Why Being Data-Driven Should Scare You!

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard the phrase ‘data-driven’ lately, right now I would be cruising happily along in a Tesla headed towards my early retirement home by the beach.  And without being rude, I am sure that is exactly what a whole host of consultants are hoping will be their reality soon, funded by the recent preoccupation with data analytics and business intelligence. 

Before I dive in though with why I think we should all be very concerned with being data-driven, first let me clarify that I am a performance management professional and believe wholeheartedly in the importance of meaningful measures and decisions founded on evidence.  I am also passionate about understanding correlations and causations discovered by bringing a scientific approach to data.  This is truly exciting work, and I completely understand why there is so much invested effort in this area.

However, if you have read any of my previous articles in The 3rd Edge, you know my greatest concern is when there is a sole focus and short-sighted preoccupation with activities on one side of the coin.  There are always consequences for ignoring the opposite perspective and becoming unbalanced. I fear that businesses solely focusing on being data-driven is one of these situations and that the risks may be dire for all the people they seek to serve.

First, let’s reflect on what the words data-driven driven means. At their most basic, data is facts and statistics.  They are tangible and verifiable numbers representing the way people think or behave.  The definition of driven means to be:

operated, moved, or controlled by a specified source of power.

Driven | Definition of Driven by Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com also meaning of Driven

And this definition is the source of my discomfort.  By being data-driven, companies are declaring that they are handing decision-making control to facts and statistics.  They are relinquishing power to figures and analytics.  It is verifiable data, tangible ‘truth’ or reliable projections that move the company, determining the direction, intensity and speed of action.  It is the data that determines how best to serve the employees, customers and stakeholders.

For me, this is incredibly scary, because decisions on service and value are being made using only one half of the intelligence that humans have been endowed with.  With its extensive cognitive capabilities, our brain is truly awesome and combined with thorough statistical analysis we have at our fingertips a powerhouse of logic that can be applied to solve the worlds greatest problems.  However, our brain is only one half of the picture.  We have another magnificent seat of intelligence whose power is being ignored and wasted – that is the intelligence of the heart. I am not alone in this view.  Here is Jim Hemerling (BCG Managing Director & Senior Partner) last year expressing his concern over the neglect of the heart in business:

“People, working as individuals or as teams, are the lifeblood, literally the heart [of an organisation], and yet we’ve seen that the heart is most often neglected.”[1].

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

When Jim speaks of the heart, he refers to practices that create an environment of psychological safety (driven by compassion and empathy) and those that inspire people, create and encourage the sharing of joy.  He discusses how to foster feelings that benefit both the wellbeing of individuals and the performance of the organisation. He is hinting at employing the wisdom and the gift that are our emotions.

But wait I hear you say, our emotions are not to be trusted.  They are the antithesis of logical, tangible and evidence-based data.  I hear you mounting the argument that emotions are for the HR department to deal with.  My next question to you then is, why do emotions scare you?  What is it about emotions that you are afraid of?

Because by dismissing the power of emotions, you may have just used fear to decide what you will do in the future.  And therefore you have just confirmed my next point.  Emotions are used in decisions whether you like it or not.  Wouldn’t it be smarter to be aware of them and how they may be impacting upon you?

Research has found that up to 95% of all of our actions throughout the day are subconscious.[2].  That is astounding!  We are completely unaware of what is coming into play in our decision-making process. We like to think it all logical and reasonable and mechanical, but what we see occurring is just the tip of the iceberg of our thought and behavioural processes.  Moreover, it is our emotions that are the direct mediator between our thoughts and our actions.  How emotions are the driver of behaviour is made clear in the model of cognitive behaviour shown below. 

The Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Model

Therefore even without our knowing, every action, every decision first passes through some emotional check.  The action is either taken because it is supported by a ‘positive’ emotion such as confidence, safety, comfort, happiness or inspiration or it is driven by a ‘negative’ emotion such as fear, anger or sadness.

In reality, though, each of these emotions, be it ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ hold great wisdom for us.  They provide crucial information and invaluable messages about where we need to learn and grow.  Our emotional response to the data provides the second half of the picture about how it can provide real business intelligence.  Here is the list of basic emotions and what they can teach us as proposed by another Jim, this time Jim Dethmer, as outlined in his book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership.

