What would you have done?

I was once asked to oversee data collection for a survey sponsored by one of the world’s largest and most well-respected Non-Governmental Organizations. The data collected would be used by the C-suite to develop goals and objectives and allocate time, people, and money. The mission was of vital importance, so interviewers would be going into people’s homes and administering detailed questionnaires where they could probe for details, examples, and nuance. When studies are conducted away from central facilities and out where people live and work, the interviewers are called field workers. Because interviewers are the weakest link in the research chain, they and require careful selection, training, and supervision. Absent high standards, field workers are a great deal like termites, destroying the integrity of the data from the inside. 

The five-member panel of gatekeepers took turns asking me questions for an hour. When they were done, I had some questions of my own:

  • Will I be selecting the interviewers? No. We will do that ourselves.
  • Will I be training the interviewers? No. We will do that ourselves.
  • Can I test the interviewers to determine which of them are qualified to conduct face-to-face interviews? No.
  • Will I be able to remove interviewers from the field for poor-quality work or unacceptable behaviors? No.
  • To what extent will I be held accountable for the interviewers’ actions and the integrity of the data collected? Completely.

I asked the panel if they knew why interviewers are the weakest link in the research chain.

When none did, I explained that of all the people involved in a study, including the planners, trainers, supervisors, analysts, the project leader, and the panel themselves, interviewers were the least-educated, least-motivated, and lowest-paid. Interviewing attracts temporary workers with low levels of education, training, and motivation, and no real sense of why quality control is important. Because of these things, active supervision by a senior staff member with high standards is crucial to the gathering of high quality information.

I told the panel that absent the ability to select, train, and evaluate interviewers, it would impossible for me to guarantee the integrity of the data they would be delivering to their decision-makers. And if I couldn’t do my best work, I was not the guy they were looking for.

It’s not hard to imagine most competent people would walk away from this sure disaster.

So what kind of person do you think would take an assignment like that? Yep. Someone who would gladly just go through the motions. The one they ultimately put in charge of their data integrity was an interviewer I had once dismissed for falsifying surveys. The panel of gatekeepers knowingly chose someone who could not and would not deliver quality information. To make matters worse, they withheld this vital information from their C-suite decision-makers, who would soon be unknowingly basing critical decisions on the termite-ridden information handed them by their gatekeepers.

The only way leaders can protect their information from termites is to learn what questions to ask and how to evaluate the answers they get.

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