Aren’t we all Evidence-based Anyway?

In a ‘post-truth’ era, where we face an overload of opinion, much of it from unreliable sources, it is hard to know what to trust. The principles of ‘evidence-based practice’ help us make better decisions by cutting through unreliable sources and getting to the best outcomes. Unfortunately, while it is well established in some professions – most notably healthcare – evidence-based practice is not common in people management.

This article was first published in the Orient magazine #64, 13th December 2017.

By Jonny Gifford, Senior Advisor, Organisational Behaviour

 

Business leaders and people managers are constantly making decisions for their organisations, with some of the most important decisions relating to the people within the business. Underlying these decisions are assumptions about causal relationships: if I do x, it will achieve y. For example, if we award performance-related pay, it will increase motivation and work effort, or if managers give feedback on performance, employees will improve. But there’s a problem. We all like to see ourselves as rational beings, making decisions once we’ve carefully weighed up the options, but psychology and behavioural economics have consistently shown that usually, this is simply not the case. Our brains are hard wired to make fast associations, leading us to make decisions based on what intuitively feels right. Daniel Kahneman, the first psychologist to win the Nobel Prize for economics, calls this System 1 thinking.

 

This fast, intuitive way of thinking is an essential aspect of how our brains work, from deciding what clothes to wear, to our route to work, to where to eat dinner – we are creatures of both habit and impulse. If we didn’t make decisions based on what feels intuitively right, we would become overloaded with stimuli and struggle to make it through the day. But behavioural science shows that we also think in this way for bigger decisions such as who we hire for a job, or which approaches we use to manage a team.

 

The unfortunate reality is that, thanks to our incredibly flexible and fast minds, we tend to bypass rational assessment of evidence and jump to conclusions. There is good research1 to show that we even retro-fit our interpretation of the evidence to suit the decision we’ve already made in our minds. For example, in recruitment, we hire people who look and sound like us, and then convince ourselves it was because they had the best experience. Our gut feelings often rule and it introduces huge capacity for bias.

 

It also means we are prone to fads. The latest management thinking appears irresistible purely because it’s the latest thing presented with rhetoric that fits the zeitgeist2. Everyone’s doing it, there are case studies about it, it feels right, and therefore it must be right. Right? Not necessarily. To take one example, the practice of forced ranking, getting rid of the poorest performing ten per cent of employees, was in vogue for many years before being discredited as an effective tool for driving performance3.

 

So what is evidence-based practice4? To an extent, we all use evidence. At different times, any manager or business leader will inform decisions by drawing on different sources. The Centre for Evidence Based Management (CEBMA) cites 4 sources of evidence5 that we should use when engaging in evidence based practice including; practitioners’ own expertise, stakeholder concerns, organisational data (for example on employee opinion, people management or performance) and insight from the scientific literature including books and articles. These are all valuable sources of information to the evidence based practitioner.

 

An individual’s expertise is something that we all need to hone and develop, in the case of the people professional through continuing professional development (CPD)6. As a professional body, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is focused on ensuring the HR and L&D profession has the knowledge and skills it will need to be future-fit through a programme of work called Profession for the Future7.

 

When it comes to stakeholders concerns and organisational data, we are becoming more proficient in accessing and understanding these sources of information. Technology can help us understand the values and concerns of the varied stakeholders in our businesses, be they our customers, our shareholders, our workers or the general public. However, understanding the needs of multiple stakeholders requires the use of ethics in our decision making8 in an effort to create shared value for people, the business and shareholders.

 

Perhaps the most challenging source of information for business leaders and people professionals is the area of scientific literature. In particular, we often don’t gauge the quality or strength of the research evidence we are looking at. But there is a well-established hierarchy of scientific evidence9 and it is important we take note of this. Taking this hierarchy seriously requires focused effort, gauging the quality of the evidence being presented. This is not an intuitive or fast process but it ultimately does help us make better decisions. A related challenge is that we tend to cherry pick evidence that supports our point of view. We all love it when we find a piece of research that confirms what we long suspected. How could we not? It means our world view has solid evidence to back it up! But barring the ridiculous, the chances are that whatever your opinion is, you’ll be able to find research to back up your pet theory. To find out if a management approach is really worth using, we need to look at the wider body of evidence – for example, through systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

 

Being evidence based means being anti-fad and willing to face uncomfortable truths. When we are making major decisions, we should balance expertise and opinion with an honest, critical and systematic look at the best available evidence. Above all, evidence matters because it increases the chance of success. If we are going to make reliable decisions in people management, we need to use our professional experience and the views of key stakeholders alongside a solid assessment of the best available scientific evidence and the best available data in our organisations. We’d expect it of our doctor, why shouldn’t we expect it of our business leaders?

 

References

 

1 CIPD. “A head for hiring: the behavioural science of recruitment”; https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/culture/behaviour/recruitment-report

 

2 organization. “Management Fads and Fashions”; http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/135050840181001

 

3 CIPD. “Could do better? What works in performance management”; https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/people/performance/what-works-in-performance-management-report

 

4 CIPD. “In search of the best available evidence”;

https://www.cipd.asia/knowledge/reports/evidence-based-practice

 

5 Centre for Evidence Based Management (CEBMA). “Evidence-Based Practice: The Basic Principles”; https://www.cebma.org/wp-content/uploads/Evidence-Based-Practice-The-Basic-Principles-vs-Dec-2015.pdf

 

6 CIPD. “Continuing professional development”; https://www.cipd.asia/learn-develop-connect/cpd

 

7 CIPD. “Profession for the Future”; https://www.cipd.asia/knowledge/future-profession

 

8 CIPD. “Perspectives on ethical workplace decision-making”; https://www.cipd.asia/knowledge/reports/ethical-workplace-decisions

 

9 Centre for Evidence Based Management (CEBMA). “What are the levels of evidence?”; https://www.cebma.org/faq/what-are-the-levels-of-evidence/

 


 

About the author:

 

Jonny is the CIPD’s Senior Research Adviser for Organisational Behaviour. He’s had a varied career in researching employment and people management issues, working at the Institute for Employment Studies and Roffey Park Institute before joining the CIPD in 2012. A central focus in his work is applying behavioural science insights to core aspects of people management. Recently he has led programmes of work doing this in the areas of recruitment, reward and performance management. 
 
Jonny is also committed to helping HR practitioners make better use of evidence to make better decisions. He runs the CIPD Applied Research Conference, which exists to strengthen links between academic research and HR practice.
 

About the company:

 

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is the voice of a worldwide community of around 140,000 members committed to championing better work and working lives. Through their expertise and research, they provide a valuable point of view on the rapidly changing world of work. Their current strategy is focused on ensuring that the HR and L&D professionals of the future can fulfil their true potential to champion better work and working lives.

 

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To learn more about the CIPD’s latest thinking on world of work and people management issues, please visit www.cipd.asia/knowledge. To explore how they can support organisations and professionals across the region, please visit www.cipd.asia.

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