Our MBA students hear it early in their program: Try not to mix business and your political opinions (unless, of course, you’re in the business of politics). Doing so runs the risk of alienating some existing and future customers; and can cause needless drama within organizations.
Towards the end of their MBA, our students study research methods and learn why it’s possible — indeed even probable — that the same statistical findings can be used to support both sides of an argument. Let’s use the election recount in the news as an example:
– One candidate won the popular vote by 1.4%
– The other candidate won the electoral vote (57% to 43%) and 60% of the states.
Do you see how we can all look at the exact same data and arrive at different conclusions as to what is fair and unfair? The point: Statistics are meaningless until we understand our own biases. Evaluating statistics requires a commitment to objective analysis. Otherwise there is a temptation (regardless of whether our political perspectives lay on the left or right) to bend statistics to confirm our existing beliefs. That’s not the purpose of statistics, and it’s partly why political debates shouldn’t take place at the office.
Here is an example we use in our research discussions to illustrate this principle: 35% of American adults are overweight. That’s the data, which is undisputed. Now, is this an opportunity for health food or junk food manufacturers? The answer: It’s an opportunity for both. The opportunity is not determined by the data, rather our interpretation of the data. That interpretation will be influenced by many factors.
So, what do we advise students and entrepreneurs to do? Use statistics, of course, but use them carefully and objectively. Avoid using one stat to rationalize an argument as very few issues are simple enough to be explained by statistics alone. This is especially true when it comes to political issues. It’s generally best to keep politics out of the workplace (unless you’re in the business of politics).