You are interviewing for a management job and are asked if you are an evidence-based manager. "Of course," you answer. But what do you point to as your own evidence supporting this management style? Think back on decisions you have made, problems you have encountered, and the solutions you have implemented as well as projects and various systems you have adopted.
Where is that evidence? What did you do to make sure these were truly evidence-based? And how about your organization? How does it use evidence in its decisions and operations?
You might be surprised to learn that some thought leaders have been pushing for management to join medicine, education, social care, nursing, and other disciplines in adopting a strong commitment to be evidence-based professions.
Their work has led to the creation of the Center for Evidence-Based Management (EBMgt). One of the founders of the Center, former Academy of Management President Denise Rousseau, offered an early definition of EBMgt as "translating principles based on best evidence into organizational practices." This definition has since been refined by the Center to be "about making decisions through the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of the best available evidence from multiple sources by asking, acquiring, appraising, aggregating, applying, and assessing.”
In 2018, Eric Barends and Denise Rousseau published Evidence-Based Management: How to Use Evidence to Make Better Organizational Decisions. They state that as an evidence-based manager, you will be able to "distinguish science from folklore; data from assertions; and evidence from beliefs, anecdotes, or personal opinion." Since an evidence-based approach to management has already been mapped out for managers, let’s explore what evidence-based management (EBMgt) is, why you and your organization should use it, and how you would practice it.
What is Evidence-Based Management?
First, it is important to establish that adopting EBMgt does not mean you will arrive at the "right answer" every time. The organizational world is far too complex and uncertain. What it does is shift the odds in your favor. By adopting EBMgt, managers and organizations can expect to increase the chance of positive results or lower the chance of negative outcomes. For example, in hiring situations, using reliable and valid assessments of candidates will yield, on average, higher performing employees who better fit with the goals and culture of the organization. But it does not guarantee that every employee will be a superstar.
Evidence can be found in four broad areas. These are scientific research, organizational data, professional expertise, and the perspective and interests of stakeholders.
Scientific research is what has been studied and published in the literature under the norms of the scientific community. Journal articles that have been peer reviewed examine a multitude of workplace issues and provide insight into effective management practice.
Organizational data, if it is of high quality, can be examined through metrics and data analytics to yield useful information about organizational problems and issues. As the volume of data exponentially grows, the prospect of mining that data for patterns expands as well.
Professional judgment provides valuable evidence so long as it has been acquired under the conditions where actual expertise is created. You can rely on professional judgment when training and education is combined with prolonged practice that includes frequent feedback in a consistent context. Unfortunately, it is rare that all of these conditions are found in management settings. And this is further complicated by the cognitive biases that delude us into believing expertise has been achieved.
From stakeholders, we learn about the values and concerns of those affected by the problem or issue. Here it is important to make sure principles of sampling are followed so we collect enough information from a representative group of stakeholders.
Why Should Organizations Use Evidence-Based Management?
Adopting EBMgt will improve the quality of decisions you make and result in a better chance of positive results. We know that we are imperfect information processors subject to distortions and biases that are, at times, outside of our awareness. We need the tools of EBMgt to minimize those biases and help us examine organizational problems more accurately. The fact is that the management domain is not highly favorable to developing expert skill and intuition. The environment is simply not regular and predictable, and in general, we do not get the large numbers of opportunities to practice and receive accurate feedback. The world we operate in is complex because people and organizational systems are incredibly complex.
What must I do to become an evidence-based manager?
First, you must be systematic in your thinking about addressing problems and in making decisions. The Center for Evidence-Based Management promotes something called the "Six A’s," which provides a structured approach.
- Asking – translating a practical issue into an answerable question
- Acquiring – systematically searching for and retrieving the evidence
- Appraising – critically judging the trustworthiness and relevance of the evidence
- Aggregating – weighing and pulling together the evidence
- Applying – incorporating the evidence into the decision-making process
- Assessing – evaluating the outcomes of the decision taken
To operate as an evidence-based manager, you must develop specific skills and techniques within each of these steps. There is plenty of help available for you to do this. The Barends and Rousseau book mentioned earlier is a great resource. Carnegie-Mellon hosts a course that you can take for free to develop these skills. The website for the Center also contains a lot of great information.
There are many challenges to management becoming an evidence-based discipline. We can lament that despite attempts by academics to implement their research findings into management toolkits and that practitioners often operate without drawing on that body of knowledge (often-times referred to as the Science-Practice Gap), we can move in a manner consistent with EBMgt.
A first and formidable step to take is for managers to become educated and skilled in the techniques of EBMgt. And the next time you are asked whether you are an evidence-based manager, not only will you answer in the affirmative, but you will be able to provide the evidence to back it up!
This blog was written in collaboration with Gerard L. Brandon, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP, who is the Director of the Graduate Programs in Human Resource Development (HRD) at Villanova University and an Associate Teaching Professor in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department as well as Virginia Killebrew, who is the a Graduate Assistant in the MS in HRD program at Villanova University.