The danger of focusing on numbers

Jan 27 2004 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

We hear it all the time: “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” Unfortunately, this philosophy ignores the intangibles in human nature.

Instead, society has become obsessed with assigning a numerical value to everything. We watch statistical trends in weather and make predictions about global warming. We increase the number of dollars spent in education and expect student learning to improve. We track salespeople’s closing ratios and then encourage them to sell more by seeing more people.

In each case we make an assumption that correlation implies causation. Any statistician worth his salt will tell you otherwise, yet these nasty beliefs persist.

Maybe–just maybe–the sun is putting out 0.05% more heat lately and we’re feeling the effects through a rise in temperatures. It won’t matter how much we manage greenhouse gases, if the sun burns hotter, we’ll feel the effects.

Maybe–just maybe–parents aren’t as involved with their children’s education as they were 40 years ago, and we’re seeing the effect through lower test scores. It won’t matter how much money we throw at education, if children are not receiving support at home, they’re going to find school more difficult.

And maybe a salesperson just doesn’t understand buying signals from his clients and we see the effect through lower-than-average sales. It won’t matter how many people he sees; if he doesn’t understand buying signs he’s not going to do well in sales.

In the business realm, effectiveness and efficiency can often be the result of factors beyond that which can be measured.

I say it’s time we look more at the intangibles.

Take management skills, for example. The standard answer for helping someone be a better manager is sending him or her to more management training. Yes, that can help, but what if an intangible exists, such as a manager with a high level of insecurity?

Insecurity is an intangible. It resides in every person – some more, some less – it’s just not something we usually test for or assign a number to. When very insecure people get put in management positions, bad decisions are made out of self-protection and the results can be frustrating for all concerned.

Do measurements exist for insecurity? Sure, but usually through a licensed therapist’s assessments, and unfortunately we often attach an ugly stigma on someone seeking such professional help, so we avoid the help.

Emotional intelligence is also an intangible. High emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to acknowledge and value feelings in the self and others and to appropriately respond to them. EQ is vital for lubricating relationship gears, but so far, unlike the ubiquitous IQ test, no one has come up with a viable EQ test. Besides, IQ tests are often illegal to use when hiring or promoting people, so I doubt that any EQ test would garner any quick acceptance.

But according to Daniel Goleman, author of the best selling book Emotional Intelligence, EQ can be learned. Largely, the skills cannot be measured, but that should not stop us from studying them. After all, high emotional intelligence helps make a workplace more effective and efficient. The problem is we struggle getting our mental arms around the mechanics of EQ.

The bottom line is that too often we look at results and attribute them to incorrect causes. Because we want something easier to understand, we focus too much on the measurable. Yet just like global warming, school grades, and the sales game, it is the intangibles of management that may be the biggest factors of all.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. He’s also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence