The Science Of Success: When 'Evidence-Based' Decisions Aren't Based On Evidence At All

This is a column for Business Insider Australia by organisational psychologist Paul Martin. More information at the foot of the article.

When talking about organisational interventions of any type in the leadership and management arena, the term “evidence based” is widely used to give instant credibility to whatever you’re going on about.

It seems as though those days are coming to an end. It has been overused as much as GPs overprescribe antibiotics. It is now in very real danger of being relegated to the amusing “management speak” vault that produced sentences such as: “going forward at the end of the day we’re not going to let the grass grow on taking offline the incentivising granularity that leverages off the high altitude strategic staircase.”

Billions of dollars have been misspent over the years on decisions that were supposedly “evidence based”. But given the litany of failures it begs the question. What is real evidence?

Fortunately business can look towards psychology for the answers to this. Organisational or industrial psychology is the application of scientific evidence to people issues in the workplace and can sniff out real evidence from the BS.

One of the people who can best shed light on the complex issue of the nature of evidence when used with people issues in organisations is the American organisational psychologist Matt Barney who is the keynote speaker at this week’s Australian Psychological Society’s Industrial and Organisational Psychology Conference.

He is the former VP & Director of Infosys Leadership Institute, a multi-billion dollar global organisation founded on scientifically-based leadership development programs. He is now moving into his own start up business called LeaderAmp which focuses on providing serious measurement and development for entrepreneurs, investors, and accelerators to help entrepreneurs and investors not fail.

According to Barney: “Evidence is a euphemism for science-based. Science-based means that there is an excellent basis for making causal claims. The highest level of comfort about these inferences comes from many different studies that all converge on the same conclusion, in spite of uncertainty.

“Real evidence-based interventions do not make claims based solely on anecdotes, stories, or popular opinions, but rather on experiments, quasi-experiments, and other methods that give us more confidence that leaders and leadership is understood, and can be managed accordingly.”

So how does the science of psychology and organisational psychology differ from what good consultants and HR specialists bring to the table?

According to Barney, psychology provides organisations with a valid evidence base when dealing with its people including leadership and performance and HR by bringing the science to tactical and operational people issues. This is the same as marketing personnel bring the science of marketing and finance to their output.

If organisational psychology provides leaders confidence that they have access to solid evidence for making critical decisions about people issues, then why is it that when you mention this profession, most people’s eyes glaze over and urgently excuse themselves?

According to Barney, one of the weaknesses of the field of organisational psychology has been its lack of promotion of their research based insights into important areas such as the art of persuasion and charisma.

The other problem is that given that leaders are time poor, it is easier to go with what they’ve been told by people who seem to know what they are talking about rather than make sure there is scientific evidence backing them. Unfortunately this often gives rise to poor decision making costing untold amounts of money.

According to Barney, it is much easier to ‘shoot from the hip.’ Neuroscience research may partly provide insight into this problem by demonstrating that the conscious part of our brains is very limited and seeks the “path of least resistance” by trying to make decisions with the most easily accessible and understandable information.

Barney is hoping that his new company be a counterpoint to the problem of leaders not accessing good psychological science when dealing with people issues in business.

He said that LeaderAmp will be using validated evidence which includes having strategic alliances with key psychology academics to dramatically decrease the risks associated with funding start ups — potentially saving billions of dollars for those involved.

This involves providing seeding financiers with a scientific basis for the selection of the right entrepreneurs and then providing the science of psychology to assist those running the startups to succeed.

An interesting question about the nature of scientific evidence is what do you do in an emerging area where there is inadequate data? According to Nicola Burton, a research psychologist at the University of Queensland, quality evidence can also be gained from other sources other than science depending on the situation.

She said that under certain conditions it may be important to gain good quality experiential evidence which may, for example, come from a consensus from subject matter experts. This is preferable to getting information about critical people issues only from a group of senior leaders who may have opinions which may be subject to their own personal bias.

So when you are making an important decision about people in your organisation, ask yourself: how credible is the evidence? And reflect on what bias may exist in the people you’ve spoken to.

For me one of the most fascinating examples of ‘evidence’ being used incorrectly was over 2 years visiting Canberra lobbying federal politicians about mental health.

My somewhat naive belief that politicians base important decisions on solid evidence was challenged on many occasions. I was often quite shocked at how many based extremely important decisions which had far reaching ramifications for thousands of Australians were not based on solid evidence.

When I asked why they came to their conclusions their responses would include that it was due to a sophisticated campaign by well resourced lobby groups which included lots of letters, correspondence received from their constituents or political factors.

However what I noticed is that more often than not, what really influenced them at the deepest level was their own personal life journey, and biases which they often weren’t even aware of.

Their responses when I handed over to them the scientific research which validated my point were also very interesting. Some were genuinely interested and said they would read and it would assist them in reaching an opinion, others would dismiss it as irrelevant, some would challenge its validity if it didn’t support their position and some used it by quoting from it when speaking about the issue in Parliament.

I asked Tristan Casey, an organisational psychologist doing science-based research for safety and wellness programs used in heavy industry if he could summarise what he thinks psychological science brings to the ‘evidence based’ table. He said that the psychologist’s “research toolkit” – surveys, structured interviews, in-field observations and the like – enables organisations to keep their finger on the company’s pulse by gathering information in an objective and systematic fashion.

A key component of a psychologist’s training involves data interrogation, statistical analysis, and interpretation. These skills bring a scientific method to managerial decision making. Without these tools and skills, many managers still make good decisions; but where psychological science contributes value is in the “unpacking” of such decisions and establishing a firm evidence base behind them.

For me as a practitioner, I find reading research articles as interesting as learning about the chemical composition of balloons, but I need to know that it has been done.

When used, psychological science makes it easier for business leaders to make complex people decisions and helps them sleep better at night knowing that their decisions are much less likely to lead to catastrophic failures.

Paul Martin is a psychologist and organizational consultant with over 25 years’ experience as a public figure and in a broad range of consulting roles. He is Principal Consultant of Left Field Consulting Services and has coached leaders and facilitated programs at all levels in private, corporate and Government sectors. His passion for positively influencing teams and individuals includes being involved in social change issues. He has influenced opinions through advising MPs, Federal Attorneys-General and the Prime Minister and the public through extensive media exposure.

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