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Even Numbers Can Lie

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Weekly Impact is written for leaders by our Executive Director, Garth Jestley, who has decades of experience in senior leadership roles in the financial services sector. Each week he will share insights on life, leadership and faith.

I like numbers. It was one of the reasons I pursued a career in finance. For me, mathematics is an elegant metaphor for truth. Two plus two always equals four. This equation is objectively true at all times and in all places regardless of anyone’s opinion to the contrary.

While equations like the foregoing are always true, numbers used the wrong way can hide the truth. As a young bank officer in New York, I witnessed an excellent example of this phenomenon. Senior management had determined that complaints from corporate clients concerning botched electronic funds transfers were excessive and had to be addressed expeditiously. As a result, they issued an edict. All complaints were to be responded to – and preferably resolved – within 24 hours of receipt. A system was established to measure the timeliness of responses. To drive home the importance of this initiative, management told employees that improvement in this area would be a major factor in their performance reviews (think bonuses).

Within a short time, management was pleased to learn that, based upon the numbers provided, the problem was solved. In fact, the back office was hitting virtually one hundred percent of their 24 hour target response. Big bonuses ahead! You can imagine management’s surprise, however, when service complaints continued at much the same rate.

As it happens, the employees “solved” their performance problem by setting up systems to ensure that a standard response was generated automatically within 24 hours informing clients that the bank had received their complaint and was working on it. However, no changes had been made to deal with the real underlying service problems. This sorry tale illustrates my point that even accurate numbers can, in effect, lie!

When truth is twisted for personal gain, it reveals the motives of a dark and deceitful heart.

In fact, it is very difficult to devise any measurement system that cannot be beaten by someone bent on a personal win. The real problem is the human heart. Is our motivation to beat the system or serve others? I confess that my motives are not always pure, as much as I would like to think they are. In an assertion to which we can all relate from time to time, the Bible says the following.

“The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out. But I, GOD, search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be.” (Jeremiah 17:9-10, The Message)

The good news is that Jesus came to deal with this very heart issue. He paid the penalty for our deceitfulness. If we let him, he will turn our hearts toward him. More than that, if we trust him, he will empower us to overcome temptation, including the temptation to beat the letter of the measurement system rather than honour the spirit of the measurement system.

As the greatest change agent of all time, Jesus moves the dial of our motivation from self-centred to God-centred. This heart transformation is highly relevant to our experiencing fulfilment in our professional and personal lives!

Garth Jestley is a husband, father, grandfather, leader and business executive. Most importantly, he is a follower of Jesus Christ.