Drunk on Data: this C-Suite Compulsion May Lead to a Nasty Hang-Over


Some years ago as a newly hired member of the management team, I was invited to be one of several managers to conduct focus groups with staff following a comprehensive culture survey. The process seemed thorough and thoughtful to me. Management had heard concerns from their teams. They’d commissioned a firm to design a survey collecting feedback through an anonymous tool. After a lower than expected response rate (this could have been a sign), they communicated the survey’s importance and awaited additional responses. They had then asked the consultants to analyze and advise them on the results. Having drawn some preliminary conclusions, they were now asking members of the management team to hold focus groups to discuss the feedback further. I was pleased to have been invited to be a part of the process. That changed quickly.

During my very first focus group I was confronted with uncomfortable reticence that gave way to respectfully couched expressions of anger and frustration. I will never forget one of the very first comments after I followed my scripted introduction: “What are they doing this survey for? Management knows what needs to be done here.”

Yes, I tried the appropriate response. I explained how we were definitely planning to take actions, but we needed to understand clearly peoples’ concerns and the contributing factors so we could identify and prioritize effective actions. That didn’t seem to go over well. So, then I said, “OK, let’s set this survey aside for now. Just talk to me. Tell me what’s on your mind. Anything. Tell me what you believe would make our organization stronger…”

Bingo. That opened up a conversation worth having….


At some time in the past year it’s quite likely your own management team has gathered around the table to discuss employee engagement and morale. Over a period of months you’d all shared enough anecdotes to see that a pattern seemed to be emerging. Enough of you agreed that something was happening that required attention, so you decided to have this engagement and morale discussion.

Each of you had had different experiences. Each of you tended to follow a distinct approach to communicating with, and seeking feedback from, your team. So there was no clear consensus around the table regarding what “it” was and what needed to change. You could identify more questions than answers. Probably at one point in the discussion, one of you said, “We need to do a survey.”

Well, maybe. Or maybe not.


How fortunate we are to be living in a time of technological wizardry, big data, and human analytics. In just the past few years, we’ve seen an exciting expansion in our capacity to acquire and analyze large amounts of data to support decision-making regarding organization design and talent management. The market offerings for data-driven decision-making solutions are increasingly compelling, and they continue to evolve. We can choose from a wide variety of tools (highly customizable and accessible on our smartphones!) for collecting rich data. Plus, these tools are increasingly affordable. Why wouldn’t we do a survey?

Ironically, at this very time that our capacity for data-driven decision-making explodes, we are also experiencing deep restlessness in the workplace. This age of Big Data is also an age of transition toward human-centered, progressive management techniques. Yes, we have the ability to employ rich, analytical data but we also face ever-greater demand for inclusive, transparent decision-making.

By choosing to implement an employee survey and dig into analytics, are you taking the opposite action that your people would hope for? Instead and hiding behind the certainty and clarity of data, might you instead step up and open space for dialogue with your colleagues about how you can create the conditions for a thriving organization?


As you sit around the conference table planning a culture survey to help address engagement and morale concerns, can you honestly say that you’ve been holding the kinds of meaningful conversations your people hope for? Maybe we’re so drunk on the idea of data-drive decisions and the security of elaborate tables and charts that we’re not thinking clearly. Maybe by choosing the path of commissioning a survey as a next step, you’re actually headed right off the side of the road and into a ditch.

I’m a big fan myself of data. But the path to a more engaging and productive workplace does not begin with an anonymous questionnaire. It begins with having meaningful conversations.