Tech tools to measure performance can fall short

Herminia Ibarra Career Management The Financial Times

Benjamin Franklin could be considered a pioneer of the modern “quantified self” approach to personal improvement. In the late 18th century, he famously used a chart to monitor his behaviour, including acts of virtue, and reviewed his record of daily activities every night.

In the Fitbit era, companies have a dizzying array of tech tools for setting and tracking work goals Franklin-style. For example, BetterWorks, a Palo Alto company that makes performance-tracking software for companies, has just raised more than $15m in venture capital from investors including John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Combining social media, fitness tracking and gamification, the BetterWorks product allows people to set long- and short-term goals, log their progress on a digital dashboard that others in the company can see and comment on, and get instant feedback in the form of “cheers” or “nudges” from colleagues.

Mr Doerr is not the first convert to the idea of setting specified, measurable goals and then tracking progress in a system that is visible to co-workers. Inspired by Peter Drucker’s notion of management by objectives, bosses and management coaches have for decades relied on the Smart (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound) system of goal-setting to spur better performance. More recent variations include online personal tracking and sharing features.

London-based executive coach Gwenllian Williams tells me that transparent, tech-enhanced goal tracking raises performance, including her own. The cheering and nudging put in play the psychological principle in which a combination of peer pressure and social reinforcement pushes people to redouble their efforts. Also, the gaming aspects add fun and sustain attention, which encourages people to stick with it.

However, critics worry that the less measurable but equally crucial tasks will be ignored. Because targets focus attention, they reduce people’s awareness of other things that may be important even if they are not included in the tracking system. For example, much research, including my own, shows that even high performing managers struggle to work and think more strategically because the routine aspects of their job consume so much time. Operational problems have clear deadlines and progress is easy to track. Strategising is less routine, with longer timeframes and uncertainty about what will ultimately pay off.

Enthusiasts and sceptics do agree, however, that goal-setting can impede learning, which requires apparently non-productive time. As psychologist Carol Dweck has shown, people who are being driven along by performance goals want to impress others with their achievements. Employees prefer tasks that will help them look good, rather than tasks that help them learn new ways of doing things.

Imagine this, not too far-fetched, situation: a manager sets a goal of “becoming a better listener”. Aided by polling tools that provide continual, anonymous feedback from his or her direct reports and name badges with sensors that track location, face-to-face interaction, gestures and speech dynamics — technologies that are already available — the manager might realise that listening is easier in the morning, and schedule accordingly. That would be a benefit. But she might also start unconsciously avoiding people with whom listening is harder, in an effort to keep her numbers up.

Ed Batista, a coach at Stanford business school, tells me that such measuring will inevitably have “unintended consequences as people adjust their behaviours to make the desired outcomes more likely”. Like the teacher in the psychology prank, who received nods and attentiveness from students only when he spoke from one side of the room, and ended up teaching only from that side, managers will skew their behaviour.

Even with a clear set of measurable tasks, a supportive culture and a smooth process to capture data, says Mr Batista, “motivation is likely to diminish over time. That’s what much of the research on behaviour change shows, from happiness strategies to personal wearables.”

Despite the drawbacks, there seems to be a bit of Franklin in many of us. So, when nifty tools and quantitative measures are readily available, human nature is such that we will use them and eventually over-rely on them.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015 (registration required).