EmotionMessageAction to Grow
AngerSomething is no longer of service and must be changed to make way for something better.Elimination of the old belief, behaviour, or relationship to make way for new and better ways. Boundaries need to be established or enforced. Without giving an explanation, learn just to say “no.”
FearSomething important needs to be faced or learnt.Become fully present and aware of what is going on for you.  You will need to pay full attention and learn a new skill or behaviour.
SadnessSomething needs to be let go of. Something meaningful is going away. You need to stop denying reality.Let go of a role, dream, behaviour or relationship that is no longer helpful for you.
HappinessSomething or someone needs to be celebrated or appreciated.Take time to celebrate yourself, others or something that you have witnessed. Allow yourself to experience full internal wellbeing.
Sexual FeelingsIt is time for new ideas, creativity and innovation.Build upon your ideas and put them into action.  Create something unique to you.

Let’s work through an example of how emotions help improve our intelligence.  Say you are presented with the latest sales projections for your new product line.  They are far from the great results you were hoping for and seem to confirm the likelihood that this new project will be a flop.  Immediately you feel anger arising.  You feel like yelling at someone and blaming every other department for their failings.  You are ropable!  You scour through the data looking for answers – is there a segment that may show some hope and that you can target better?  Is there one segment that brings the others down and that you can jettison from the marketing program?  You pivot the data every which way and decide to up the marketing budget on a few promising segments and cut back on others.    

Sure, you can react to the data, but what is going on here?  If you would stop and listen, your anger is giving you a really important message.  Depending on the context, it may be telling you that your old ways of product development are no longer effective and need to be reviewed.  Maybe it is telling you that the old belief you had that you were the ‘golden boy (or girl)’ of product development is not sustainable.  Maybe it tells you that clearer boundaries or gates in the development process need to be established so this failure does not happen again.

Here is another example, close to our current reality, thanks to Covid-19. The team’s latest progress reports show that productivity has increased with the work-from-home arrangements and that the vast majority of team members want these arrangements to continue.  Despite the data suggesting this initiative is a great success, you can’t help but notice feelings of both fear and sadness. You are afraid that the team will lose cohesion and fall apart.  And you are sad because you enjoy the social aspect of work and the clear identify you have standing in front of a team of people.

The fear could be alerting you that you need to learn how to manage hybrid teams and be alert to the greater attention you will need to pay to build cohesion.  Your managerial role will not be the same, and so you need to be present with your anxiety and step up to the mark to support the new working arrangements. Your sadness may be calling you to face the reality that the work environment is insufficient to meet your social needs. Perhaps the sadness is showing you that you need to let go of the role of being a helicopter manager, in touch with and top of your teams every action.

Only relying on the data means you would miss the wisdom that resides in your own heart. Depending only on the information outside of you robs you of the insight that is within you. While you may or may not present your emotions and meaning to the Chairman, you would be foolish to ignore this intelligence that you hold within your heart. 

Photo by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash

To engage this wisdom, perhaps when reviewing any data, there could be two questions you can ask:

  1. What is this data telling me?
  2. How do I feel about this data?

I truly believe that we have so much power and wisdom within us, but we have forgone the intangible, meaningful and mysterious for the safety and security of data.  While I would not want any business to run solely on the heart’s intelligence, I am dismayed with how many businesses and their leaders choose to ignore it.

What would your CEO or Director-General say if they knew that you had only used half of the information available to you to make the decision you are asking them to ratify?  By being data-driven and ignoring the wisdom of the heart, that is exactly what you are doing.

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

And if you believe Minouche Shafik, director of The London School of Economics, the transition to bringing the heart into business is inevitable.  The question is whether you are brave enough to lead the charge, or whether your organisation will be the losing laggard on the path to exceptional decision making.

“In the past jobs were about muscles, now they are about brains, but in the future, they’ll be about the heart.”[3]

Like any technology, the development of business analytics and AI tools provide a spectacular opportunity.  They free our time from the head work of data processing and analysis so we can more deeply engage with the heart. They deliver the opportunity for us to become more, and not less, human.  I truly believe that bringing together the head and the heart is also how we can deliver exceptional value to those we serve.  It is the third way that joins the strengths of the opposites so that we can fully and holistically care for ourselves and all those around us.  Seeing the data through our emotions’ lens creates a beautiful meeting ground of our head and our heart.  It is the combined and ultimate power of the head and the heart that I would love businesses to be driven by!

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” ~Jung


[1] https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/leadership-post-covid-19?utm_medium=Email&utm_source=esp&utm_campaign=covid&utm_description=leadership_by_design&utm_topic=none&utm_geo=global&utm_content=202101&utm_usertoken=CRM_3d13a71e4c27d3f0828019c04868b73d6d34ae52

[2] US News & World Report presented a special issue February 28, 2005, entitled, The Secret Mind, featuring an article, How Your Unconscious Really Shapes Your Decisions.

[3] As quoted in Dare to Lead by Brene Brown, 2019, Vermillion

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