Bill Fox

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Numbers. I have a complicated relationship with them. Sometimes I love them. Most of the time though, I despise them. The use of numbers can tell us a great deal about the world. There is a beauty in that they are very simple to understand and comprehend. They are finite, not swayed by one opinion or another.

Throughout my life, I have competed on a worldwide level for many laser tag championships. In these games, the winner is always determined by who has the highest score. It is easy to get sucked into the allure of numbers. The bigger the number, the better my team and I did. Large, outrageous numbers mean we were excellent. That feeling of euphoria is easy to get wrapped up in because it is so simple, clearly laid out in front of your eyes. 5000 is bigger than 4000, so I am clearly better. This feels great! However, over the years, I have learned one very important lesson.

Judging based solely on numbers is for the unimaginative.

Let that sink in for a moment. Judging performance, value or worth based on numbers and metrics is for those who do not take the time to dig deeper. This is where my disdain for numbers comes from. Numbers, themselves, never lie. They are what they are, the end result of a calculation and compilation of a data set, presented to the user to digest. Where the problem lies is that the end results of these “metrics” are often left up to the interpretation of the reader. Numbers are taken at face value and as fact. Little effort is put into understanding how the numbers were calculated or into the data that was used to generate them.

The first lesson I learned as a Doctoral candidate is to always check the source and never accept anything that is simply given to us. Yet, in today’s world, we have become extremely reliant on this method of intake. Straight, short, easy to ingest morsels of information that we can base our decisions on. We use these numbers for everything including company and personal performance. I believe, we can strive to be better.

There are those out there that agree. More and more organizations are shying away from rating employee performance using metrics. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, two of the largest firms on Wall Street, have moved away from metrics to implement an adjective based approach. There is a lot to like about this approach and it makes sense in a rapidly advancing era. You cannot always quantify the contribution an employee has within their team or towards the organization. These numbers stick with the employees all year round, labeling them without acknowledging progress or quality. By moving to an adjective based approach, employees are able to receive more frequent feedback that they will react to more positively. Adjectives provide something personal and relatable, something the individual can hang onto and embrace. Numbers can often feel hollow and never answer the question of “How can I do better?”.

Here’s an exercise to try. Let’s apply a metric based approach to other aspects of life. The next time you are out on a date, whether it is a first date or a regular night out with your significant other, communicate in a number rating. Do not compliment them using adjectives or words of flattery, simply rate everything in the evening on a scale.

“This dinner was about a 5. I’d say the service was about a 4. However, you, my dear, were a solid 7.”
When you are finished cleaning up the drink that was thrown on you, think about how those same standards are applied in the workplace. Instead of an abrupt end to the evening, you will get a team of individuals who are dissatisfied. They may not speak up about it, but they will remember as they start browsing job boards and taking calls from recruiters. You may not hear about it, but you will see it in the team’s morale and communication. Incorporate an adjective approach with recurring feedback and you will see your employees shine. While numbers are easy to love, remember there is far more to dislike about them when it comes to gauging performance.

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