Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

What is normal?

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My good friend, Jon Low (, brought a WSJ article to my attention that delves into the question of what behaviors are “normal” (i.e., tolerated or even encouraged) across different organizations, in this case sorted by industry.  Here are a couple brief excerpts from the article and a link to access it:

Fuld & Co., a competitive-intelligence consultant based in Cambridge, Mass., presented 104 business executives with hypothetical scenarios that would give the executive an opportunity to collect intel about a competitor, but straddled the ethical line. Participants could rate the scenario as “normal,” “aggressive,” “unethical,” or “illegal.”

“Companies have different senses of what’s right and wrong,” said Fuld & Co. President Leonard Fuld.

Executives in financial services and technology are the most cutthroat in collecting intelligence about competitors, while pharmaceutical executives and government officials are the most trepid, according to a recent survey.

What came to my mind in reading this interesting study was the question of the utility of comparing leadership behavior across organizations as we use the results of 360 Feedback processes to guide the development priorities and, sometimes, make other decisions based on the data as well.  Specifically, how useful are external norms as part of 360 reports?

First a brief digression. I have proposed lately that many discussions of best practices in the 360 arena should be divided into two categories, i.e., processes where “N=1” (i.e., ad hoc, single person administrations) vs. “N>1” (i.e., where more than one leader is going through the 360 experience at the same time).  For “N=1” situations, using an off-the-shelf instrument usually makes sense, and usually those instruments have external norms since the content is held constant across all users. Usually there are no internal norms as well. That said, the points I make below highlight the need for caution in using external norms in any setting. End of digression.

I frequently use a quote taken from the book Execution (Bossidy and Charan, 2003) that reads:

The culture of a company is the behavior of its leaders. Leaders get the behavior they exhibit and tolerate.”

I do not recall ever hearing anyone refute the notion that every organization has its own culture. Since that is an accepted axiom, then it would follow from Bossidy and Charan that the definition of successful leadership behaviors should vary across organizations as well.

If you agree with that train of thought, then it seems to follow that using external norms in 360’s makes no sense. For starters, wanting external norms severely constrains the content of the instrument since the organization will be required to use the exact wording and response scale from the standard questionnaire.

Using external norms also flies in the face of the argument that the uniqueness of an organization (and its culture) is a source of competitive advantage.  I (and others) also argue that uniquely relevant 360 content greatly helps in creating motivation for the raters and for helping ratees accept the feedback as being important and relevant to their success.

360’s can be a powerful way to create culture change. Especially when used across the whole organization, the behavioral descriptors “bring the culture to life” and communicate to all employees what it takes to be a successful member of organization and what they should expect from their leaders. Administration across the organization will quickly generate internal norms that can be an extremely powerful tool in helping leaders understand how they compare to their peers, and, in some organizations, help identify outliers at the low end who may require special attention. Conversely, leaders at the top 5th percentile may be used as role models.

Returning to the study cited in the WSJ, I might have thought that ethical behavior might be one area where there would be some consistency across organizations, at least within the same culture (e.g., Western culture). Silly me. If we have significant variance in behavioral expectations across organizations and/or industries in something as basic as ethical behavior, then we similarly should not be surprised if we find differences in other categories of behavior as well.

Do you believe that each organization has a unique culture? If so, using external norms in your 360 probably doesn’t make sense.

©2011 David W. Bracken


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