Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of leaders who prefer that all consequential decisions be “evidence-based.” Such leaders place a premium on data and measurability. But there is a point at which measurability gets in the way. When an organization structures its reward system exclusively on measurable outcomes, for example, it often runs the risk of reinforcing the wrong behavior. In such a system, a wretch of an executive, but one who makes big sales, can get away with being a miserable jerk in the office because sales are more quantifiable than jerky behavior.
Decisions with implications for the people in the workplace are particularly troublesome. For example, many organizations shy away from rewarding attributes associated with having a positive attitude because such things are, due to their subjectivity, notoriously difficult to quantify and measure. How do you quantify, for example, whether someone is “positive” or “friendly” at work? Yet who would argue that such characteristics don’t matter at work? Do we really need evidence to tell us that smiling or saying thank you is a good thing?
Just because outcomes are easier to measure than subjective behaviors and attitudes doesn’t mean that those things shouldn’t be rewarded. In my work as a courage-builder, for example, I often emphasize the importance of rewarding courageous acts regardless of whether those acts result in a successful outcome. As a means to greater organizational performance, courageous behavior will increase the likelihood of better outcomes over time. A successful outcome, though, shouldn’t be required before you confer “courage status” on someone. That would only squelch people’s willingness to try.
What defines workers as being courageous is taking action despite being afraid or uncomfortable, not whether they attain a successful outcome.
Being courageous, by definition, means to take on challenges despite the potential for failure. Courageous workers do, in fact, fail. But failure is an outcome and courage is a means. Just because someone fails on the back end doesn’t mean he wasn’t courageous on the front end.
What are the indicators that a person should be rewarded for her courage? Look for these signs:
- Did the person take action on a problem that others had avoided but that the organization wanted solved?
- Was the action a dramatic departure from the person’s comfort zone?
- Did the action stretch the person’s skills? As a result of being courageous, is the person prepared to take on bigger challenges for the organization going forward?
While having evidence in the form of indisputable data certainly strengthens decision-making, perfect data rarely exists. More often leaders are called upon to make tough decisions in the face of ambiguity and shifting circumstances. And making tough decisions in the face of ambiguity takes courage, not data.