At some time, every­one that works in data has had to deal with the fol­low­ing scenario:

You run a test or you do an analy­sis that shows that a mem­ber of man­age­ment has been claim­ing some­thing or push­ing some­thing that is clearly wrong. You present the data, and then they push back even harder say­ing that you just don’t under­stand or there must be more to the story. You dive back in, find more and more sup­port­ing data, you make charts and break­downs and present them again. This time instead of just push­ing back your recip­i­ent start attack­ing you and every­thing you do. They may do it overtly or behind the scenes, but they now view you as a prob­lem and a threat. They never change their view of your orig­i­nal point, and now they dis­trust you and are look­ing for oppor­tu­ni­ties to attack your work.

This is a way too com­mon out­come in the busi­ness world, and one that is not actu­ally lim­ited to the use of data. What you are expe­ri­enc­ing is the Back­fire Effect, or the fact that peo­ple become stronger in their beliefs when pre­sented with evi­dence that directly con­tra­dicts them.

So why does this hap­pen? Why is the data you are clearly pre­sent­ing, data that mul­ti­ple oth­ers agree with and buy into not hav­ing its desired effect? It is because you have started to attack their world view. Every per­son you ever work with believes that they do supe­rior work, believes that they make a large impact to the busi­ness, and that they hold a deep under­stand­ing and cor­rect view of how things work. When you present direct evi­dence against this, you are not actu­ally attack­ing the state­ment, but their self-perception, which cre­ates a level of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, result­ing in an ad hominem attack on the mes­sen­ger, and a blind igno­rance of the evidence.

Like most psy­cho­log­i­cal biases the key is to set the stage for suc­cess prior to action, not after. You may not be able to force ratio­nal­ity into indi­vid­u­als or orga­ni­za­tions, but you can cer­tainly push dis­ci­pline. Define rules of action before you start and task, work to get agree­ment on what will define suc­cess, and what fol­low up action should and will be. Often times these con­ver­sa­tions are pushed, ignored, or dis­missed, but it is up to you as the one who will ulti­mately be shar­ing the news to force this as a pri­or­ity of a conversation.

No one you work with will want to talk about how you make a deci­sion; they will want to talk about their great idea for a test, or for a group to tar­get to, or their amaz­ing adver­tis­ing cam­paign. They have already decided what they want, why it is great, and what you will present in the end. If you only allow or enter the con­ver­sa­tion at this point, you role in their sub­con­scious mind is sim­ply to val­i­date their opin­ion. The job of those that work in data is to never give into this path, no mat­ter how easy it is or how it may help us polit­i­cally. You can not view suc­cess ever as how many actions you ful­fill, but instead the value of the ones that you ful­fill. The instant you allow for quan­tity of action to take prece­dence over qual­ity of out­comes, you are set­ting your­self and oth­ers up for this type of fail­ure. It is instead to be the hold­ers of dis­ci­pline, to be the ones that help cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties to find out the faults in these ideas, to not be the ones to val­i­date held world views.

This is also why chang­ing the con­ver­sa­tion about what it means to be “right” and “wrong” is so impor­tant. If you shape each con­ver­sa­tion to talk about the amaz­ing out­comes of being “wrong”, of going in a not pre­vi­ously encour­aged direc­tion and about the impact to the busi­ness, you are open­ing the door for indi­vid­u­als to not have their world view attacked. If you allow oth­ers to under­stand that they have impacted the busi­ness, and that they have suc­ceeded in their end goal of find­ing out peo­ple cases where they are wrong, you have enabled them to not fall into the Back­fire Effect. Chang­ing the con­ver­sa­tion away from the faults of one idea and towards the value of dif­fer­ent options and why choos­ing this action allows you to not attack someone’s world view and instead help them look good by giv­ing them the tools to find an out­come, not just an input to a failed sys­tem. It is impor­tant that you under­stand deeply why you need to do this, what the traps are, and what the right way to frame that con­ver­sa­tion is, but if you are will­ing to do the ground work you can achieve amaz­ing results.

One of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of orga­ni­za­tions who get value from their data ver­sus those that don’t is that the lead­ers who man­age their data focus on the lead­ing con­ver­sa­tion, not on the sto­ries they can tell after their analy­sis. This prob­lem is only exas­per­ated by egos and by the fact that so much of the mate­r­ial and talk in the indus­try is filled with jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for those that do not want to address the real issues at hand. Much of the data mar­ket­place, from man­agers to agen­cies, is filled with those that would come up with cre­ative ways to tell peo­ple exactly what they want to hear and to come up with a story that shows impact, even if there is no fac­tual basis for that claim. There are arti­cles, speak­ers, and “experts” through­out out who have mas­tered the art of sound­ing intel­li­gent with­out actu­ally adding any­thing new or func­tional to the orga­ni­za­tions of which they address. There are many groups who have their own biases in believ­ing their value is pre­sented, just like any other group, because they focus sim­ply on the actions some takes or on their abil­ity to make a rec­om­men­da­tion. your key respon­si­bil­ity is to focus the same skills and con­trol the mes­sage in the same way towards that which will actu­ally drive value for the orga­ni­za­tion, not that which sounds good but is hol­low. It is vital that from day one and onwards that lead­ers con­trol and help shape the con­ver­sa­tion instead of respond­ing con­tin­u­ously to requests. Suc­cess­ful orga­ni­za­tions define actions and suc­cesses, focus on dis­ci­pline, and pre­pare for action before the data, not after.

There is no more true state­ment then: “Suc­cess and fail­ure is deter­mined before you act, not after.”

There is zero chance of you avoid­ing push-back if you fail to do the dirty work of set­ting the stage prop­erly. If you cre­ate an envi­ron­ment where you don’t focus on the idea but instead on the dis­cov­ery, on the out­come and not the input, and work with groups to add value to their ideas instead of facil­i­tate their ideas, you will find amaz­ing results achieved through­out the orga­ni­za­tion. Ulti­mately you need to be agnos­tic about what wins and loses, and instead focus on how peo­ple arrive at a deci­sion and if it answers the cor­rect busi­ness ques­tion. Shy away from this aspect of the job and you face the chal­lenge of deal­ing with the back­fire effect or find­ing ways to jus­tify actions you ratio­nally know are not valuable.

If you want to avoid painful con­fronta­tions, you will always have two options. Option one is the eas­ier one, con­vince your­self that pre­sent­ing data that sup­ports peo­ple polit­i­cally or that just get­ting some­one to act is some­how pro­vid­ing value. In this option you will never be deliv­er­ing news peo­ple don’t want to hear. The sec­ond option is to focus on the painful dis­ci­plines prior to actions and to deal with some dis­com­fort before you get too far and stay away from anyone’s ego. In this you will have to deal with some dis­com­fort, but you will be able to make a true and mean­ing­ful impact to your orga­ni­za­tion. Other depart­ments, exec­u­tives, and even your own man­age­ment will never be able to make this deci­sion for you, this deci­sion is a per­sonal one and one that you either choose to make, or one that is cho­sen for you.

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