The Surprising Value of Obvious Insights

Confirming what people already believe can help organizations overcome barriers to change.

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People Analytics

This limited series from Spring 2019 focuses on how managers can use data and analytics to persuade decision makers, assess talent, and facilitate personal growth.
More in this series

Editor’s note: This article is part of a new MIT SMR series about people analytics.

A few years ago, the people analytics experts at Google stunned me with one of their recommendations to managers. They had been studying how to onboard new hires effectively. After running surveys and experiments, they came back with a list of tips. Here’s the one that jumped out at me:

Meet your new hires on their first day.

People analytics has transformed HR and talent management into a data-driven field. Since Google was a pioneer in the field, I was expecting an aha moment. Instead, I got a duh-ha moment — a sudden flash of the blindingly obvious.

As an organizational psychologist, my trade has been to highlight the counterintuitive, the unexpected, the overlooked. For the past decade and a half I’ve regularly referred people to classic advice from sociologist Murray Davis: If you want to be interesting, challenge the (weakly held) assumptions of your audience. I’ve argued that it is not storytelling but questioning conventional wisdom that makes Malcolm Gladwell fascinating (though he found that point obvious from the get-go).

Google’s analytics team had done the exact opposite of all that: They had confirmed the most banal of my expectations. I felt like I was hearing from Pelé that the key to becoming a great soccer player is wearing shoes. Who needs to be told to meet their new hires on their first day? What kind of manager wouldn’t do that?

A busy one, it turns out.

When Google sent an email nudging managers to take simple onboarding steps — talking with people about their roles and responsibilities, for instance, and scheduling regular check-ins — their new hires got up to speed a month faster.

I was wrong to place such a high premium on the unexpected. Findings don’t have to be earth-shattering to be useful. In fact, I’ve come to believe that in many workplaces, obvious insights are the most powerful forces for change.

A few years ago, I was working with a bank to improve the attraction and retention of junior employees. One of the clear problems was the reward system: Individual rainmakers got promoted to partner even if they were terrible managers. When I shared evidence that takers do more harm than givers do good and that the costs of a toxic worker tend to exceed the benefits of a superstar, one of the senior executives laughed out loud.

I finally got traction when I shared a more obvious piece of evidence from Google. When leaders there started training and evaluating managers on what sounds like Management 101 — setting and communicating a vision, caring about your team, staying results oriented — the company was able to improve performance for 75% of its worst managers. Not long after I explained that to the bank’s leadership team, they introduced a new manager training program and broadened performance reviews to assess whether managers were able to retain their star performers.

I’ve learned that obvious insights are valuable in overcoming three obstacles to change. The first barrier is resistance to new data. For me, the most annoying sentence in all of organizational life might be “But that’s not what my experience has shown.” Yes, that’s why I conducted a randomized, controlled experiment with longitudinal data: I wanted to learn rigorously from lots of people’s experiences, not just yours, so that we could figure out whether you were an outlier.

Come in with a contrarian data point, and managers who have parked their careers in their lot of intuition and experience find it threatening. The visceral response is skepticism followed by denial. Waltz in with a piece of compelling evidence that people already believe is true — like Microsoft’s findings that it’s bad for employee satisfaction and engagement when managers are slow to respond to email and multitask during meetings — and you get immediate buy-in.

The second barrier is resistance to change. My runner-up for the most irritating sentence in workplaces worldwide is “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” How did that stance work out for Kodak and BlackBerry?

Obvious insights can motivate us to close the knowing-doing gap. Common sense is rarely common practice. If you ask managers what effectiveness looks like, they often can spell out the critical factors. The key is to get them to act on that insight, and that’s where the obvious can help. We’re naturally creatures of social comparison: When we confront evidence about what good managers do, we want to see how we stack up. Just as you start conserving electricity when you get social proof that your neighbors are one-upping you, finding out that good managers meet individually with their direct reports every month can be enough to get you to step up.

