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Evidence Based HR, New Manager Death Spiral, and Cognitive Biases

A weekly post in which I share (some of) the most thought-provoking content I read this week(ish), which I am too lazy to write full blog posts about.

How was your week? We’ve had wild temperature fluctuations here in Toronto, and are headed into a week of rain. Otherwise, it was pretty great: interesting projects on the work front, the opportunity to fill in for’s founder Chris Taylor to speak at an event about culture as competitive advantage (thanks to the arrival of baby Taylor – congrats!), and then a whole day of making ravioli from scratch with my nieces and sister-in-law. Feeling fortunate (and very full of carbs). Here are a few picks that caught my eye this week:

Evidence Based HR

Interview with Rob Briner, Scientific Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa) – Science for Work

I’ve been working on a long post about evidence-based HR for awhile; why we really need it, and about that time that I was a big brat who decried it as a real possibility (with what in retrospect was basically a straw man argument) in a blog post a few years ago…sigh. However, in the meantime I’ll share this short interview as a starting point if you aren’t especially familiar with the topic. I have certainly come to believe that knowledge and application of evidence-based research is absolutely critical if HR is to move beyond a largely anecdotal and trend based body of knowledge. Ron Briner is a champion of  evidence-based management, which he describes thus:
“Evidence-based management is about what evidence-based practice is in any field: Making better-informed decisions.”

Why is taking an evidence based approach to people practices important? We’re living in a world awash in information available at the click of a button, with nearly anyone able to produce and share their own content online without editorial standards and potentially in service to a specific agenda, which makes it a bigger challenge than ever to figure out what material merits both our attention and our trust.

Add to this the fetishization of certain organizations, brands, and the start-up ‘lifestyle’ in general, and you’ve got yourself a real recipe for people management smoke and mirrors.

“Managers are confronted with vast quantities of information from the organization, colleagues, popular management fads, business success stories, consultancies, their own experiences, their intuitions and so on. However, much of this information is unreliable or untrustworthy and should therefore not be taken too seriously. A vital evidence-based practice skill is cutting through the noise to get to the signal.”

Finally, if you go to conferences or read popular HR and management literature, you already know that ‘the next big thing’ seems to have a fairly predictable life cycle. It sounds heretical, is probably being tried out by some progressive outlier org in Scandinavia, or a Silicon Valley start-up, or Zappos (at least 60% of the time it’s Zappos), and within a few years it’s buzzy, then everywhere, then we’re on to something else. It’s a little bit of “shiny object syndrome” and a little bit of the “best practices” bandwagon effect; but it does often seem to involve latching on to a solution before we spend too much time identifying the problem.

“…evidence-based based practice stars with the identification of a specific and significant problem (or opportunity) using the best available evidence and only then identifying possible likely solutions again using the best available evidence. Managers spend significant resources on interventions or programmes in the absence of a well-defined or well-evidenced problem.”

Quick plug for Science for Work – it’s a great site and well worth your time and trust.

People Management

The New Manager Death Spiral – Rands in Repose

Yes, I’m following up an observation about the need for evidence-based management with a post about personal experiences as a manager. I don’t see these as in conflict, particularly given the source (Michael Lopp and his extensive experience and writing on this topic), and the fact that it provides a great opportunity for reflection on our own biases, habits, and blind spots. If you can remember the first time you managed others, I suspect you’ll find yourself nodding ruefully at some point as you read this post.

“You’ve been promoted to the role of manager, you want this gig, and this is your chance to shine, so you run.

I will now explain how your good intentions and well-trained instincts are going to erode your credibility, stunt the growth of your team, and re-enforce the theory that most managers are power hungry jerks working with all the authority and making judgment calls with woefully incomplete data.”

So, “Death Spiral” might sound a tad dramatic, but if you’ve lived it you know it is a pretty demoralizing experience. Learning to work in a totally new way can be painful, and for those of us prone to self-doubt to begin with, it can send us into a tail-spin of anguish that takes time to bounce back from.

“As a new manager, you want to prove yourself, so you sign-up for all the things, you work late, and you do your very best to kick ass and make a good first impression. This is the approach that worked well for you as an individual, so, of course, it’ll work when leading a team. This is where the Spiral begins because the initial thought is actually, “I can do it all myself. I’m the Boss.””

If only we could learn lessons as thoroughly from another’s words as we do when the pain of experience brands them into our brain. Still, you might want to send this to any new managers you know.

Cognitive Biases

Why We Believe Obvious Untruths – The New York Times

To continue a bit of a theme, why do people persist in believing things that are untrue, even if there is a significant amount of evidence to refute it? This is a truly fascinating look at the individual cognitive limits and tendencies that make it so challenging for humans to distinguish what they reliably know from what they assume they know.

“On their own, individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works.”

This post argues that our very nature as collaborative creatures renders us incapable of clearly delineating between our own personal knowledge and shared knowledge. That is, when we know that someone knows a thing, we ascribe some portion of that knowledge to ourselves, also. Because in fact the lines are unclear – knowing is perhaps not absolute, but rather created through interactions with others that combines what we know and what they know to produce something greater than the sum of its parts.

“Most of what you “know” — most of what anyone knows — about any topic is a placeholder for information stored elsewhere, in a long-forgotten textbook or in some expert’s head.

One consequence of the fact that knowledge is distributed this way is that being part of a community of knowledge can make people feel as if they understand things they don’t.”

Both a practical caution that we should better interrogate the limits of own knowledge, and a bit of  a philosophical musing on the nature of knowledge and the incredible power of human collaboration, I am still thinking about the implications of this post. When we can Google anything, how much more do we actually know, versus how much we assume we know? Are some people better than others at filling in the gaps in our shared knowledge, perhaps with the ability to intuit missing pieces of the puzzle? What does this look like in practice?

Well, that’s it for this week. Any first-time manager death spirals to share? Evidence for your beliefs? Want my ravioli recipe? You’ll have to comment below…

Image credit: Patrick Tomasso via

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Helpful digests, despite lack of ravioli recipe

    March 13, 2017

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