What is Performance DNA?
Much like any living organism, organizations have blueprints or codes...
I learned a long time ago that there are certain things you just don’t discuss in the workplace. At the top of that list is politics. In fact, I actively avoid discussing my own political positions, although I have had more than a few coworkers over the years try to coax them out of me. I even had a couple make some very interesting assumptions about where I might stand based on nothing more than my outward appearance and where I grew up. Regardless of how right (or wrong) those guesses might have been, those experiences helped me realize that some people just love to talk about politics. To those folks I must apologize because I’m not going to talk about politics here. What I am going to do, however, is comment on politicians in general and use them to illustrate a very important point that applies to how we run our businesses.
Watching the current election year discourse, it is interesting that both the left and the right can look at the exact same piece of data and come to completely different conclusions about it. One side sees the number 23 on some metric and says it is ‘proof’ that X plan is working. Meanwhile the other side sees the same number on the same metric and uses it to ‘prove’ that the architects of such plan have no idea what they’re doing. We see these discussions on everything from education to the economy to the environment. One number means one thing to one side, and the exact opposite to the other. We can even see both sides claim victory on the exact same Supreme Court ruling. It would almost be amusing if it wasn’t for the impact these creative interpretations can have on people’s lives.
The action of manipulating information into different insights and meanings is something that pundits refer to as spin. Behavioral scientists, however, call it social constructionism. Social constructionism assumes that human communication processes create, maintain, and transform realities (Whitney & Trossten-Bloom, 2003). In other words, if we say something is true enough times, it will become so… or at least everyone will start to believe it. Once enough people believe something, it becomes generally accepted and therefore considered an infallible truth.
While we can almost forgive politicians’ efforts to do this, as it is assumed to be part of the game, this same approach also gets applied to businesses far too often. For example, how often have we seen an organization claim everything is going great, right up until the whole bottom drops out and people lose their jobs and their savings (e.g., Enron)? Or, how often have we seen a company assume that good branding can overcome any challenges (remember Pets.com)? Obviously saying something over and over again doesn’t always make it true. Unless an organization produces more value than it consumes, it is not performing well and negative outcomes will result.
So how do we avoid going down the perpetual slippery slope when the numbers aren’t coming up in the ways we had hoped they would? This simple answer is to learn to be honest with ourselves, and others, about what the data means, regardless if it is good or bad. If we are performing, celebrate it and learn from it. If we aren’t performing, find the causes and fix it. Do not, however, waste time and energy trying to convince people everything is OK when it really isn’t. That is a job better left to the politicians.