The third barrier is the organizational uniqueness bias. Honorable mention for the most exasperating sentence belongs to “That will never work here.” Congratulations, you just shut down learning! In plenty of workplaces, leaders are so focused on what makes their industry or culture different from others that they overlook all the ways it’s similar to others (some common themes: office politics, groupthink, inefficient meetings, meaningless jobs, teams that are less than the sum of their parts).

Obvious insights come to the rescue here, too — especially if they come from inside your own workplace. The people analytics folks at Google could’ve easily compiled the table stakes for being a good manager from half a century of external research. But by gathering commonsense data points internally, they gained credibility with their engineers, who couldn’t claim themselves exempt. And they didn’t just discover that classic management techniques worked in their backyard; they also learned which implementation tips were most useful for which managers.

Recently, the former head of people analytics at a Fortune 500 company sent me an email asking, “What is the most counterintuitive insight produced by organizations that have invested heavily in people analytics? Most published research sounds like common sense, and to me it feels like this is another overhyped field.”

This article is my answer. Insights don’t have to be counterintuitive, but even a small element of wonder can fuel curiosity. One way to make obvious results more intriguing is to compare them with alternative effects. Would you be surprised that people are more likely to quit when they don’t like their job? Nope. But when you see data from Facebook showing that your decision to stay or leave depends more on your feelings about your job than on your feelings about your boss, your ears perk up.

We can also make obvious results more thought-provoking by using nonobvious measures. I’ve seen this year after year at the Wharton People Analytics Conference. I might’ve been bored by presentations about how proactive employees are better performers and employees who adapt to the culture are more successful. But I was riveted by the revelation that you can measure proactivity by whether employees use the default browser on their computer or take the initiative to download a new browser. And I couldn’t stop talking about the evidence that you can measure cultural adaptation by tracking how often employees swear in emails relative to their colleagues. Your adaptation is revealed not by whether you curse like a sailor but by whether your teammates do it, too.

My favorite way to make obvious effects interesting is to quantify the big impact of small changes. Is it obvious that you’ll be more productive if your desk is near a high performer? Probably. But would you have guessed that sitting near a single star appears to boost your productivity by 15%? Probably not. Is it obvious that you’ll be more motivated if you find out how your work benefits others? Sure. But until I ran a series of experiments, I would never have predicted that meeting a single person who benefited from your work could be enough to double your effort and triple your productivity. Is it obvious that managers should have a one-on-one meeting with new hires in the first week? Definitely. But did you anticipate that when managers did that at Microsoft, within the next 90 days those new hires became twice as central in their networks and spent triple the amount of time collaborating?

Ultimately, the beauty of leading with obvious insights is that you gain legitimacy. Your data don’t always have to say something new if they say something true. People start to trust your research, and then they’re more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt — which opens the door to doing and disseminating more groundbreaking work.

So don’t be afraid of obvious insights. They’re the Trojan horse you sometimes need to smuggle in your more startling results. On that note, I would still love to see some evidence about when it’s a bad idea to meet your new hires on their first day.


People Analytics

This limited series from Spring 2019 focuses on how managers can use data and analytics to persuade decision makers, assess talent, and facilitate personal growth.
More in this series

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Comments (4)
Mohammad Mozafari
What a great article ... I like it ...
Managers often do not have management training. They were promoted due to technical skills (best case) or politics (worst case). Being a subject matter expert is OK for training, but employee development and performance require coaching, like in sports, to show how their skill set and role integrates with, and helps the team or organization succeed. Respect and opportunity are key to employee satisfaction and potential contributions. 

A further elemental factor is that HR departments are typically staffed with HR specialists, who never worked in a job requiring teamwork and demanding high performance. As such, they are ill-suited to guiding or introducing effective measurement tools to evaluate employee and manager effectiveness.
Jane McConnell
Agree with David Light! Adam saying you don't have to be counterintuitive is counterintuitive! I love it!
David Light
I like it. It's counterintuitive...unexpected...