Fable Friday: Great Sex, the Dallas Cowboys, the NYS Thruway and praise your team!

The 570 mile New York State Thruway, completed in 1957 and now the fifth busiest toll road in the U.S., runs from New York City up to Albany and then west to Buffalo.  I remember its construction well because my father appraised a great deal of the property the State claimed from individual owners, and I tagged along to keep him company, just a little kid enjoying going to work with his dad.

Gregory at Medtronic 10-2010 CroppedThe Thruway Authority got this huge project approved in large part by conducting “research” to determine if the highway was needed.  They had people conduct surveys of drivers along Route 17 in upstate NY during the summer months.  Imagine you and your family are driving north out of the City in July, moving at a snail’s pace with no air conditioning in your car. At a roadside stop, a State employee asks you to respond to a survey, with questions such as, “Would you be in favor of a super-highway that would allow you to go upstate in no time at all, rather than get trapped in a traffic jam?” What do you think people said?

It fascinates me how research is conducted and statistics are used to make a point, often misleading those who are unfamiliar.  Last Monday, after the Dallas Cowboys-Denver Broncos game, Brandon George, a sports reporter for the Dallas Morning News, wrote this gem:  “In games in which Dez Bryant scores two touchdowns, the Cowboys are 1-7.”  Are we to suppose that the next time Bryant catches two TD passes, this will be bad news for the Cowboys?  What if he catches three?  Statisticians will point out the difference between correlation and causation, so these “factoids” may be interesting, but they are useless in predicting the future.

And then this Miley Cyrus comment, that people don’t have sex after age 40, drove journalists wild.  Not only was it amazing that anyone would pay attention to what she has to say about anything, it was further surprising to see how many people dug up the statistics for the decline of sexual activity as people age. What a surprise!

Daniel Kahneman, in his popular book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” relates another example from his days in the military, when a fellow officer suggested that praising a soldier for an exceptionally good performance was ineffective because in most cases the next time the soldier performed that same task he did not do it as well, and that similarly, if you chew someone out for a bad performance, the next time you’ll see him do it well.  Kahneman points out that this is a simple example of “regression to the mean” in which all performance tends to move toward its own pre-defined average.  But over a long period of time, a regular habit of positive reinforcement and coaching for all behavior will facilitate continued growth and improvement.

How would you like to work for someone who believed that praise led to failure the next time and the only way to see you improve was to scold you when you made mistakes? Sadly, there are plenty of managers like that.

Don’t you be one of them.  Conduct research fairly and use statistics with care. The decisions you make about people and business are important.

Think Like Your Customer