Lucy dhr
Lucy Adams
July 11, 2023
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We’ve all been there. You approach a leader hoping to persuade them to adopt a new HR approach that, in your view, is a complete no-brainer – and you get hit with the line ‘show me the data’. I wonder how many hours we have wasted trying to provide enough proof, to find the research, to give the data that will convince them. I say ‘wasted’ because when it comes to providing hard people data as proof – we can’t, and we shouldn’t. I realise this maybe sounds a bit provocative and against the trend towards HR having a better arsenal of data to work with. But hopefully I can make the case that sometimes data is not what we need to make our case for change.

It’s hard to find data that ‘proves’ anything

In HR, we deal with people’s behaviours, emotions, and relationships, which are of course, subjective and, unlike perhaps Finance, involve different viewpoints and interpretations This in turn makes it hard to find objective proof for things like employee performance, attitudes, or whether someone is the right culture fit. This is especially true in a knowledge economy where so many of our people produce outputs that are hard to quantify and evaluate objectively.

People’s behaviour is influenced by many factors like their beliefs, their upbringing, their physical and mental health, and social dynamics. It’s tough to prove that what we do in HR will cause changes in employee behaviour or performance because there are so many other influences at play.

The data we do provide tends to be too aggregated to be meaningful, such as our engagement scores, lacks context, as with churn rates and D&I stats, or it’s based on a manager’s judgement and therefore subject to rater bias.

Data is not going to make our case for change

And yet, we still feel pressurised to try to give our leaders what they say they need to be convinced. We load them up with benchmarking ratios, research and competitor case studies. But should we? When we’re asked by clients to help them convince their stakeholders with research and data, we will often tell them not to bother! Because even the most compelling data is unlikely to provide enough evidence to change their minds and behaviour.

There are two key reasons for this; the first is that in my experience, they don’t really want or need data. They are actually having an emotional reaction to the changes we’re proposing not an intellectual one. Facts and figures aren’t addressing their real and underlying concerns with the changes, such as ‘why should I change the leadership habits that I have been doing for years and with which I am comfortable, for something new?’ or ‘there’s a risk that I can’t do this new approach and I might look foolish’ or ‘I don’t really want to get more engaged with my team, it’s just easier to do the current annual process’. Data won’t help with these fears. Data won’t build confidence. Data won’t make a poor people manager into a good one. When we give them the data they are asking for, we are not tackling the real barrier to change.

Secondly, they are unlikely to believe the data anyway! If we don’t address their fears or lack of confidence – or recognise that they don’t actually want to be better at the people stuff, they will simply disregard the evidence. How many times have you got into a debate with a leader about where the data comes from, how big is the sample size, etc? They nit-pick about the validity of the figures and totally ignore the fact that what we’re doing today in areas such as performance management or D&I are not working. Confirmation bias is something we need to accept and accommodate.

So, we have to answer a different question. It’s not so much ‘how can I prove it to them?’ but ‘why should they WANT to change? Why would they want to change their habits, try something new that might be a bit uncomfortable at first or challenge the way they have always thought? If we can’t answer these questions, we will be on a relentless pursuit of data that isn’t going to change their minds and, given that it’s not that robust anyway, probably shouldn’t!

Once we can get under the skin of our resistors, we can start to provide insights, support and challenge in a meaningful way. Once we truly understand what is stopping them from changing – be it fear, lack of interest or time pressures, we can work to persuade them. We can use a couple of interesting, stand out pieces of data that might make them sit up and be curious. We can use insights and qualitative data more often to help create a story that engages them on a more emotional level. We can craft the messaging for each type of resistance to reassure them and build their confidence, to tap into what matters to them. We can coax them to try one small aspect to get them going in a way that doesn’t eat into their busy schedule. It’s all about persuasion not finding proof.

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