Leaders Focus on the Trends, Not the Data Points

Posted 02.06.2018

In some organizations, this is the time of year when individual performance from the previous year is summarized and communicated in annual reviews. (Which, by the way, is an abysmal practice that does nothing to develop people and has at least an 80% chance of causing them to feel disengaged.)

One of the reasons annual performance reviews suck so much is that they too often deal in data points, not trends. Too many managers don’t provide meaningful performance feedback on a real-time basis so when performance review time rolls around (as it always and predictably does), they find themselves scrambling for points to make in the review conversation. That’s where the data points come in. In the absence of any meaningful thought or preparation, whatever happened recently suddenly becomes a trend. That meeting you nailed? Good job on that – you had a great year! That presentation you muffed? You know, I’m not sure you’re really a good fit for us.

Here’s the thing. A data point does not a trend make. A data point is exactly that – it’s a data point, not a trend. Lots of data points observed and documented over time? Now, that’s a trend.

In the absence of observed behaviors over time, data points are just snapshots of whether someone was having a good day or a bad day at any given point in time. It’s the same dynamic with feedback solicited from others. If you talk to 12 people and 11 of them agree and the other one disagrees, pay attention to the 11, not the one.

You may think I’m off on a rant here (you might be right), but there’s a reason I am. All too often, I talk with an executive who focuses on the most recent thing that happened with one of their directs and, from that one data point, they extrapolate a trend that demands action. When I hear this happening, my favorite question to ask the executive is, “Is that a data point or a trend?” Nine times out of ten, they’ll stop, think about it and tell me it’s just a data point.

They call it the recency effect for a reason. A data point does not a trend make. It’s a cognitive bias. Don’t fall for it. Great leaders assess on the trends, not the data points.

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