Training Challenge: How Do You Teach Balancing Numbers and Instinct in Decision-Making?

We live in a world driven by data and numbers. If you tell many people that you “just have a feeling” about something, they will tell you to do research to make sure your “feeling” is correct.

The problem is there is a lot in business for which research and statistics will only take you so far. For example, you can do all the research and statistical analysis in the world, but that won’t tell you definitively whether it’s a good idea to hire an applicant. Or numbers can tell you whether an acquisition makes sense. But there’s also the human “factor”: What do you think of the management of the owners of the business you would be making the deal with, and what do you think about the corporate culture of the company they have created?

It was heartening to see an executive who doesn’t discount her instincts profiled last month in a Q&A in Adam Bryant’s New York Times column, Corner Office. Elisa Steele, chief executive of Jive Software, told Bryant that after initially doubting herself, she learned to trust her inner voice: “Early on, I questioned my instincts. I wanted to follow the book. I was the student. I assumed everyone knew more. There were times when I didn’t follow my instincts and made mistakes. I realized in hindsight that if I had followed my instincts, there would have been a different outcome. So my biggest lesson is to follow your instincts. You know better than anybody else.”

Does your company emphasize the importance of having quantitative proof before making business decisions? How do you balance the numerical with the more personal, subjective, feelings-based decision-making power?

An episode of the show, Billions, on Showtime also recently brought to my mind the need to balance numbers with gut instinct. The show, which has at its center a hedge fund manager and his company of finance wizards, features a young star employee, who is presented as a gender-neutral mathematical genius. She (or “they,” as the character is referred to on the show) can boil any decision down to numbers, quantifying anything you can imagine. The problem is it’s time to figure out which employee to eliminate. She must figure out who to fire, and, so, uses forced ranking, based on a complex numerical analysis, to arrive at a decision. But when she brings her decision-making model to her bosses, they let her know that following such a model in personnel decisions is not the culture of their company—that, in addition to her numerical analysis, and forced ranking, she also must meet with each employee before she can decide who to terminate.

After balking, she does the face-to-face meetings, and discovers that the employee she expected to eliminate shows signs in conversation, and interpersonally, of having more potential than another employee with better numbers, so she decides to follow her instinct and keep him instead.

These kinds of decisions about who to lay off, who to hire, who to promote, which businesses to merge with, which investors to make proposals to, and accept money from, are required all the time in business.

How can Learning professionals prepare employees, who have come of age in a society that values numbers and quantitative analysis so highly, for the fact that they must pay attention to an additional dimension in the decision-making process?

Business simulations, in which participants are required to make challenging decisions after weighing the numbers with “softer” factors such as gut instinct, are one way to practice using both kinds of decision-making tools. Does your company use business simulations? Which have proven most effective for simulating the balance between numerical and “emotional” data required for sound decision-making?

The other important point is to create a corporate culture that values both quantitative and qualitative data. The fictitious hedge fund company in Billions, for all its flaws and unethical behavior, had a corporate culture that wouldn’t allow a manager to make a termination decision based on numbers alone. What is your culture in that regard? Are there many times you must terminate an employee, and do so based solely on the numbers? What is your reasoning in taking that approach?

If your purported corporate culture is, indeed, to also take the non-numerical, emotion-based factors into consideration, do your executives and managers understand that is your culture? You might be surprised that even though you, and some of the company’s leaders, believe you have a culture that bases decisions on more than just the quantitative, other executives and managers may not realize that.

How do you nurture company leaders who are able to make decisions in a complex, nuanced way that goes beyond just the numbers?


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