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New Metrics
Is It Objective to ‘Be Objective’ About Sustainable Business Metrics?:
Part 14

In 13 earlier parts of this series, Claire Sommer and I developed 25 pitfalls in the sustainable business metrics field, based on the experiences of many mostly non-business fields. (Find them here.)

It is tempting to believe objectivity is possible, humans are rational creatures, and decisions should (and could) be based on these. To be a member of such a higher species is reassuring (however much one might question this status on some “Page 1” newspaper days).

In our world, Sustainable Brands CEO KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz reported a commonly expressed view at the start of the 2011 sustainable business metrics forum at Wharton Business School by host Eric Orts: “(Orts) welcomed attendees by sharing the importance of disciplined research and emotion-free analytics…”

We also see assertions of “objectivity” amidst implicit implications of causality between a company’s specific strategic action and the metric-bearing result. We will discuss a predecessor field, and cousin, to sustainable business metrics - Program Evaluation - in a future article and see how to weigh the validity of such assertions.

Emotion is clearly the big bugaboo - exactly what you don’t want to have (or show). Add in subjectivity and irrationality to the list of things to which you never want to be accused. For some reason, imagination, innovation and passion - obviously not fully rational processes - have escaped pejorative hell. Perhaps their emotional associations escape detection.

Emotion, though, is beginning to get explicitly defended, although not yet in the sustainable business metrics field.

One indirect defense for them is, whatever their demerits, emotions are simply too hard to get rid of. They’re a part of us. (And in certain contexts, like at stadium football games, considered quite desirable.)

Zeynep Tufeckci, a Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology, expresses a view that shows the camel’s nose is further into the tent than we might realize: “Social scientists increasingly understand that much of our decision-making is irrational and emotional.”

But we’re also beginning to see more positive roles expressed for emotion.

Seth Godin states: “I think that most of us are programmed to process the little stories, the emotional ones, things that touch people we can connect to … [whereas] charts and graphs and multi-year studies [are] … too easy to ignore.”

Jo Confino quotes artist Shepard Fairey: “No matter how accurate facts are, or how disciplined your message, if you don’t connect with people emotionally, they won’t bother to pay attention. Sometimes the most powerful weapon against propaganda is absurdity, creating images that are funny.”

So part of the advantage of acknowledging a role for emotions is to be better able to connect with audiences; perhaps to get and keep their attention in order to present the facts. This also suggests a value in combining the two — perhaps even in a metric.

We explored emotions a bit in Part XI, where we discussed behavioral economics, a field that studies how humans actually make decisions, as opposed to how we might like to think we make them, with the experimentally proven (thus rationally derived) presence of clearly non-rational factors. (Rationality to prove non-rationality—how ironic!)

SB’s Dimitar Vlahov wrestles with the connection here with numbers, calling for the “Unlocking [of] the advantages of cognitive science and empathy in understanding behavior.” He cites the work of “modern-day cognitive science, psychology, and behavioral economics [as] having demonstrated the critical importance of supplementing standard survey-based average-user-targeted methods for studying a population with more qualitative, empathy-based research.”

(Now what actually to do about the over two dozen biases to which we are prone, many of which are unconscious, that diverge from rational decision-making, is worth pondering, and a lurking issue in the field. Should we use this information to get back on the “proper” rationality track, just get over it and become comfortable with how we really decide, or is it a case-by-case thing?

FBI director James Comey’s recent speech about racism invoked “mental shortcuts” used by officers, calling them inappropriate. So this would be a case where a change to a more rational position is necessary and positive. But that isn’t necessarily the general recommendation in this un-explored turf.)

Staying on the non-objective track, and suggesting the need for its own quantification, Chip Conley discusses the now more widely known concept of emotional intelligence. Conley reports that “…this idea — still radioactive to some — that the dominant trait in effective leadership comes from EI, not IQ … took a while to become commonplace language amongst mainstream business fold.” Further, while “there’s still no hard metric for EI or EQ,” qualities such as relationship management, self-reflection, humility and listening ability are considered important. He asks for input about: “What measurement systems are in place at your organization to test ‘relationships’ as well as results?”

Going even further and questioning the whole duality, David Brooks writes a new humanism is “beginning to show how the emotional and the rational are [actually] intertwined,” a numbers-only perspective is “an amputated view of human nature,” that “emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason;” and this new perspective, by “spanning reason and emotion,” “makes a hash of both categories.”

The “basis of reason!” That’s pretty strong and recognizes a wholly different relationship; one grows out of the other, so obviously one that is the root stock deserves new respect.

So the needs are slowly being recognized. One might begin to establish a role for emotions by taking a more nuanced view to them. Currently, they can be seen as close to hysteria (“You’re being emotional. Stop it!”), or as blind to facts, clear deal breakers to any positive inclusion. Maybe, then, we can subtract out these specific elements of emotion from our budding hybrid; just as we can delete a narrow cavalierness to unintended consequences, including moral ones, from being fact-driven.


On the related topic of leadership, John O’Connor reported at the same Wharton conference that “real leadership doesn’t come with the business case. It comes from intuition, leadership, and courage. The business case then shows you how (to achieve these).” These three qualities contain positive emotional elements. This also suggests a sequence for the process: start with emotional factors and then proceed to the more fact-driven business case. (Whether there are hidden emotional factors in the assumptions within a business case we’ll leave to introspective practitioners. If present, the relationship between emotion and rationality becomes even more complex.)

Ignoring the Latent Artist Hidden Within Us

Writing about holonomic thinking, SB’s Tamay Kiper reports on a book by Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter) that builds on systems thinking. The latter focuses in a different way on the inadequacy of being just fact (or part)-driven, as it studies the interrelationships between them. Discussions about systems thinking tend to skip the field’s tenet of emergence. Emergence is when the total is more than the sum of its parts, like the Atlanta Hawks basketball team this season.

Kiper writes that “understanding of relationships in their wholeness comes from both scientific and artistic consciousness.” The latter is important because “when perceiving phenomena, the underlying organizing principles appear in the imagination…”

So there seems to be emerging support, coming from several areas, that emotions can actually be positive. Therefore, combining them with rationality could be more powerful than the latter alone.

Pitfall 26: Don’t continue to neglect the role of emotions. It is time to give them a break, and develop sustainable business metrics for or including them.

Regarding the answer to the question in the title, we offer the teaser: “Only if you’re ‘objective,’ or the less murky “Only if you add a role for emotions.”

“Emotjective” anyone?


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