For a long time I was firmly in this camp that suggests employees need to know how they are being measured in order to thrive. It seems to make perfect sense. After all as you say in the article, if employees “do not know the standard for their work, they won’t perform up to them or they will spend too much time guessing where their output should be.” I do still believe that for many workers this is probably true, however, there is another subset of employees for whom metrics do more harm then good and can end up becoming a straightjacket that stifles their growth, and, just as critically, limits the potential for success of the business. In my experience these employees are the higher performers, the more naturally gifted, the more creative. Simply put they are the ones I want on my team. Give a highly driven, motivated, and talented individual a metric and you can bet they are going to do everything they can to excel at it. They will focus on the metrics with a laser like intensity to the exclusion of all else. Generally this is thought to be a good thing, but it can actually be a detriment to the overall success of the endeavor. The reason is simple but also complex. Essentially the problem lies in the unspoken assumption at the heart of metric design which is that the designer is smart enough to know which are the optimal metrics for the business in question. In many cases, especially for highly complex or technical businesses, that is not true and by focusing the most talented persons on what is perhaps the wrong target they miss any chance they might have had to see things a different way.

Of course you may argue that if that’s the case then one is simply using the wrong metrics. A more clever person could see or devise a measuring system that would always lead to successful outcomes and never result in the unintended consequence I describe. I would agree this is possible but suggest it is highly unlikely. In highly complex businesses and even some simple ones it is simply not possible for any one person to know all of the possible factors that do or could contribute to success and thus have the necessary knowledge to design appropriate metrics to gauge a given employees contributions toward them. The only way around this is to design very broad metrics that allow for flexibility but still give at least the appearance of specificity. However, this is very difficult in practice and the broad/fuzzy metrics are basically no metrics at all.

The question ultimately becomes what percentage of people and businesses fall into the camp where metrics are needed and valuable, and what percentage the other where they are counter-productive and stifling to growth? I don’t know they answer but believe it is much higher than the conventional wisdom would suggest.

Research scientist (Ph.D. micro/mol biology), Thought middle manager, Everyday junglist, Selecta (Ret.), Boulderer, Cat lover, Fish hater

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store