Imagine that every Christmas you and your colleagues receive a bonus and, since it’s the festive season, a free turkey to boot. The turkey is positioned as a wholesome thank you from the head honchos. This year, however, the company says they won’t be giving you the free turkey you’re now so accustomed to receiving. But you’ll still get your bonus, which might even be a bit larger since the company did so well this year. Initially you think, ‘that’s okay, the bonus is all that really matters’. But the more you ponder it a turkey-sized hole begins to form in your mind, a hole through which you fall and can’t climb out of, growing vexed and disgruntled. You know it’s silly – you can just buy a turkey. So why are you so irritated about not getting that turkey?

If we were to rationally assess what’s gone on here, we’d probably look at monetary gain. The relatively inexpensive turkey’s absence should be outweighed by the increased bonus, resulting in overall profit and happiness for the employee. This was likely the thought-process undertaken by the head honchos. But this isn’t enough; humans are more than digits. The other, equally important deficit they neglected to measure is the emotional impact.

Measurement in business rarely considers the huge role emotions play in everything we do. Although our more irrational, emotional selves are often negatively stigmatised or repressed for the sake of professionalism, our emotions actually have neurological primacy and drive most of our thinking. All information processing and behavioural output passes through an emotional filter. Researches in neuroscience, psychology and behavioural science – perhaps most notably Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman – continue to demonstrate how powerfully the illogic of emotions and biases determine our cognition and behavior.

This is why, despite showing obvious monetary gain, the head honchos’ cost-benefit analysis fails. Humans don’t often look at facts objectively, but perceive things in relative terms (as Kahenman notes, even babies perceive things in variation). So, even though we know it’s irrational and we get what’s supposedly important (the bonus), we expect to get a turkey this year because we got one last year. If we don’t we feel cheated, shafted. Problems arise when we neglect to measure the emotional and psychological impact of our actions.

We might do this by measuring the ‘neurobiological drivers of motivation’. These include abstract-sounding things like direction, a sense of belonging and fairness. When these ‘drivers’ are supported cognitive function, creativity, performance, and mental and physical wellbeing are all positively influenced. But when they’re disregarded, performance and wellbeing are jeopardised. Measuring the drivers of performance and adjusting them accordingly is more beneficial and fundamentally positive than quantifying performance or reducing humans to digits.

So, alongside the turkey fiasco, let’s look at one of these neurobiological drivers of motivation: fairness.

There’s no contractual obligation to provide a turkey for employees at Christmas, but it only seems ‘fair’ to continue the tradition. People might say, ‘it’s not like they can’t afford it’, or ‘taking away our turkey’s just petty powerplay’. One of turkeygate’s consequences is a distrust of the board’s motivations behind the turkey withdrawal, whose actions are perceived as ‘unfair’. Maybe it helps to also imagine the distrust and anger if, in a tactless executive decision, some people received a turkey and some didn’t – everyone who’s ever given one child a present and not the other knows how this scenario unfolds.

Opposed to this distrust is its antonym: trust, which is supported by fairness and is crucial to strong relationships. Yet trust is hard to manage or measure because it is often most strongly upheld by things that are unspoken or taken-for-granted, like the non-contractual expectation of a Christmas turkey every annum. Within the business world, undermining such delicately balanced understandings can have terrible consequences for employee motivation, performance, and organisational success.

How do we prevent this?

Well, we prevent it by using advances in data and measurement capabilities to measure things like trust – measuring the previously unmeasurable.

First we need to uncover the various perceptions of fairness within the company, team, or group. This can be done by using data capture and display tools that record information regarding an individual, group, or organisation’s perception of fairness within a given context.

The key is to then collate and represent this data in a simple, accessible format, ideally through a visual metaphor that can clearly and potently communicate the dynamics of ‘fairness’ back to the individual, group, or organisation. When this is done successfully, ‘fairness’ becomes something tangible, quantifiable, and understandable, something that can be positively influenced by practical actions.

These sorts of measurement capabilities, which are available and evidence-based, have manifold applications. For instance, they could highlight the adverse impact of the gender pay gap on performance, helping to increase cognitive dissonance around the issue and drive change.

More generally, a company or leader with this sort of capability can develop the emotional intelligence necessary to effectively motivate and manage its employees or team, using measurement methods to enliven, not deaden them. Measurement of this kind makes tangible that which appears intangible yet is so influential. By supporting particular neurobiological drivers of motivation, like ‘fairness’, we can directly enhance trust and wellbeing, which fuel performance. Quantifying performance is one thing, but what’s more important is measuring the factors that can support sustained performance.

Maybe this would make the board think twice about rescinding that turkey next Christmas.