Evidence-based management is an approach to problem-solving and decision-making based on the conscientious, explicit, and careful use of research evidence, which is then translated into management actions. The idea, of course, is that when managers use valid data about what works, they can more effectively solve problems and more consistently achieve their goals. Makes sense.
But research shows that when managers try to solve a problem or make decisions on the job, they actually don’t use evidence!
In a recent survey of more than 3,000 private sector managers, 91% reported they make work decisions based primarily on their own personal experience; only 14% reported ever having read a research article (Barends, 2017; Rousseau, 2006). The behavior of federal managers is similar: over the last 30 years, Congress has passed a series of bills that together have created useful data. But between 2007 and 2017, the use of the data by federal managers appears to have declined (Watson, 2019). In nonprofits, managers view “…[evidence] in a largely negative light” describing the activity of data collection and data measurement as a “resource drain and distraction” or “a waste of time” (Lee, 2020). Research shows that nonprofits also face resource constraints (including staff) and challenges in aligning data and evidence with the mission.
There is a complicating factor - the phrase “evidence-based” has become a popular buzzword and has accrued all the superficiality that comes from achieving buzzword status. Many companies regularly advertise their use of “big data” (whatever that means), and most business software platforms claim to organize evidence and data that managers can easily use to make their evidence-based decisions. Except, again, managers don’t actually use much evidence. They talk about it, they may use tedious words like “capacity”, “big data”, “AI” and “deep dives”, but rarely explain what the concepts mean or how implementation could lead to a more successful organization.
So, we know thousands of managers report they pay little to no attention to research evidence. It cannot be availability: an online search using “effective manager” returned 1.3 billion results and searching on a scholarly research site returned 4.2 million hits. So even though managers can easily access the latest studies, they don’t. Are they lazy? Cynical? Uncritical?
The reality is more human and benign – managers don’t seek out new evidence because they trust their own personal experiences more than the research findings. Gathering their experiential “data” as they work somehow makes their own conclusions feel more significant and richer than the information from a journal article. Another popular source of management knowledge is peers - managers ask colleagues for advice and tend to accept it. They don’t see a need to confirm the efficacy or accuracy of the colleagues’ ideas. Other barriers to using evidence include (1) managers simply choosing not to believe research, (2) being over-confident in their personal knowledge of management, (3) being influenced by an ideology that tells them they already “know” how organizations work, and (4) believing information from campaigns designed to actively discredit valid and accurate research findings. (Yes, that happens.)
Since most managers learn to manage by emulating their own managers, an organic or viral change to how managers use evidence is unlikely. But if you want to begin incorporating valid research evidence and data into your own practice of management, here are three steps to get you started.
Stop embracing the latest ideas as if they are brand new. Beware of the snake oil effect – gurus and consultants sell their ideas as innovative and revolutionary, ignoring the work that came before their latest book deal or speaking engagement. Remember, people may be trying to mislead you into thinking they alone have the answer your organization needs. So, no, most of the ground-breaking ideas you hear about aren’t new, but are firmly anchored in scholarly work published over the last 100 years. (Notice all the links in this article? They acknowledge the foundations of our work, our own learning sources, and we encourage you to blend these ideas with your own ideas and situation.) You can grow your personal knowledge by asking questions like, “What other evidence is there that this particular idea might actually work for my team?” or “What other research has been done in this area?”
Get out of your own way. As our old friends Simon and Garfunkel remind us, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Managers routinely reject information that clashes with their own beliefs, ideologies, or individual experience. When managers don’t see what they expect to see, their observations and analysis can be tainted by their own beliefs. Being wrong is difficult for most to accept - negative emotional reactions result when research findings challenge people’s beliefs, self-image, or self-interest. To counter the urge to reject new ideas, try formulating a clear question to answer – be specific. For example, “How does our pay system reward high performers and does the approach reduce effective teamwork?” That kind of clarity can help managers to approach ideas with some dispassionate rationality. Then look for evidence to support healthy curiosity about management options.
Invite others to join your exploration of evidence. Think of convening a book club that discusses management or an expedition into the unknown. Take Plato’s advice: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue – sharing ideas and asking questions is the path to a stronger organization and better results. The approach is particularly useful because wisdom is not the result of acquiring knowledge. Wisdom depends on having a healthy respect for all the knowledge that managers do not yet understand. Evidence-based management is best used not by know-it-alls, but by “…managers who profoundly appreciate how much they do not know. These managers aren’t frozen into inaction by ignorance; rather, they act on the best of their knowledge while questioning what they know.”
Seriously, evidence-based management can change the way managers think and act. Knowing the truth about what works and doesn’t work can help you avoid the adoption of half-baked myths that are often shined up and passed off as expertise.
1One example is the popular – and wrong - belief that the act of venting reduces people’s stress. Scholarly evidence shows that “letting people vent” does not reduce stress. Research has found that instead, venting strengthens the feelings of frustration or stress in the person doing the venting.