Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

White Broncos and Oysters

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It’s interesting how perceptions are formed. A few years ago I had a hallway chat with a senior leader in the consulting firm I was with at the time regarding 360 feedback, and I noted that 360 might have some appeal, especially in certain  Western cultures, because it drew upon similar principles as the jury system. He just laughed out loud, uttering something to the effect of, “Yeah, and we know how well those work!.” He was clearly referring to the first O.J.  Simpson trial (the criminal proceeding) where the defendant was acquitted, but later found liable in a civil suit.  I pointed out the problem with using a single instance to create a wide generalization. As an analogy, I noted that I didn’t see him stop traveling after a major plane crash.  To no avail, of course. (I have to believe that there are many people who do not fly for this reason.)

A few years ago I ventured into Wikipedia and searched on 360-Degree Feedback. What a mess! If you dare to make the journey, you may see some of my “tracks” in there as I offered some perspectives. It has very few updates, with the most recent ones referring to the notorious Watson Wyatt study.

But one of the first entries in the Discussion section includes this diatribe:

Okay: it sucks. Take it from a long-time IBMer. It started in about the mid-1980s and began to die about 2000 because of its ineffectiveness and morale-lowering difficulty. It creates a lot of paperwork and doesn’t yield much insight that the employee can’t get from his manager. Peers rate each other too generously and subordinates are afraid to criticize their superiors. Plus, how many people do you need to tell you that you should be more proactive in managing risk and look for ways to expand your skill set? However, in a modified form (such as infrequent subordinate evaluations of their managers), it may remain useful.

Kind of interesting how this person’s reasoning changes if you contrast the first and last sentences.  But which sentence do you (and I) remember? The first, of course, for many reasons.

So we have personal opinions being formed by both “big events” (like the whole White Bronco debacle) and by individual experiences like those of the IBMer. Such are human beings.

We all operate in this mode. To use another analogy, I had an “experience” many years ago with an Atlanta restaurant where I tried both Oysters Rockefeller and soft shell crab for the first time. Got food poisoning, and haven’t tried either since.  All of us have some similar tale whether it’s about food or some other thing we have negative associations with. Sometimes just hearing a story is sufficient to create the aversion. And sometimes these things aren’t particularly rational.

Here’s the problem I would like some help with. How do we get senior leaders (i.e., decision makers) to realize when they are using either personal experiences or anecdotes like the Wikipedia person or the “jury averse” consultant to make major decisions? Is it naïve to think that we can reasonably expect leaders (and people in general) to depersonalize decisions, like whether to implement (or continue) some program (like 360 feedback, or others)?

I was watching the movie Amadeus last night. Monarchs are infamous for their whims, and in this story Emperor Joseph II had issued a ban on ballet in operas (who knows why). Mozart had an interesting strategy for getting the Emperor to change his mind (or actions at least) by playing on the ruler’s love of music and showing the effect of removing the music from the dance sequence. Mozart didn’t directly confront the problem, just got the Emperor to see the consequences of his dictum.

The psychologists in the room might go nuts with our training on “desensitization” and stuff like that. But I am interested in practical experiences and suggestions for overcoming personal biases in leaders.   Please dive in!

©2011 David W. Bracken


Written by David Bracken

February 25, 2011 at 9:34 am

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