There are numbers, and there is reality. We like to think that numbers reflect reality. For example, last month’s orders are what the sales team brought in, and sales are what the company shipped. We know that if we increase orders, sales will eventually go up. We like to set goals based on these numbers. It’s straightforward. It’s also powerfully dangerous.
We like numbers
In our daily lives, we use metrics to measure performance. Going back to our example, they can tell us how much we sold last month or how many outbound calls a sales rep has made. We likely have goals set up against each of our metrics – we have monthly sales goals and budgets, and, ideally, you have behavior targets for your sales team. A glance at your metrics can tell you how well the team is performing and how well each member of the team is doing their part.
We like metrics because we like setting and achieving goals. A mountain of research demonstrates the powerful motivating effect of goals. From a psychological perspective, goals work by setting targets for us to hit. We tend to like challenging but achievable goals. When people commit to goals, we know it. We say they are “driven” or “focused.” Goals can become all-consuming.
The danger of goals
When goals become all-consuming, they can affect the way we judge our behaviors. We make achieving the goal the only thing matters – it’s something we can do consciously or unconsciously. When this happens, we can become amazing or awful people. Maybe both, the difference may be in the eye of the beholder. In business, we often rationalize away immoral behavior as “just doing business.”
Without a doubt, we’ve all seen this happen – the manager who drives their team too far, the gamer who won’t give up on beating a level, or the parent who disrupts the little league game. Goals get us to do more, go farther, and work faster than we otherwise would have. Sometimes, it’s not for the better. Maybe the team hit their sales goal, the gamer cleared the level, or the kid’s team won – but the damage outlasts the victory.
A toxic recipe
We use metrics to measure our performance to a goal or standard. When we have an unhealthy relationship with a goal, we can use numbers to manipulate our perceptions of reality. We value hitting a specific metric target over all else.
This effect happens subtly and often goes unnoticed early on. Team members, leaders, and managers agree that the metric represents goal performance. Therefore, metric performance means goal performance. See the subtlety? Representative measures are not direct measures – but it’s easy to make the conflation. We surrogate the metric for the goal – it’s metric surrogation.
Surrogation in a pandemic
Some governments, like the United States, tried to keep the case count low as they first faced the coronavirus epidemic– testing very few people. Other nations tried to find as many cases as they could. South Korea, for example, ramped up testing after reports of the first cases. Top U.S. leaders saw a low case-count as the measure of performance – that it signaled they were doing a good job.
We can see how surrogation affected the responses of the two nations. Both nations confirmed their first cases within one day of each other – the U.S. on January 19 and South Korea on January 20.
Comparing testing responses
A huge blind spot
The delay in testing, as numerous public health researchers, professionals, and administrators have warned, led to a large number of undetected infections. Those infected people spread the virus. The chart below illustrates how testing in South Korea flattened their curve and how a lack of testing in the United States is leading to a “hockey stick” of cases and deaths. While the U.S. eventually out-paced South Korea’s testing rate, even with social distancing efforts, it’s likely too little, too late.
The graph below shows how a delay in testing and identification allowed the disease to spread. While the U.S. has caught up to South Korea’s testing numbers, we more quickly eclipsed their case count.
Case-counts are one metric among many
In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, diagnosed cases are an indicator of an infected community. That’s the case count. When testing finds a newly infected person, the case count goes up. Within case count, you could look at active infections, recoveries, and, unfortunately, deaths. All the numbers tell us something. When we look at all of them, we start to understand the bigger picture.
Focusing on one metric, like the raw case count, blinds leaders to reality. It allows them to justify bad decisions like keeping people on an infected cruise ship or not ramping up the production of essential supplies and testing materials. If the case count is low, then the pandemic isn’t here.
There are real consequences
On March 27, 2020, the United States officially recorded the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, eclipsing China’s case count by over 15,000. South Korea is significantly denser and has a similar economy to the U.S. Without intervention, the virus would spread more easily in South Korea. The U.S. has a clear advantage, geographically speaking, with large swaths of unconnected, sparsely populated areas. Neither country was without intervention.
As leaders of businesses, we need to consider how we internalize goals and metrics – our choices, conscious or otherwise, influence our team members and employees. When we surrogate metrics for goals, we’re effectively setting up the conditions for us to “cook the books.”
The differences, as we’ve shown, were significant. For the U.S., we’ll see this in astounding numbers of infected people, an incredible strain on our hospital systems, and, sadly, many loved ones lost. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll see how starkly different the realities are between the U.S. and South Korea. But for now, we wait – apart, as one.