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Trust the Evidence, Not Your Instincts

In most workplaces a failure to consider sound evidence inflicts unnecessary damage on “employee well-being and group performance.” But Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton argue, in the New York Times, that it doesn’t have to be that way:

Consider the issue of incentive pay. Many people believe that paying for performance will work in virtually any organization, so it is used again and again to solve problems — even where evidence shows it is ineffective.

Recently, New York City decided to end a teacher bonus program after three years and $56 million. As The New York Times reported in July, a study found that the effort to link incentive pay to student performance “had no positive effect on either student performance or teachers’ attitudes.”

But that bad news could have been predicted long before spending all that time and money. After all, the failure of similar efforts to improve school performance has been documented for decades.

Here is another example: Research has shown that stable membership is a hallmark of effective work teams. People with more experience, working together, typically communicate and coordinate more effectively.

Although this effect is seen in studies of everything from product development teams to airplane cockpit crews, managers often can’t resist the temptation to rotate people in and out to minimize costs and make scheduling easier.

For example, the National Transportation Safety Board once found that 73 percent of the safety incidents reported on commercial aircraft occur on the first day a new crew flies together.

Taking a look at what works requires re-thinking widely held beliefs:

When Google examined what employees valued most in a manager, technical expertise ranked last among eight qualities. Deemed more crucial were attributes like staying even-keeled, asking good questions, taking time to meet with people and caring about employees’ careers and lives.

Google found that managers who did these things led top-performing teams and had the happiest employees and least turnover. So Google is making many changes in how it selects and coaches managers, devoting particular effort to improving its worst managers.

A word to the wise: pointing out to your boss that the evidence says they are likely to be wrong is not a good career move. You’ll have to come up with something more creative. And, the evidence says performance won’t get you promoted.

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton are professors at Stanford and authors of “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management.”