In a recent article “Against Metrics: How Measuring Performance by Numbers Backfires,” Jerry Z Muller argues that companies, educational institutions, government agencies, and philanthropies are now in the grip of what he calls “metric fixation,” “…the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardized data (metrics).”

In this brief and important article, Muller critiques the growing phenomenon of paying employees for performance. He points out that such schemes often lead to a narrowing measure of what is desirable for the organization, leads members of an organization to “game the system”, often undermines organizations ability to think more broadly about their purposes, and most importantly, impedes innovation.

Looking at the unintended outcomes of metric fixation, he writes:

“When reward is tied to measured performance, metric fixation invites just this sort of gaming. But metric fixation also leads to a variety of more subtle unintended negative consequences. These include goal displacement, which comes in many varieties: when performance is judged by a few measures, and the stakes are high (keeping one’s job, getting a pay rise or raising the stock price at the time that stock options are vested), people focus on satisfying those measures – often at the expense of other, more important organizational goals that are not measured. The best-known example is ‘teaching to the test’, a widespread phenomenon that has distorted primary and secondary education in the United States since the adoption of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.”

Pay for performance schemes, however, are not alone in eliciting a narrowing of goals, and a tendency to game the system. Metric fixation (or what I term the “tyranny of measurement”) can be a risk for a range of non-profit organizations and educational institutions who often feel that demands for accountability can be addressed by merely counting the number of participants who receive services, or the number of students who score well on reading tests. While it is important to have clear goals, and to be able to indicate if these goals are met, organizations, in their rush to address demands from funders and other stakeholders for accountability, must be careful not to reduce their goals—indeed their organizations’ vision— to only a few countable variables. “What can and does get measured is not always worth measuring, may not be what we really want to know, and may draw effort away from the things we care about” (Muller). As Albert Einstein observed, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.”


“Against Metrics: How Measuring Performance by Numbers Backfires,” Aeon, April 24, 2018

The Tyranny of MetricsJerry Z. Muller, Princeton University Press, 2018

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