Beware of Your Assumptions about What People Will Do

Beware of Your Assumptions about What People Will Do

I was listening to a podcast the other day with Esther Duflo, a recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, who was talking about the importance of empirical evidence when you’re trying to change things (in her context, reducing global poverty). A lot of economists base their interventions around some logical assumptions that turn out not to be true when you look at real behavior. For example, they assume that if a community loses a big factory that was essentially the only source of employment, that people would then move to a new area where there were jobs or develop new skills in order to start a new career. But that’s not what happens. The costs of making that change (both financial and psychological) are too steep, so people frequently end up staying.

We do the same kind of thing in organizations all the time. Consider core values posters, for example. The assumption is rational: if you tell people what your core values are and how important they are, then people will behave in accordance with the values. That’s why you put those posters on the wall and dedicate a small portion of your all-staff meeting every now and then to highlighting the values. Yet I see lots of organizations where the behavior is not consistent with the posters. There are high-profile examples, like Enron, whose posters boasted of honesty and integrity, but the behavior landed a lot of people in jail for fraud. But usually it’s not so sinister. It’s more like “transparency” is a core value, yet a lot of departments don’t share information with each other because they still think that information is power, or they don’t want other departments messing with their stuff. You need more than core values posters to make sure people behave in ways that make your organization successful.

So if you’re going to have core values posters, then you should also be gathering some empirical data about people’s behaviors. Maybe instead of that annual engagement survey where you ask people what they like and don’t like about your organization, you should be drilling down into the behaviors people are experiencing on a regular basis. Start connecting some dots between what you thought people were going to do, and what they’re actually doing. This, by the way, is a part of culture management that we don’t see a lot of organizations doing very well—systems for collecting ongoing metrics on employee experience that are tied directly to what makes both employees and the organization successful. The insights from employee experience data will help you debunk some of the assumptions you had about how your people will behave.

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

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