Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Who’s in charge here?

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In my last blog, I touched on an issue that I would like to give a little more attention, namely the question of who our leaders (i.e., the recipients of 360 Feedback) should be listening to when prioritizing their leadership skills and behaviors: the organization, their coworkers, and/or some combination?  This is a topic that has cultural implications that I alluded to in that earlier blog, and I will post this out on the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP) Going Global group on LinkedIn to see if I can get a response from someone there. But it also has broad implications for how we approach leadership selection, assessment and development in general.

One end of the continuum is to state that an organization has the right (and need) to define leadership competencies/behaviors, ideally derived from strategy, to support its initiatives and create a unique competitive advantage (see the treatment of leadership as an intangible asset in the book, The Invisible Advantage).  Organizations regularly create leadership models that are used to align HR systems in creating the type of leader needed to succeed at the individual and organization level.  This includes values statements that often are operationalized through behavioral items in 360’s that hopefully apply to leaders and line employees alike.

In the context of 360’s, I have long maintained that 360’s can draw their relevance (read “validity”) from a direct line of sight from strategy to leadership models to 360 content, and that it is not necessary to conduct predictive studies to demonstrate the validity of the 360 process. The content of a 360 instrument can define success, and that leaders that behave in ways consistent with the model are successful by definition.  Those who do not conform to those expectations should be give the choice of changing or to find alternative employment.

That is the “top down” version of “who’s in charge here?”  I was influenced in my thinking many years ago by some monographs by Bill Byham at DDI on this topic that were often in the context of assessment center processes but certainly no less applicable. Dr. Byham has written a number of papers on aligning HR systems with competency models, and you can find much of that on their web site.

The other end of the continuum of “who’s in charge here?” is the “bottoms up” view of leadership effectiveness that suggests that the leader’s behavior should be directed by coworkers, particularly direct reports. This view came into greater clarity for me at SIOP during a symposium that I briefly described in my last blog on implicit leadership models.

For decades, this “bottoms up” view of leadership has been implicit in the use of importance ratings. I have been opposed to importance ratings for as long as I can remember, partially because of the extra burden to raters, but, more importantly, because raters are not in a good position to understand the needs of the leader and the organization. I still believe that importance is best determined by the ratee and his/her boss in conjunction.  Asking raters for importance ratings feels like a customer survey. If your 360 treats raters as “customers” of leader behavior, then use a satisfaction scale and design the whole system accordingly.

The SIOP symposium had a number of interesting research studies that explicitly state that an effective leader should understand and react to the needs of coworkers based on the coworkers’ expectations of how an “effective” leader should behave which is, in turn, derived from their cultural backgrounds (i.e., nationality). This is very interesting and cultural awareness is an important issue in our global community.  As some of these papers pointed out, leaders now (especially with virtual teams) can have coworkers and direct reports from multiple nations and cultures, which creates a requirement that somehow the leader has to understand and adapt to the needs of each of these people. My head began to spin!

By the way, I first learned about the concept of Situational Leadership back in the 80’s and I still believe that philosophically it makes a lot of sense to not treat every subordinate the same way. But if you know Situational Leadership, it focuses exclusively on the person’s “maturity” (ability to perform a task) and the need to adapt leadership style depending on an assessment of that maturity level. It is very task oriented, and has little (if anything) to do with the needs and expectations of the follower.

There was some sentiment on the SIOP panel for asking the leader to negotiate or compromise between the “bottoms up” and “top down” views of leadership. I’m not sure how that would work, but it probably compounds one of the main problems I cited as discussant, namely the overload we are creating for leaders by inundating them with all this information in the form of job expectations. I have to believe that leaders are asking, or will ask, this question of “who is in charge?”, the organization or their coworkers?

I will take a stance. I believe that the organization is “in charge.” I did some consulting for a company of about 3500 people in Dubai that had employees with 80 different passports. They were run by South Africans, and ran the company that way. In a nutshell, they expected employees to conform to a common set of values and expectations, effectively leaving their cultural backgrounds at the door. Or at least the company “culture” should take precedence in defining effective leadership. I believe that this aligned focus on organization needs is a necessity, and that we need to make it clear to our leaders “who is in charge” when it comes to deciding how the company will leverage one of its most powerful intangible assets.

©2011 David W. Bracken

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