We live in a world of measurements.
Step counts, sleep scores, KPIs.
I am not against measurements. Indeed, I encourage measuring progress towards goals.
In your professional life, you must of course hit and exceed your employer's KPIs if you expect to keep your job. And owners out there would do well to remember the old Peter Drucker adage and track as much as possible. After all;
- “What gets measured, gets managed.”
When data is king
Data is a great way of seeing progress (or not) towards a chosen goal.
These objective measures are helpful because they counterbalance our subjective natures. Our brains do not think in logical terms. We rely on 'heuristics' (mental approximations) to help us make the complicated, simpler. Not only that, but we seek to avoid pain and achieve pleasure. Thus, we will tend to downplay (or forget entirely) the bad and play up the good.
'Lazy' decision making and skewed perception of fact helps for ease and immediate happiness. But for long-term change, these mechanisms fail us. We realise that we might not be doing as well as we think. Data tells us whether we are (or not).
This is where data is king.
The dark side of data...
...when "I did" becomes "I am"
But when a person's measure of their own success as an individual is bound too tightly to such measurements, things become darker.
When our self-talk shifts from "I did" to "I am" the data has taken too much control.
Spot the difference;
A) "I did not reach 10,000 steps today - I need to aim for 12,000 tomorrow to keep up progress"
B) "I am so lazy - I did not reach 10,000 steps today. I never get anything done"
Did you spot it?
In thought A) there was an acceptance of fact, and an adaptation to that fact on the path to achieving a goal.
In thought B) there was a negative emotional reaction (and then a spiral downwards).
As many of my clients will confirm, I am not against the cold, hard truth when required. Sometimes you need to admit (or be told) that you have been lazy and need to do better. But this is not an attack on character, just behaviour.
Data's negative effect on us goes the other direction as well, and it can be just as damaging.
A) "I did well the last two quarters and exceeded my target by 10% - what can I do to repeat this next quarter?"
B) "I am amazing - I exceeded my target by 10% the last two quarters"
See the difference? One professional focuses on what the external measurements can and could tell them.
The other is likely not as popular around the office as they think.
...and when the external is all there is
The other problem with external measures is that we get addicted to them. We have convinced ourselves that the external is all there is, and forget to look inward.
In the business world, coaching is often difficult to talk to business leaders about. This is because the return on investment can in the first instance be intangible.
I work with teams and individuals therein to build the mindset they need to achieve what they want. Put another way on their soft skills. 'Mindset' cannot be observed (though the result of that changed mindset absolutely can). And 'soft' is a word we A-Types fear.
Companies are starting to see the value of the softer skills in business life, but we're far from where we need to be. There is still a culture of attaching our sense of impact to the data points by which we measure and show our performance.
And for the people I work with, the upper limit tends to be the minimum requirement (I work with overachievers). They go above and beyond to put up big activity numbers on the board, because without these, the achievement numbers feel hollow.
Once again, and to be crystal clear - I believe in measuring activity. I believe it is more important than measuring results. But focusing on activity just to make those external measures bigger and better is exhausting. What is more productive and sustainable is to focus on the right activity levels of the right activities to get the desired result.
So, if external measures are helpful to a point, and harmful beyond it, what can we do about this?
Values - our 'Rules of Engagement'
I define a person's values as their 'Rules of Engagement'. A clear set of Values are that person's guide to answering the question of "how will I be?".
Values are the person's character - how they will go about working on their life's purpose.
In 'The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck' Mark Manson talks about 'good' and 'bad' values. He defines 'good' values as
(I will focus on the good values for this next part, but do read the book - it's brilliant).
Specifically, I want to focus on the third pillar of a 'good' value. They must be controllable - meaning something over which you have total control.
A simple example would be valuing status (or popularity).
Feeling at your most valuable by being 'the most popular' is problematic as a value, (mostly because you can never be). At the very least, you'll never know (this is the evidence-based part). This is why placing a high value on status will get you into trouble. You'll go into a tail-spin and waste a LOT of energy pursuing the mirage of being 'the most popular'. In a room, on a team, in a company, wherever, that measure is subjective, unclear and ever changing.
But what if we switch out the value of 'status' for 'helpfulness'? At the end of your day, you can - and will - always know if you were as helpful to others as you could have been. (You will also always know if you weren't - but being honest and objective with oneself is a different article).
You have full control over how helpful or not you are. So you will know when you have succeeded in living this value. You will look back on your day and feel satisfied, independent of 'the data' (although you will probably have raised your status in the meantime and helped your team get some great work done!).
- “Values are our own measures of success. If we live them, they sustain us. We feel satisfied, authentic and energised. If we don't, we get the cold slap across the face of knowing that we can and should do better.”
Here's another example. One of my values is Effort. I have always been very much in the 'the maximum is the minimum required' camp of working hard. But I'm committed to change, because it is no longer serving me - it has become counterproductive. After all, working hard is fine, but working productively is better.
But I like making an effort. I hate laziness, so the Value remains. Before, I would measure 'Effort' on 'busy-ness' alone. But now when I reflect on how I'm doing with my values, Effort has evolved to an answer to the question "Am I allocating my Effort appropriately?". For me, this is not an invitation to do nothing, but it is also a sanity check to avoid mindless activity. Because as blogger, podcaster and author of "The Four Hour Work Week", Tim Ferriss puts it;
- "Indiscriminate activity is a form of laziness"
Data and other external measures keep us honest.
A clear set of values keep us fuelled for the long road to greatness.
Imagine what could happen if we blended these two forms of measurement for success. I believe that living our values will enable us to put bigger numbers up on the 'board' of our professional (and personal) lives.
We just need to know what they are.
So what now?
A lot of my work with my coachees involved the uncovering and articulation of their values. For some it takes days, for others it takes hours.
It doesn't matter how long it takes, what matters is that they are true for you. Most people start by choosing values that they think they should have rather than reflecting on what really is important to them.
For this reason, I have chosen not to list examples of values. I do not want to lead the witness. But here are a few questions to help you get started:
What qualities of character are most important to you? Why?
A lack of what virtues in other people annoys you most?
How would you characterise the way you strive to go through each day?
Values are one of the components of a person or organisation's Framework for how they go through life. This stuff seems wishy-washy, but it isn't. It is powerful.
Clear values are what separate those living their best lives from those who aren't. If you want to take your performance to the next level, give these questions some real thought. You never know what might come from it.