Numbers: a good way of ignoring reality?

Numbers are the best way we have found to reflect reality. But they also hide the diversity of the situations they reflect.

Objectivity or dehumanization: a question of perspective

When you have to form a quick understanding of a situation, you cannot look at each case in detail: you use indicators that reflect a wide variety of cases. And from the point of view of the business, of the manager, this is all that is needed.

Turnover, customer satisfaction rates, team workloads, partial unemployment, conversion rates: these are indicators used on a daily basis in various parts of the company and correspond to what the company needs to know.

But if we take the point of view of the subjects of the measure the situation can be radically different from what the figures say, especially when talking about people.

An acceptable figure on the one hand can translate into an unacceptable reality on the other, and we don’t realize it until it’s too late.

Most of the indicators are false if we put ourselves on the side of their subject

I will always remember a phrase from one of my former political economy professors that stuck with me. “The unemployment figures are wrong. For the one who is unemployed the unemployment rate is 100%!”.

Let’s start with an assumption of 5% unemployment, i.e. 95% of people who are not unemployed. Indeed, from a macro point of view, we can say that this is not so bad. But the reality is that nobody is unemployed at 5%: there are those who have a job and those who don’t, and the fact that those who don’t have a job are few in number doesn’t take away the fact that they don’t have a job. It doesn’t matter what the unemployment rate is, for the unemployed the rate is 100%!

75% of interns are offered a permanent contract at the end of their internship. At the end of their internship, no one has 75% of a permanent contract: there are those who have one and those who have none.

99.9% of the population did not die from COVID. But for the 0.1% there is no partial death, they are not “little” or “almost not” dead. They are.

75% of customers would recommend a product? That doesn’t mean that every customer has a 75% chance of recommending you, but that 25% will never do so!

93% of a company’s employees being engaged does not mean that everyone is giving 93% of their full potential but that some are giving 100% and others 0.

A team with an 80% workload can be a good indicator. But in reality it can mean that some are on the verge of burn out and others are disengaged or “not used” for a reason that is important to understand quickly.

Examples can be found ad infinitum, but for the person who is the object of the measurement the situation is most often binary. Yes or no. Win or lose. Good or bad.

The power of weak signals

The better an indicator is, the less importance is given to the cases that constitute its “dark side”. 5% of unemployed, 3% of dissatisfied customers, 7% of employees with little or no engagement… that’s not bad, right?

But our unemployed person is 100% unemployed with all that this implies (and lives it all the more badly because he is part of a “rare” category), the dissatisfied customer is totally dissatisfied (and will be all the more vehement that seeing that everyone around him does not share his opinion), the disengaged employee is totally disengaged (and may become toxic if he feels isolated and decides to lead a crusade to rally people to his cause), the overworked employee continues to exhaust himself while he sees others twiddling their thumbs.

This is all the more important because the more a person feels alone in his or her situation, being part of a “very minority” population, the worse he or she will feel and may overreact.

Good global indicators should never make us neglect individual situations because one day or another they bear fruit: the unemployed person loses his house, the dissatisfied customer talks louder and louder, the disengaged employee spreads his malaise and the overworked employee burns out…

Image : percentages de 3D character via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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