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I am a self-professed data junkie. I have apps to track my calories, my exercise, my sleep, and my bank account. I check each app at the end of the activity to see how my performance compares to previous periods. My wife says I am obsessed. I would like to disagree, but I can’t.

Lately, I have been re-considering my dependency on data and performance. What I discovered during the initial phases of tracking is that I enjoy the euphoria of seeing the numbers improve. Yet as time passed and my performance began to level out, my tracking became more sporadic. My experience with data mimics what researchers have found in the business world. 

Many studies reveal the inherent dangers of data based rewards. One of the initial issues is the drive to game the system. When incentives are tied to a metric, human nature tends to find the shortest path to achieve the goal. This approach ends up being a case of the ends justifying the means. People will begin cutting corners to achieve the desired numbers.

Another issue with data and performance is the reduction in motivation. This effect is what I experienced once the numbers didn’t move like they once did. Realizing the effort needed to move the numbers even becomes disheartening. This causes me to question my reasons and abilities. At this point, I have the decision to innovate, accept the status quo or quit altogether. Often, because pushing onward seems pointless, quitting seems like the only solution.

Another problem judging people by pure data is its tendency to hamper innovation. When people face the option of receiving a high-performance rating or taking a risk, the choice of the higher rating usually wins. Corporations have found that measuring performance by checking boxes is problematic. Performance measurement like this tends to push creative out the door.

While it may seem I have become anti-data, I am the opposite. I have become a proponent of the creative use of data. Tracking performance data is important to success. You can’t get where you are going unless you know where you have been. The key is not to rely on data for motivation.

Data helps understand baselines and trends. It can aid in identifying problems and point to potential areas for improvement. But in the case of motivation, it isn’t a long-term motivator. The best use of data is identifying ways to use it for some level of accountability. Then one can base incentives or individual performance on something else.

For simple repetitive tasks, the primary way to track performance and provide incentives is by using baseline data. For example, workers paid piece rate know exactly what is needed to hit their numbers. They may be satisfied with pay based on pure number performance. Yet, individuals involved in complex, intellectual tasks tend to perform better when incentivized by internal factors.

We live in a society driven by numbers. It is easier than ever for individuals to track performance and compare results. In the final analysis, data is great but only if used as a tool to help one understand their why. Real motivation comes from understanding why we do things and appealing to those desires.

One of my favorite motivational models is the four-drive model. This model examines motivational drivers. The drivers are:  the drive to Acquire & Achieve, Bond & Belong, Challenge & Comprehend, Define & Defend. Understanding these drives allows the tailoring of the right motivator for each individual.

In a world filled with data, motivation is a fickle thing. Data used appropriately provides great insight into many things. Used incorrectly it kills drive and innovation. The trick is to not become a slave to data, but use it as a tool to see opportunities.

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