Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Worst is Not First

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I was looking back at the list of potential topics for this blog that I constructed when I started about 9 months ago. This is one that was on the list, so it has been festering for awhile.

I thought of it again this week when I had to dive into a set of feedback reports in preparation for phone coaching sessions with these leaders next week. And I do what I suspect most leaders do when they get their own reports, i.e., go first to the write in comments and then the Top and Bottom lists (with more attention to the Bottom unfortunately).

The instructions for interpreting the results and my personal counsel is to then use this information to begin looking for themes to begin the process of narrowing down the possible areas for developmental focus.  But is that what the typical leader does? Of course not. We’re human, and, for some reason, we have this need to focus on the negative.

That results in two unproductive results for many 360 participants. First, we obsess on negative write in comments, giving WAY too much weight to single comments. Then we try to figure out who said it and/or assume we know both who said it and why they said it. One of my big challenges as a coach is to try to head that off before something bad happens, even if it is as innocuous as creating a development plan that is misguided (or the other extreme of “going postal”).

The other problem is the tendency to automatically assume the lowest scores are the ones we need to “fix.”  This relates back to my earlier blog about computers telling us what to do. Not only can computers “go too far” in telling us what is most important to work on, but coaches can also “go too far” in assuming we know what is most important.  While we’re at it, we sometimes also put raters in that position and “going too far” by asking them about importance.

Who knows best regarding importance and priorities? The leader and his/her boss.  Together they know the context of the data, past feedback, and future development needs for the leader and the organization.

We should be looking for themes in the data, both on the strength and development needs sides of the equation. A starting point might be to note if the Top/Bottom scoring items are largely from the same dimension (e.g., Communication). We should also go to the item level data to see if one group of raters is driving the high or low results (e.g., are peer scores much different from direct reports?).

Speaking of strengths, that is probably the best place to start a review discussion with a leader. That said, the total focus on strengths in some media is way overblown. I think I am in the vast majority of practitioners who see a total focus on strengths and the ignoring of development needs is a deadly prescription.

Let’s remember that the worst results are not necessarily the first, and the best don’t mean ignore the rest.

©2011 David W. Bracken

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