I love data and information and insights. I enjoy good statistics (and sneer at crappy statistics). I am routinely frustrated with the line of argumentation that begins and ends with how somebody feels about something.
One of my former bosses insisted that we bring data to any argument or recommendation. He also coached us by saying, “Data beats no data 98% of the time.” He recognized the power of data but knew that data doesn’t sway the decision.
I’ve learned it’s even worse than that – sometimes emphasizing data backfires.
Personal example from a conversation held shortly after the mass murder shooting attacks in Las Vegas:
[My European friend, who is a Six Sigma black belt at another company]: “America has too many guns and so many mass murderers! It must be stopped. You need to get rid of the guns.”
[Me]: “Let’s do some math. Based on our population, six sigma for producing people who are not mass murderers would mean 1032 mass murderers in the USA. So we’re actually more like eight sigma at producing people who are not mass murderers. Of course, even one mass murderer is awful. But as a country we’re very good at producing good people and good citizens. Plus, consider the hundreds of millions of legally-owned guns and available ammunition. If the guns were the root cause of the problem then we’d have a proportional set of murders and gun violence – which we clearly don’t.”
[My European friend]: “You have no heart and must think all these victims deserved what they got! … <rant continues without ever addressing my math>”
<he hangs up on me after expressing his dismay at my redneck mindset>
I can only imagine the look on his face when he heard me calmly explain why the USA is eight sigma in producing non-mass-murderers, rather than acknowledge the outrage of what happened in Las Vegas. One mistake I made: assuming a Six Sigma Black Belt would resonate with data. That’s not always going to be the case.
Next time this comes up I need to use a different approach:
- Don’t start with data.
- Start with recognizing his emotional perspective.
- Work from the common ground forward (mass murders are horrible!), adding in data along the lines of “what could we do, and would it make a difference, and what are the unintended consequences to consider?”
- Calmly sustain a dialogue, rather than pouring kerosene on polarized shouting matches. Avoid demonizing one side or the other.
This is hard work, but I don’t see any useful progress with comfortable shouting matches.
One final thought: Only certain levels of leadership roles will ever be open to you if you are unwilling to examine data, even data you don’t initially like. Leaders must appreciate feelings, emotions, and history, because leadership is a people business. History shows us how bad things can get when leaders make decisions exclusively out of feelings and intuition.