and explained that “truly effective leaders are… distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

Goleman highly ranked social skills and empathy (understanding the emotional makeup of others) as key indicators of an effective leader.

The difficulty is that this aspect of human interactions has historically been omitted in business. Business people tend to disconnect from their emotions, preventing them from developing the types of strong relationships that make the best teams thrive.

Put the human back in human resources

A Happy Face sits in the middle of a grass lawn in the summer

According to the Society For Human Resource Management, employees crave human interaction. SHRM found that communication between employees and senior management, and relationships with supervisors were among the top five aspects of employee satisfaction.

Today’s successful managers have strong, open, healthy relationships with their employees. Managers who ask authentic considerate questions to each team-member responds directly to their need for relationship, and sends the message that their emotional well-being is important. An employee whose needs are met will be more engaged in their work and far less likely to seek other options.

Ask your team “How do you feel?” or “Where are you challenged?” You can get valuable information like, “I am stressed because we re-oriented departmental procedures and it feels like there are still gaping holes in our new process”, or “I am getting run down and can’t do my best work.” You can then respond to employee needs before they get out of hand.

Bad news travels slowly

The other advantage to being asked a question is that employees feel safe to report difficult truths to management, who can take the necessary steps to avoid a breakdown. Quantitative analysis is beneficial because data can clue you in to a potential problem. If production is down or customer complaints are on the rise, that is your cue to find out more.

You get blindsided when you don’t know the whole story and quantitative data can’t always get you to the bottom of an issue. Having a culture that isn’t afraid of sharing or receiving bad news is a sure-fire way to surface issues before they become problems that require expensive reaction

Time and again, companies that hold transparency high as a value have proven in many situations to avoid costly and dangerous disasters.

The quantitative by itself only provides half the picture, but if you have conversations early enough, so much can be addressed before breakdown. When people can share openly because they don’t feel that their jobs are at risk, managers learn where they are struggling beyond their capacity and become aware of the things that need improvement.

It is far better to see this coming than to scramble to deal with fallout through extra pain, extra work, retrenching, or even losing the business.

To paraphrase the Scottish poet Andrew Lang, don’t use data as a drunken man uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination. Without supplementing the numbers with context, you are just guessing about the future of your company. Start asking questions now or give up the opportunity to create a company of thriving individuals and financial success.

When was the last time that you were blindsided by an employee? Please share your story in the comments below.

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