Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Snakes in Suits

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I did a webinar this past week, “Make Your 360 Matter,” that I really enjoyed preparing and delivering. The technology allows for questions to be submitted during the session, and those were screened and presented to me at the end of the session. We were able to get to most of the questions in the 15 minutes or so we had reserved, and a couple of them will be the subject of blogs in the near future.

There were a couple questions we didn’t have time to answer, and, frankly, I am glad that I wasn’t presented with one in particular. I have been mulling it over since then and am glad that I have had the opportunity to think about it and, more importantly, dig deeper into it.

Here is the question verbatim:

You should also consider what you DONT want to accomplish with 360. For example, scales/training that pushes people to use the low end of the scale will result in angry participants and/or potentially poor team dynamics. Leniency can be o.k

For context, I had been talking about the potential impact of rating scales and rater training, with one goal being to reduce leniency error (and I reported on some successful methods to do that).  One case study I shared was relating how senior management at one organization was unhappy with their ability to constructively use 360 results because of the uniformly high ratings. This problem is not uncommon, and may be one of the most serious barriers to sustaining a 360 process.

This person was gracious to give some background about his organization’s process. What I learned made me change the focus of this blog since I didn’t fully understand the full context of his comment. If I had tried to respond to his comment during the webinar, I would have been guilty of making a judgment based on my own frame of reference, which was/is to contend that data fidelity is most important.

Part of my webinar spoke to the importance of knowing the purpose/goals of your 360 process and to be true to those goals as you design and implement the process.  His upward feedback system is based on the organizations’s values (the “how” of performance) and has the primary purpose of identifying the outliers, i.e., leaders who fall at the lowest end of the scale and not behaving consistently with the Values.

This reminds me of a book I reviewed for Personnel Psychology a few years ago called “Snakes in Suits” by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare. The book’s subtitle is, “When Psychopaths Go to Work,” and addresses the problem of dysfunctional leaders (psychopaths and their cousins, bullies and jerks) that too often rise in the ranks and escape detection.  One of the points of the book is the need for methods such as 360 feedback that can be valuable in discovering these bad leaders before they reach positions of significant responsibility.

The upward feedback process in question here has decided to adopt the “Snakes in Suits” approach (i.e., focusing on the lower end of the distribution) as its primary, but not only, goal. (I, of course, don’t mean the lower scoring managers are psychopaths.) With that in mind, leniency is indeed tolerable, as long as the organization recognizes that decision and does not try to use the data for other purposes, such as making comparisons (e.g., ranking) of leaders for uses such as staffing, succession planning,  or high potential identification beyond just identifying the outliers.  The feedback is used in performance management, so that it does carry some weight and feeds development plans. But the implementers have decided to “do no harm” by possibly demotivating otherwise productive leaders. In that way, they live with leniency and still serve an important service to the organization.

There are too many feedback processes that purport to have a certain purpose (e.g., development only, performance management, leadership development, create a feedback climate, accountability, behavior change) and then include design elements that are totally contrary to that purpose. That might include practices such as a “development only” system that shares reports with managers/bosses or “behavior change” with no accountability or follow up.  It is nice to see one process that is true to its roots.

©2010 David W. Bracken

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Written by David Bracken

October 12, 2010 at 12:53 pm

One Response

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  1. […] of my early posts was titled “Snakes in Suits”   (https://dwbracken.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/snakes-in-suits/), which is also the title of a book about psychopaths in industry, specifically in leadership […]


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