Stop Nerfing your Team, Invite them to the Data Party
October 3, 2022
“Whoever is careless with truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.”
― Albert Einstein
We have all or know someone who has been at the blunt end of a scathing comment, quickly followed up with, “I’m just being honest.” While sometimes these observations come from the point of care, the qualifier seldom makes us feel better about ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we started to view uninvited feedback about folks as always beneficial. The comment “that campaign wasn’t received well” is certainly not the same as “you really blew this one” in delivery or context. Nor does it convey the same thing. Blunt interpretations don’t mean you are being helpful.
Part of operational leadership is making data accessible to your followers. Sharing your perceptions of context is being honest – it’s a simple look at how you process information. However, those operations have been taken through the filters and models of the assessor. It doesn’t adhere to the unaltered facts. To make things accessible and straightforward, leaders share their conclusion instead of their process. This robs the leader’s team of seeing how data is being filtered and analyzed by the leader’s decision-making process. Followers become receivers and implementers of conclusions, not followers of a leader’s vision and values. They become mercenaries, driven by personal, sometimes conflicting, motivations and not connected by a common goal, a familiar leader. By filtering the facts, you have filtered their contribution to the cause.
Building momentum around the common goal requires taking an authentic look at the team’s context and what needs to be done in that environment. Part of being authentic is sharing the realities of the work. Every valid data point lives within a complex web of other facts and data points. While leaders may feel they are helping their team by taking and filtering that data out of context, it limits the team’s impact. They lose the ability to wrestle with the data and its implications in that context. Every data point can influence a particular activity. With every step, there is a risk. By filtering the data before it reaches your folks, your team is flying blind, unaware of the dangers they would have seen in the filtered data. Your data analysis as a leader may be accurate, but it is likely incomplete. That incompleteness is detrimental to your team.
Many leaders attempt to share their perceptions and views with their teams with analogies. The VC world sells this by becoming the “uber for sock” and “netflix for cat videos,” etc. Strategy by analogy is an accessible tool. People can generally make a connection with something they know. However, every context and organization has its own nuances that are lost in the comparison. The analogy tends to focus on the things in common, not the essential elements that make them different. Strategy by analogy can be a helpful tool but doesn’t always paint an honest picture of what leadership wants to see as a deliverable outcome. The team considers the customer experience, and the administration sees the efficiency. All parties get mad that they are using the exact words and speaking the same language. They both are like Uber but in very different ways.
Instead of leading by analogy or pre-filtering data for your team, here are some ways to invite your folks into data exploration and solution-building processes.
- Build expectations around the facts – It can be easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of data points in any given environment. You are paying attention to all the details. The benefit of the team approach is that you don’t have to notice every data point. Your team can help collectively filter the data by leveraging their unique expertise. The issue then isn’t what data should be filtered but to what end it should be filtered. By setting clear expectations and desirable outcomes from decisions, you empower your team to find solutions. Equip your team by giving them access to the data they need and the directions they require to contribute meaningfully to the mission. Trust them to be the experts. Leaders transition from data filters to problem framers and equippers.
- Define the rules – Even when all are moving toward a collective mission, there will always be myriad ways to achieve the goal. Ensure your team knows what activities are expected, preferred, or undesired. Your team needs to know if implementation timelines or brand guidelines should be prioritized. Because you have rallied around an objective, you cannot assume that the processes for every individual are the same toward that end. Be clear in both expectations and reasons for those expectations. Setting the cultural and solution standards up front will make the governance of the data exploration all that much easier.
- Find ways to win – Mapping out desired and direct results from your team’s activities will help them know if they are making progress in the right direction or not. Suppose the goal of a project is to maximize customer satisfaction, but the only metric used for the team is conversion rate. In that case, there is a disconnect between the actions that must be taken and how success is viewed. Any particular outcomes should be isolated and validated for the team. Otherwise, leadership risks motivating team members into actions that don’t align with the mission.
- Invite the uncertainty – Many leaders feel like they must shield their team from uncertainty. That they must put on a confident and convincing presence at all times. The reality is that the world is messy, and organizations are constantly in flux. Don’t shy away from the turbulence. In fact, invite it. Bring your team together because decisions are often multi-faceted, data is often inconclusive, and objectives are often at odds. That’s reality. Don’t confuse clarity in objectives with clarity in action. Train your team to leverage their expertise in uncertainty, focusing on how they can isolate key aspects of chaos to find value. Help them find the small ways forward amid uncertainty.
- Clarify accessibility to the mission – People still make decisions contrary to desired or expected outcomes, even in the most explicit and prescriptive contexts. As the leader, it is your responsibility to figure out why. There are many reasons a team member might not take the action you wanted: fear of getting it wrong, uncertainty about the authority to act, lack of resources, personal situations, etc. Regardless of the preventive measure, the condition is accurate enough to the individual to cause them not to act in alignment with the goal. The team member is not leaning into their potential. Help figure out what is blocking them and get them back on a track that is best for them and the team.
Adherence to a truthful assessment of where you are is paramount to effective teams. Leaders can have authentic conversations with their team about where they are, but that doesn’t require a biased interpretation of facts. Invite your team members to assess the facts themselves. That will let you know how they process that information and help the whole team realign. Leaders must be honest in their assessments but honestly need not be limiting or rude. It can be freeing, allowing your team to find all the morsels of value presented in the data. Be honest with your team, so they can help build an honest evaluation of what you are facing.