Strategic 360s

360s for more than just development

Posts Tagged ‘high potentials

What Is a “Decision”?

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My good friend and collaborator, Dale Rose, dropped me a note regarding his plans to do another benchmarking study on 360 Feedback processes. His company, The 3D Group, has done a couple of these studies before and Dale has been generous in sharing his results with me, which I have cited in some of my workshops and webinars. The studies are conducted by interviewing coordinators of active 360 systems.  Given that they are verbal, some of the results have appeared somewhat internally inconsistent and difficult to reconcile, though the general trends are useful and informative.

Many of the topics are useful for practitioners to gauge their program design, such as the type of instrument, number of items, rating scales, rater selection, and so on. For me, the most interesting data relates to the various uses of 360 results.

Respondents in the 2004 and 2009 studies report many uses. In both studies, “development” is the most frequent response, and that’s how it should be.  In fact, I’m amazed that the responses weren’t 100% since a 360 process should be about development. The fact that in 2004 only 72% of answers included development as a purpose is troubling whether we take the answers as factual or if they didn’t understand the question. The issue at hand here is not whether 360’s should be used for development; it is what else they should, can, and are used for in addition to “development.”

In 2004, the next most frequent use was “career development;” that makes sense. In 2009, the next most frequent was “performance management,” and career development dropped way down. Other substantial uses include high potential identification, direct link to performance measurement, succession planning, and direct link to pay.

But when asked whether the feedback is used “for decision making or just for development”, about 2/3 of the respondents indicated “development only” and only 1/3 for “decision making.” I believe these numbers understate the actual use of 360 for “decision making” (perhaps by a wide margin), though (as I will propose), it can depend on how we define what a “decision” is.

To “decide” is “to select as a course of action,” according to Miriam Webster (in this context). I would build on that definition that one course of action is to do nothing, i.e., don’t change the status quo or don’t let someone do something. It is impossible to know what goes on in person’s mind when he/she speaks of development, but it seems reasonable to suppose that it involves doing something beyond just leaving the person alone, i.e., maintaining the status quo.  But doing nothing is a decision. So almost any developmental use is making a decision as to what needs to be done, what personal (time) and organizational (money) resources are to be devoted to that person. Conversely, denying an employee access to developmental resources that another employee does get access to is a decision, with results that are clearly impactful but difficult to measure.

To further complicate the issues, it is one thing to say your process is for “development only,” and another to know how it is actually used.  Every time my clients have looked behind the curtain of actual use of 360 data, they unfailingly find that managers are using it for purposes that are not supported. For example, in one client of mine, anecdotal evidence repeatedly surfaced that the “development only” participants were often asked to bring their reports with them to internal interviews for new jobs within the organization. The bad news was that this was outside of policy; the good news was that leaders saw the data as useful in making decisions, though (back to bad news) they may have been untrained to correctly interpret the reports.

Which brings us to why this is an important issue. There are legitimate “development only” 360 processes where the participant has no accountability for using the results and, in fact, is often actively discouraged from sharing the results with anyone else. Since there are not consequences, there are few, if any, consequential actions or decisions required. But most 360 processes (despite the benchmark results suggesting otherwise) do result in some decisions being made, which might include doing nothing by denying an employee access to certain types of development.

The Appendix of The Handbook of Multisource Feedback is titled, “Guidelines for Multisource Feedback When Used for Decision Making.”  My sense is many designers and implementers of 360 (multisource) processes feel that these Guidelines don’t apply because their system isn’t used for decision making. Most of them are wrong about that. Their systems are being used for decision making, and, even if not, why would we design an invalid process? And any system that involves the manager of the participant (which it should) is creating the expectation of direct or indirect decision making to result.

So Dale’s question to me (remember Dale?) is how would I suggest wording a question in his new benchmarking study that would satisfy my curiosity regarding the use of 360 results. I proposed this wording:

“If we define a personnel decision as something that affects an employee’s access to development, training, jobs, promotions or rewards, is your 360 process used for personnel decisions?” 

Dale hasn’t committed to using this question in his study. What do you think?

©2012 David W. Bracken

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