It’s not how big your number is; it’s what you do with that number that counts. Alina Tugend writes in the New York Times about our society’s preoccupation with counting things as if assigning a number to something makes it valuable.  She describes her own tendency to pay attention to the number of blog hits, Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and book sales, as if these numbers are a measure of her selfworth.  I do the same. I check the number of people who looked at my blog and I diligently check the statements from my book publishers, as if these numbers are an indication of my worthiness as a professional and as a writer. I know they are not but I check them anyway.

Managers do this with measures of employee performance. In evaluating the effectiveness of financial management training, managers might look at expense-revenue ratios. In evaluating leadership training managers might look at the results of employee engagement surveys. However, neither of these measures tells us whether those training programs were truly effective. Reducing costs and increasing revenue are affected by many organizational and environmental factors beyond improved accounting practices. Employee engagement is affected by many organizational and environmental factors beyond leadership practices. We count the things that can be counted, but numbers don’t give us the whole picture.

Octavius Black, CEO of The Mind Gym, talks about the many companies that regularly measure employee engagement but find that their numbers go down year after year (see video). He identifies five organizational reasons for this:

  1. Doing a survey and analyzing the data becomes the goal rather than the goal being to increase employee engagement.
  2. A fruitless parent-child kind of debate occurs between management and employees: managers ask employees what they want and employees can’t answer the question.  
  3. Management does one big visible thing for employees (e.g., a destination event) and then assumes that the problem is solved.
  4. Leaders have a sense of momentary urgency, demand action from everyone, and then eventually lose interest.
  5. HR is given the problem to solve when this is a problem that the entire organization needs to address.


As with measures of employee engagement, we need to go beyond counting and find out what each number represents. This can be done in several ways. One way is to use numbers as a stimulus for conversations among stakeholders. Why do they think the high counts are high and the low counts are low? What are the implications for the organization? What should be changed and what should be kept the same? This conversation is much more valuable to the organization than the number alone.

Another way to use counts for performance improvement is to find out the story behind the number. Talk to employees about their experiences. What did they learn from the financial management program and how did they apply that learning? What did they learn from the leadership training and how did they apply that learning? Numbers are convenient indicators of behavior and results but unless we dig into the meaning of those numbers, they have little usefulness.