KPIs Improve Performance With Stoicism, Not Heroism

by Stacey Barr |

We can’t improve performance when we think KPIs are about success or failure, because it makes it a threat. Stoicism makes KPIs about curiosity and learning.

We don’t need to be heroes for KPIs to work, riding in to save the day by hitting our targets, or catching out some bad performers who always fail to hit theirs. In fact, this heroism sets up a very binary success-or-failure mindset, constrained and held rigid by judgment.

For measurement of performance to work, the mindset we need is curiosity, liberated and given direction by learning.

Does heroism play a role in your use of KPIs?

Using KPIs with the heroic success-or-failure mindset shows up in behaviours like these:

  • managers subtly suggesting they want the “good news” stories
  • when performance isn’t up to scratch, people finding some “bad guys” to blame
  • people’s performance appraisal – and often pay – is tied to performance measures
  • performance of people, teams, or organisations is ranked based on a numeric scale
  • refusing to measure things because the perfect measure doesn’t exist

Using KPIs with heroism means we think there’s a threat.

With the heroic success-or-failure mindset, people believe that KPIs will be used to deny their promotion, deny a pay increase, embarrass them in front of colleagues, reduce their budget, turn away their clients, or take time away from their “real work”. All of that is very threatening.

And it results in gaming, often the only way to defend against these threats. The measure will be gamed, to focus on good performance. The data will be gamed, to only monitor good performance. The system will be gamed, to hit performance targets at the expense of everything else.

Performance won’t improve because of this gaming. And likely the performance that matters will decline.

Stoicism isn’t lack of caring, it’s lack of judgment.

Stoicism isn’t about having no expression on your face, or avoiding emotion. It’s a philosophy of learning how to better respond to what’s really going on. Stoicism is based on four tenets that serve the purpose of KPIs far more constructively and successfully than heroism:

  1. Wisdom, the logical and calm consideration of what our KPIs are collectively telling us about performance, as well as what they cannot tell us. This way, we get insight.
  2. Temperance, using KPIs with self-restraint to avoid quick-fixes and un-thought-through solutions, and with moderation to avoid trying to improve everything at once. This way, we get leverage.
  3. Justice, not using KPIs against people, but as tools that help everyone collaborate to improve the performance of the whole system. This way, we get buy-in.
  4. Courage, in using KPIs in the selection and testing of performance improvement experiments or innovations that will never be guaranteed to succeed. This way, we get learning.

The stoic approach to performance measurement is more like the approach of a scientist than a superman.

Using KPIs requires stoicism, not heroism. Use them in the context of learning, not threat.
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If we have colleagues or leaders who use KPIs with heroism, what can we do to invite them to use KPIs with stoicism?

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