Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

What I Learned at SIOP

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The annual conference of the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP) was held in Chicago April 14-16 with record attendance. I had something of a “360 Feedback-intensive” experience by running two half-day continuing education workshops (with Carol Jenkins) on 360 feedback, participating on a panel discussion of the evolution of 360 in the last 10 years (with other contributors to The Handbook of Multisource Feedback), and being the discussant for a symposium regarding Implicit Leadership Theories that largely focused on cultural factors in 360 processes. Each forum gave me an opportunity to gauge some current perspectives on this field, and here are a few that I will share.

The “debate” continues but seems to be softening. The “debate” is, of course, how 360 feedback should be used: development only and/or for decision making. In our CE Workshop, we actually had participants stand up and stand in corners of the room to indicate their stance on this issue, and, judging from that exercise, there are still many strong proponents of each side of that stance. That said, one of the conclusions the panel seemed to agree upon is that there is some blurring of the distinction between uses and some acknowledgement that 360’s are successfully being used for decision making, and that 360’s are far less likely to create sustainable behavior change without accountability that comes with integration with HR systems.

We need to be sensitive to the demands we place on our leaders/participants. During our panel discussion, Janine Waclawski (who is currently an HR generalist at Pepsi) reminded us of how we typically inundate 360 participants with many data points, beginning with the number of items multiplied by the number of rater groups. (I don’t believe the solution to this problem is reducing the number of items, especially below some arbitrary number like 20 items.)  Later, I had the opportunity to offer commentary on four terrific research papers that had a major theme of how supervisors need to be aware of the perspectives of their raters that may well be caused by their cultural backgrounds.

As someone who is more on the practitioner end of the practitioner-scientist continuum, I tried to once again put myself in the seat of the feedback recipient (where I have been many times) and consider how this research might be put into practice. On one hand, organizations are using leadership competency models and values statements to create a unified message (and culture?) that spans all segments of the company. We can (and should) have debates about how useful and realistic this practice is, but I think most of us agree that the company has a right to define the behaviors that are expected of successful leaders. 360 processes can be a powerful way to define those expectations in behavioral terms, to help leaders become aware of their perceived performance of those behaviors, to help them get better, and to hold leaders accountable for change.

On the other hand, the symposium papers seem to suggest that leader behaviors should be molded from “the bottom up,” i.e., by responding to the expectations of followers (raters) that may be attributed to their cultural backgrounds and their views of what an effective leader should be (which may differ from the leader’s view and/or the organization’s view of effective leadership).  By the way, this “bottoms up” approach applies also to the use of importance ratings (which is not a cultural question).

My plea to the panel (perhaps to their dismay) was to at least consider the conundrum of the feedback recipient who is being given this potentially incredibly complex task of not only digesting the basic data that Janine was referring to, but then to fold in the huge amount of information created by having to consider the needs of all the feedback providers. Their research is very interesting and useful in raising our awareness of cultural differences that can affect the effectiveness of our 360 processes. But PLEASE acknowledge the implications for putting all of this to use.

The “test” mentality is being challenged.  I used the panel discussion to offer up one of my current pet peeves, namely to challenge the treatment of 360 Feedback as a “test.”  Both in the workshops and again at the panel, I suggested that applying practices such as randomizing items and using reverse wording to “trick” the raters is not constructive and most likely is contrary to our need to help the raters provide reliable data. I was gratified to receive a smattering of applause when I made that point during the panel.  I am looking forward to hopefully discussing (debating) this stance with the Personnel Testing Council of Metropolitan Washington in a workshop I am doing in June, where I suspect some of the traditional testing people will speak their mind on this topic.

This year’s SIOP was well done, once again. I was especially glad to see an ongoing interest in the evolution of the field of 360 feedback judging from the attendance at these sessions, let alone the fact that the workshop committee identified 360 as a topic worthy of inclusion after going over 10 years since the last one.  360 Feedback is such a complex process, and we are still struggling with the most basic questions, including purpose and use.

©2011 David W. Bracken

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One Response

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  1. Great blog, David. In addition to the workshops, I noticed some very interesting research on 360 feedback in the poster sessions.

    Allen Gorman

    May 2, 2011 at 12:59 pm


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