“Actually,” It’s Not (All) Data


It’s tough to surprise me at work.

In twenty-something years leading people, I’ve learned that no matter how unique it feels at any time, at work I’m part of a universal human experience.

In the last five years, I’ve encountered a few moments of true surprise.  Notably, when smart, nice people meet anonymous feedback?  The result can be unexpected.  In a not-good way.

When we use a performance management processes to help people to grow and do a better job at work, it’s a beautiful thing.

When our process is a weed-out, people rationalization, we might create a mean-reverting machine.  It might be toxic.

Today, in some workplaces, people are asked to use an app to record little bits of real-time reaction to their peers’ “performance.”

So, imagine Brian talks over Jessica in a meeting.   Then, she zings him on the app.

Or, Jessica is late with her contribution to a project.   So Melissa and Edwin register their displeasure.  On their phones.

Then, we call their entries “data,” and abstract a measure we call performance.  This elevates our work to a science.  Right?

Show me the control.

And show me how we account for Brian having stumbled into work after he spent the night on a chair outside the NICU, where his premature baby is struggling.

Or, how we factor in the inexperience of the manager who assigned Jessica to work on a project she’s unprepared for.

And how Jessica, Melissa and Edwin’s input is vetted for accuracy.  Whether they’ve been trained to give feedback.

How the tool accounts for an entry made in anger or frustration, vs. a thoughtful gem.

It’s not data.   It’s not an experiment.  And it’s not science.

I recently saw Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film The Stanford Prison Experiment.

Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo created a faux prison in a Stanford basement.  He randomly assigned roles to paid undergraduates:  guards or prisoners.

The “experiment” was cut off after a few days.

First, the research team (which included grad students and an ex-convict) assigned themselves roles as wardens and parole board members.  Then, they became part of a toxic power structure.

If you’re a manager of any tenure, you’ve probably been a guard at some point.   And you’ve probably also been a prisoner.

A recent NY Times story on Amazon was a brutal indictment of the company.  Front and center:  anonymous feedback and its misuses.

Of eleventy billion internet reactions to this story, two floated to the top for me.  CEO Jeff Bezos doesn’t recognize his own company.  Former Amazon employee Julia Cheiffetz does.   Her conclusion:

In the absence of meaningful public data …all we have are stories.

Amazon is a 150,000 person company.   Times reporters talked with 100 people — many, anonymously.  Commenters on the Times article claim to be firing Amazon.

Hashtag, irony.

Cheiffetz, Times reporters, Bezos…I’d bet that there’s truth in all of these stories.

Photo: Fort Monmouth Environmental Testing Laboratory, by US Army Environmental Command, via Flickr, under Creative Commons 2.0 license

The Money Value of Time

Screen shot 2014-12-03 at 8.04.25 AM1:1 meetings at work.   Pretty mundane.  “Waste of time” activity.  Trivial.


Unless “Time is money.”

An incomplete notion.

You can’t earn time.  You can’t win it, borrow it, or compound it.

Lose it, you’ll never get it back.  Not so mundane in real life.

Time is more valuable than money.

And, as it turns out, not really trivial at the office.

Let’s do the math.   To avoid confusing myself, I’ll keep the numbers dead simple.

  • 1 manager, with 5 direct reports.
  • Bi-weekly 1:1 meetings with each team member.
  • Meetings last an hour.

That’s a chunk of your manager’s time, if she’s preparing/following up at all.  5-10%.

Or, conservatively value everyone’s time at $50 an hour.

  • 25 weeks a year X 10 hours X $50 = $12,500/manager
  • 5 managers, 25 team members = $62,500
  • Consider opportunity cost.  How do your people’s jobs involve generating revenue, or affecting user/customer experience?

So, not trivial.   You want to leverage everyone’s investment.   Here are a few guidelines.

Have an agenda centered around people’s formal goals, and take notes.  A key purpose of 1:1 meetings is knowing whether people are meeting their goals:  come into the meeting with a standard supporting agenda.

Where does someone stand?  Have they met a significant goal, or made fantastic progress?   Now’s the time to say, “Good job.”

If they’re struggling, what’s going on?   A manager adds value by helping people to move around barriers, and providing support for people to reach their goals.

This might be by giving feedback, by smoothing a cross functional communication, or by helping to prioritize.   It also includes checking in on professional development goals.

Do take notes.   (Not on your phone.)   This demonstrates active listening, and your notes can be extremely helpful when performance review time rolls around.

Create space for open conversation.   Once you’ve covered goals, use the power of open-ended questions to learn, and go deeper.

“How can I help you to do your job better?” enables people to ask for help.  “How can we make this meeting more effective?” builds relationship.

These and other questions can also set the stage for people to give their managers feedback, in a lower-stakes setting.   If a manager is truly listening!

Make 1:1 meetings face to face — or video conference.  You want to communicate, and to build relationship.   All kinds of research indicates that our words are only part of the picture.   Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice are all key.

Stow your technology.  Seriously.   What kind of interruption is truly necessary in the 30-60 minute confines of a 1:1?   A push notification that someone posted a joke to #random?

Unless your spouse may possibly go into labor (etc.), turn off your phone and anything else that might “ping.”   (Here’s why, via Scientific American.)

Now, this post was inspired by a brief exchange in comments over at Brittany Laughlin’s blog.

Brittany commented, “…it’s especially hard to get feedback…since there are only two people in the room.”

Yes.  Setting expectations that people will use a regular agenda is helpful.  Ideally, HR Chiefs and/or senior leaders would keep tabs on this.

Founders and senior leaders need to remember:  your people will mirror your behavior.   That’s how culture operates

Maybe you don’t have weekly 1:1s with the managers on your team.   Behave the way you want your people to behave with your team members on the front line.  In case you didn’t take this in earlier:  put your phone away, and really listen.

My guidelines are suggestions.   Time tested, they’re solid.  Maybe they don’t quite fit your situation.

What’s important:   have guidelines, communicate them, and train your people to use them.

Maybe you think it sounds stupid to train your managers to have 1:1 meetings.

Sadly, having seen organizations where this did not happen, I can tell you that it is exactly the opposite of stupid.

The only way to “leverage” time is to use it well.

Photo:  save-in-time, by DaveBleasdale via Flickr, under Creative Commons license