Evidence-based revenge - the new magic words in management

17 July 2017 -

EvidenceEvidence-based management is the new way to start change (or stop it in its tracks)

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

So management is about to bring about some radical changes that will affect you seriously. More accountability, more work, more stress. How to react and stop them making your (comfortable) life a misery?

Or perhaps you are a manager tasked to turn around a backward, going-nowhere organisation that has resisted all changes that might increase its competitiveness and profitability. How to persuade the intransigent, sour and sullen workers to try a new strategy?

Over the years various groups in the workplace have been able to prevent all sorts of progress by learning to use several ambiguous but powerful concepts. There are some magical phrases that can be uttered and appear to stop people in their tracks.

People-of-the-light know they cannot win against the ‘forces of darkness’ because everything is stacked against them when the all-powerful words are spoken.

What are these powerful magic phrases?

Security Reasons: No need to elaborate here. Just look very serious, mutter about cyber-crime, terrorists and the involvement of MI5 and you usually stop people trying any further.

Data Protection: This is a good one because most people know little of the law or issues about data collection or storage. Imply it is serious legal issue.

Health and Safety: This is an old favourite, but still immensely useful. The rise of American-style litigation lawyers, happy to take on the Army and the NHS among others, has terrified companies easily cowed by this term.

European Legislation: This has a lot of traction because although everyone despises it, the “correct” response is a sort of furious fatalism. Everyone can be seen to oppose this “monstrous, undemocratic, petty…..blah blah” set of impositions, but feel obliged to support it.

Ethical Considerations: This is a great one….words like ‘social clearance’ can be mentioned and people can be made to feel like criminal child molesters if they dare to enquire further.

And now there is a new kid on the block. This new phrase has real power because it invokes science, not just bureaucratic meddling. Step forward “evidence-based” whatever.

A real winner, because it can be used to invoke change as well as prevent it. You can challenge the way things are currently done as well as confront those about to bring in a new policy.

We used to have only evidence-based science, then along came evidence-based management. The idea has begun to catch on. The temptation is to go further and have some fun.

Let us start with evidence-based cookery. The glut of celebrity chef cooking programmes contain the least evidence-based information you can imagine. The chef claims “the bay leaf makes all the difference”; “never use cheap wine for this recipe”; “you can easily substitute X for Y”. They make these claims and then go on to taste their own concoctions with a disbelieving smugness and appetitive glee. Not a hint of evidence there to support ingredient and recipe sales.

But we all know that on blind tasting most people can’t even distinguish red and white wine; brandy from whisky; apple varieties from one another (even apples from pears). So evidence-based cookery does not mean “here is one I made earlier”, but the production of two or three “mixtures” or “preparations”.

One has “magic ingredient X that makes all the difference ”, the other a cheap substitute and the third nothing. Cook and give to a group of testers. If they all claim the X dish is better you have some proof. Evidence to underpin the confident assertion.

The great beauty of the evidence-based objection is that it can shock people into trying to defend some idea or principle that they have held dear for years but for which they have no evidence whatsoever. They may have “benchmarked others”. Meaning they have blindly followed the crowd and can’t prove a thing.

How about the relationship between job satisfaction and productivity? Which drives which, and what else plays a part? Or how about job engagement being the key to an organisation’s productivity?

Maybe all that theoretical stuff is too abstract. The evidence-based approach is best used when organisations are not being very honest.

Take, for instance, the move to open-plan offices. This is done, almost always, simply for economic reasons: more desks per square metre. The Dilbertisation of the office that goes from office, to cubicle, to smaller cubicle, to work bench.

Employees are told the move is done to improve communication among staff, which will lead to improved morale and thence productivity. The evidence, pray?

What about some hot topics? “There is little or no correlation between senior executive pay and productivity”, or “No quality people would apply to an institution if the pay were not competitive”.

The evidence-based approach is expensive and time consuming. It usually involves that old friend, the double-blind, randomised, controlled study. It is said that it may take a £1 million properly to test the claims of some practitioners of alternative therapy. Or, better, the diet gurus. All diets fail because most people discontinue them after a while. Lifestyle changes work, diets fail.

The evidence-based objection is a trump card for stopping any unwelcome initiative in its tracks.

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