How Measurement Destroys Trust

Speaking with a marketing firm today, it struck me again how deeply embedded within the business culture has become the notion of measurement.

The obsession goes well beyond the mantra “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it” (which is nonsense on the face of it). It has become a knee-jerk reaction to a new idea, concept, or perspective. In particular, ideas having to do with people.

Remember these workplace slogans?

  • The war for talent
  • People are our most important assets
  • Customer loyalty
  • Customer relationship management
  • People development
  • Human capital
  • Employee engagement

Every one of these ostensibly business buzzwords has been subjected by the business world to death by measurement. The prevailing wisdom asserts that if you can’t figure out a metric for something, it isn’t worthwhile; for all practical purposes, it doesn’t exist.

(For those amused by analogies, there was a school of philosophy in the ‘20s centered around the “verifiability criterion of meaningfulness,” which said if you couldn’t verify it, it sort of didn’t even exist. Which certainly ruled out god and poetry, probably trees falling in an un-peopled forest, and quite possibly any interesting sex life.)

The average view in management today is that none of those “humanistic” terms have any utility—or even any meaning—if they can’t be quantitatively linked to economic performance. Of the firm. This quarter.

Hence “measurement” becomes the handmaiden of a means and ends argument. The end is the strategic/financial performance of the corporate entity to which you swear fealty. The means are—well, any of those human-type things.

Hence you hear the most deeply human virtues “justified” by the numbers—as if they weren’t justified as ends in themselves.

Loyalty gets judged as valuable only to the extent it makes money. Employee engagement? Good because it benefits the firm. Attraction and? Cuts human capital costs to the firm.

Like Pavlovian dogs, we have come to substitute “measurement” as a proxy for “shareholder value.” Ring the “metric” bell and we salivate for sustainable competitive advantage. Because after all—how can you argue against measurement? If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it—and so on, and so on.

Unlike P.T. Barnum, I am constantly amazed at the ability of business in the past few decades to subordinate the most advanced, human, even spiritual concepts, to a “greater good”—the enhanced economic value of a non-human entity called a corporation.

I first heard it when someone said, “Trusted advisor—that sounds like a good idea; anything that’ll increase share of wallet, I’m all for it.”

I heard it when I saw "loyalty" debased as simply repeated, and harnessed to price-driven frequent-buyer programs.

I hear it again in the oxymoron "human capital."

I see it in lenders and borrowers alike walking away from loans because “it no longer adds up.”

Trust happens to be a fabulous economic strategy—the strategy for our times— don’t get me wrong. But if your only reason for being trusted is to make money, then nobody’s going to trust you. It’s that paradox thing.

"Love! Cool!

Well, sounds good, but—you know—how you gonna measure it?

Come back to me when you can make that love thing work on the Street, in a business process, or in a marketing campaign. Show me the love levers, the love success factors (LSFs). 

Have you got some love diagnostics so we can do a love gap analysis and a love needs assessment?  You need to break it down with some behavioral metrics; what are best practices love behaviors?  

Have you got something that really makes the business case for love?  Who out there is a success story, really doing the love thing and making a ton of money at it?  How can we be sure love isn’t just another fad? 

How fast can you roll out the love campaign? 

What’s the payback?"

I saw a new book out the other day called "Spiritual Capitalism." I haven’t yet read a word of it; I’m a little afraid to do so. I can conceive of how it might be a good book, but I’m suspicious it’s going to justify spirituality on the grounds that it makes money. Which spirituality does, but if making money becomes the end, then you end up not just spiritually bankrupt but not so good in your checking account either.

There’s nothing wrong with measurement per se. In the long run, measures work and are meaningful. A great idea will measurably win out in the long run. But what results from repetitive microscopic measurement tends to be just the belief that people exist for the company—not the other way ‘round.

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