Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Not Funny

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I seem to be in a bit of a rut with themes around humor and now commercials. Despite trying to bypass as many commercials as possible with my DVR, occasionally I do see one and sometimes even for the better.

One that caught my eye/ear is one by IBM that starts with a snippet of a Groucho Marx (whom I also like very much) where he states, “This morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.”  Of course, the fun part is when he follows, “How he got in my pajamas, I will never know.”  Ba bump.

The commercial goes on to talk about a computer called Watson that has been developed by IBM with capabilities that will be used to compete on Jeopardy (another favorite). The point is that language has subtle meanings, euphemisms, metaphors, nuances and unexpected twists that are difficult for machines to correctly comprehend.

In the context of 360 Feedback, the problem is that we humans are sometimes not so good at picking up the subtleties of language as well. We need to do everything we can to remove ambiguity in our survey content, acknowledging that we can never be 100% successful.

We have all learned, sometimes the hard way, about how our attempts to communicate with others. How often have we had to come to grips with how our seemingly clear directions have been misunderstood by others?

I became sensitized to this question of ambiguity in language during the quality movement of the 80’s and the work of Peter Senge as embodied in The Fifth Discipline and the accompanying Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. (Writing this blog has spurred me to pull out this book; if you youngsters are not aware of Senge’s writings, it is still worth digging out. There is a 2006 Edition which I confess I have not read yet.)

There are many lessons in these books regarding the need to raise awareness about our natural tendencies as humans to fall back on assumptions, beliefs, values, etc., often unconsciously, in making decisions, trying to influence, and taking actions. One lesson that has particularly stuck with me in the context of 360’s is the concept of mental models, which Senge defines as, “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.”  In the Fieldbook, he uses an example of the word “chair” and how that simple word will conjure up vastly different mental images of what a “chair” is, from very austere, simple seats to very lush, padded recliners and beyond. (In fact, it might even create an image of someone running a meeting if we are to take it even farther.)

So Groucho created a “mental model” (or assumed one) of us visualizing him in his pajamas with a gun chasing an elephant. Then he smashes that “assumption” we made by telling us that the elephant was wearing the pajamas. That is funny in many ways.

Sometimes we are amused when we find we have made an incorrect assumption about what someone has told us. I have told the story before of the leader who made assumptions about his low score on “Listens Effectively.” He unexpectedly found that his assumptions were unfounded and the raters were simply telling him to put down his PDA. That could be amusing and also a relief since it is an easy thing to act on.

360 Feedback is a very artificial form of communication where we rely on questionnaires to allow raters to “tell” the ratee something while protecting their anonymity. This also has the potential benefit of allowing us to easily quantify the responses which, in turn, can be used to measure gaps (between rater groups, for example) and track progress over time.

Of course this artificial communication creates many opportunities for raters to misunderstand or honestly misuse the intent of the items and, in turn, for ratees to misinterpret the intended message from the raters. We need to do our best to keep language simple and direct, though we can never prevent raters applying different “mental models.”

Take an item like, “Ensures the team has adequate resources.” Not a bad question. But, like “chair,” “resources” can create all sorts of mental images such as people (staff), money (budget), equipment (e.g., computers), access to the leader, and who knows what else! We could create a different item for each type of resource if we had an unlimited item budget, which we don’t.

This potential problem is heightened if there will be multiple languages used, creating all sorts of issues with translations, cultural perspectives, language nuances, and so on.

In the spirit of “every problem has a solution,” I can think of at least four basic recommendations.

First, be diligent in item writing to keep confusion to a minimum.  For example:

  • Use simple words/language
  • Don’t use euphemisms (“does a good job”)
  • Don’t use metaphors (“thinks outside the box”)
  • Don’t use sports language (“creates benchstrength”)
  • Keep all wording positive (or cluster negatively phrased items such as derailers in one dimension with clear instructions)

Second, conduct pilot tests with live raters who can give the facilitator immediate feedback on wording in terms of clarity and inferred meaning.

Third, conduct rater training. Some companies tell me that certain language is “ingrained” in their culture, such as “think outside the box.” (I really wonder how many people really know the origins of that metaphor. Look it up in Wikipedia if you don’t.)  I usually have to defer to their wishes, but still believe that their beliefs may be more aspirational than factual. Including a review of company-specific language (which does have some value in demonstrating the uniqueness of the 360 content) during rater training will have multiple benefits.

Fourth, acknowledge and communicate that it is impossible to prevent misinterpretations by the senders (raters) and the receivers (ratees). This will require that the ratee discuss results with the raters and ensure that they are all “on the same page”. (metaphor intended with tongue in cheek).

I bet that some ratees do actually laugh (or at least chuckle) if/when they hear how some raters interpret the questions.  But more typically it is not funny. And it is REALLY not funny if the ratee invests time and effort (and organizational resources) taking action on false issues due to miscommunication.

(Note: For those interested, Carol Jenkins and I will be talking about these issues in our SIOP Pre-Conference workshop on 360 Feedback on April 13 in Chicago.)

©2011 David W. Bracken

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