Over-rating Approval Ratings

I had the privilege recently to be interviewed on a local cable station (MCTV) regarding the future of the new governor’s mandate in Michigan. While I have had the opportunity to be on larger media platforms in the past, I have to say that the interview by Ralph Wirtz, Managing Editor of the Midland Daily News, was one of the most enjoyable. Not sure I actually answered any questions, but it was still fun. (I’ll post the video here if I find a way to get a copy).

One question he brought up was concerning the new Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, and the potential of negative impact to his approval scores once he starts making things happen. As I have given this more thought, I am more than ever convinced that leaders cannot lead effectively worrying about rolling approval scores. Governor Snyder was not elected to gain public approval. He was elected to lead the state through some pretty rough times. The same is true of every President, Governor, Mayor and other official who serves public office. Chasing public approval is like chasing employee approval…there are times when you are simply not going to have it. Why is that?

Approval Ratings are of limited use to leaders
The biggest reason that approval ratings need to be put in their proper priority is that they are short-term measures. Approval ratings as published always represent an immediate and timely response at a specific moment in time. A trend over time might be significant, but successful leadership is measured over the long term. You can’t adequately make decisions that are visionary or complex and worry about the response you will get on the day you make that decision. This is the paradox of approval ratings. When published as if they are substantial news, we get confused and concerned because we get the impression that there is something terribly wrong.

One other thing to remember about approval ratings on a large scale. The most reported national ratings, those conducted by Gallup, are conducted by phoning between 3000 and 4000 people with the question, “Do you approve of leadership?” or something to that effect. It is as simple as that. In other words, the breaking news that somebody’s approval rating has dropped or risen is based on an answer given by .00001 of the population.

This is the equivalent of asking 1 person in a sell-out crowd at the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium to represent the views of the nation.

While it would be great if we could predict the effectiveness of our new governor or any other leader based on a simple measure of public opinion, we simply cannot. The same is true of corporate leaders or others in complex systems. There is too much we do not know at a given point of time and too great a diversity of opinion to ensure a valid measure. It is important that our leaders hear our views and opinions, but catering to the short-term whims of public opinion is no way to create long-term change.

What do you think?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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