The hard reality of evidence-based management

David Creelman has a request for HR: please embrace evidence-based management. The profession will be all the better for it:

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Oct 27, 2023

You may not always think this this, but people analytics is actually a subset of the much broader field of evidence-based management.

You have probably heard the phrase “evidence-based” in many contexts, and it all began with evidence-based medicine about 50 years ago.

The main idea was to look at the best available evidence in making clinical decisions. Many doctors hated this, and therein lies a lesson for HR professionals.

Evidence-based practice, whatever the discipline, involves a systematic and thoughtful approach to gathering the best available evidence.

In the context of HR, this usually means looking at the academic literature, in addition to analyses of internal data.

This might seem like a sensible thing to do, but as in medicine, there is a problem. People won’t like what you find.

Evidence isn’t always believed!

A vocal advocate for evidence-based HR is Rob Briner, a professor at the Queen Mary University of London.

You can follow his posts on LinkedIn.

What is discouraging about looking at the best available evidence is that it often shows that what managers want to believe isn’t true.

Consider the differences between generations in the workforce. Everyone loves to talk about how Baby Boomers are different from Gen X, who are different from Millennials, who are different from Gen Z.

Unfortunately, Briner writes: “There is a reasonable quantity of good quality evidence that shows fairly clearly that there are not large differences between generations in relation to what they want and their work attitudes and behaviours.”

Based on this analysis, I would conclude that if a company provides training around how to deal with different generations, then it’s not the best use of scarce training dollars.

We need to care about what works – even if it’s not fashionable

Briner has also shared systematic reviews on the concept of the growth mindset, which suggests that training a growth mindset does not have a significant effect.

This feels terrible because we love the idea of a growth mindset and it had appeared to be credible.

Can we replace that bad feeling with a sense of accomplishment because we have learned this approach won’t have the results we desire and so can move on to something else?

It seem to me that if we want to have a positive impact on employees and our organizations, we should care about what works – even if what works doesn’t include fashionable ideas that everyone finds appealing.

A brighter future for HR?

Some might argue that being so rigorous about looking at the evidence takes some of the fun out of HR.

But at the same time, we can’t just jump on the latest trendy idea (quiet quitting, neuro-linguistic programming, the growth mindset) and just run with it.

We need to look at the longer-term win. No one thinks the finance department delivers fun, appealing content.

Instead, they gain respect by sharing rigorous and important information.

An HR department that steers clear of fads and grounds itself in evidence will in the end be a better partner to the business.

One positive practical fact

It’s worth remembering that always looking for evidence to prove which approach is best can seem to be an impractical burden – because it is!

That’s why it should also be remembered that evidence-based management doesn’t look to prove beyond doubt which approach is best; it simply says the use the best available evidence.

What’s available given the time and resources available might be limited, but you can at least spend 15 minutes looking at the research literature with Google Scholar or

Another fast technique is to search for “Critiques of X” where X is the topic of interest.

Small steps are helpful and over time will make you a much better HR professional.

Please, embrace evidence-based HR and help build a more effective HR profession.

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