Businesses put a lot of emphasis on data and you can’t blame them.
Data helps them decide how many people to hire, what areas to expand into, and which of their products are showing the most success.
Sometimes, though, if not weighed in just the right way, data can also lead businesses astray, causing them to make decisions that seem right based on the numbers, but are misguided based on other factors. This happens too often in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion, where leaders can put too much emphasis on the wrong data and not enough on the right data.
Why is this so? In so many cases, people rely on quantitative data while ignoring or not even gathering qualitative data. To a certain degree, maybe this shouldn’t be surprising.
Quantitative data refers to something you can count or measure, making it easier to assess and leaving less room for disagreement. Qualitative data, on the other hand, requires interpretation; it’s more subjective because it is based on things you can observe, can gather information on, but can’t measure.
Did a company’s first-quarter profits increase, decrease, or remain the same compared to last year’s first-quarter profits? Quantitative data tells you the answer.
But what if you are trying to understand why a supermarket customer chooses one brand of canned vegetables over another. Is it because of an advertising campaign? Is it out of brand loyalty? Is it out of habit? Qualitative data would come into play here, and finding the answer might require some digging, perhaps even taking a survey of customers.
Which brings us back to the subject of DEI. In a world where so many companies insist on giving great weight to quantitative data, DEI is a realm where qualitative data must be given equal consideration.
Think of this example: Quantitative data can tell you how many women, people of color, people with disabilities, or other diverse groups you may have within your organization. But quantitative data won’t tell you what you can do to help those people thrive, it won’t help you understand the experiences and expertise each of them can bring to the table, and it won’t help you decide what policies to put in place to improve your culture and to recruit a better and more diverse workforce.
Qualitative data can help in those areas, though, through such means as surveying employees to learn what examples of exclusion, discrimination, and bias they may encounter in the workplace, and what the company needs to do to foster a more inclusive culture.
Unfortunately, organizational leaders aren’t always quick to embrace qualitative data and see where it might lead them. There are probably a couple of reasons for that. First, they fear that the results will tell them things they don’t want to hear; that the overall tone of the feedback will be negative. Then there is this: Once they gather the data and hear the information, they will need to do something about it.
They are not necessarily wrong on either of these counts.
But you don’t ask people to lean into their vulnerabilities without being prepared to hear the bad with the good. You also can’t ask them to participate in focus groups, surveys, or however you are gathering the data, only to ignore the information once you have it in hand. I often tell businesses that, if they aren’t going to act on their findings in situations like this, then there’s no point in moving forward.
In some cases when gathering qualitative data, leaders probably worry that the expectations on them will be too high. They feel they will be expected to solve every problem that employees raise, and that they will need to solve those problems this very minute. This is simply not the case.
They will, though, need to acknowledge that they heard what people said and they will need some plan of action to address the issues. Progress may take time. That’s often the way with DEI. But progress needs to occur as the organization strives to create more inclusive processes and systems.
Qualitative data may be viewed as “soft data,” but that soft data presents so much opportunity. Weighting quantitative data over qualitative data is a costly mistake for companies looking to really move the needle on inclusion and belonging.