How to identify (and respond to) the data denier

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How to identify (and respond to) the data denier

College and university leaders have a growing imperative to consistently use data to inform decisions about faculty resource allocation, course offerings, costs, new programs, and others. But with the introduction of data comes anticipated resistance from all sides, primarily stemming from the fear that data will tell a different, possibly unfavorable, story about unit-level performance.

Here’s how to identify and respond to your toughest data critics.

Critique: “These numbers aren’t right.”

Some data deniers immediately reject numbers that don’t match their story, rather than seeking to understand the underlying methodology. This response ends the conversation before it really starts.

Encourage data-informed decisions in academic departments

How to respond:

Preparation is key. Lead with a solid explanation of methodology to preempt pushback. Proactively provide examples of nuances that may exist in the data before sharing the full results. Plan for the personalities in the room and anticipate what they care about most. Avoid engaging in extended debate, which is often futile; instead, stay on message and forge ahead.

Critique: “Our situation is unique.”

Every academic unit has special circumstances. However, those often turn to excuses to nullify meaningful comparisons in the data. This type of critic is so consumed with rationalizing the data that they miss an opportunity to learn from it or question status quo performance.

How to manage the situation:

Reverse the narrative. Rather than dismiss their uniqueness, lead with it. Start with agreement (e.g. “yes, your department is different because of…”), but expand the discussion beyond that towards future improvement (e.g. AND there is still room for improvement in these key areas…”). Starting from a place of affirmation helps to avoid an over emphasis of unique situations, allowing you to redirect the conversation to areas of desired focus.

Critique: “Where we are is good enough.”

This archetype is a bit more subtle in their critique. They don’t deny the data outright, rather, they deny it as indicative of the need to aim higher or improve further. They are likely to recalibrate expectations based on the data and feel comfortable maintaining their current position.

How to respond:

Use benchmarks to help spur competitiveness and build an expectation for best-in-class performance. Start with narrow benchmarks, like historical performance, but build up to aspirational peers and ask probing questions like, “If you had to improve another 5%, what would you do?”

No matter which type of critique you encounter, persistence and the consistency of your message are critical to success. Will there always be opportunity to scrutinize the data? Of course. Just don’t let that derail you on your journey toward institutional success.


Motivate others to act on data. Here’s how.

Having access to data is one thing, using that data to influence and drive change is another. View our on-demand webinar to explore five principles of effective influence, including strategies to help leaders to drive behavioral change and strengthen the success of longer-term initiatives.

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