Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

What You See Is What You Get

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Every month or so I get an invitation/newsletter from Marshall Goldsmith and Patricia Wheeler. This month’s had a couple gems in it, and I have provided the link at the end of this article.  Marshall’s entry on life lessons is very much worth reading. But Patricia’s offering particularly struck me since I have been thinking a lot about leader behavior. As you will see it also relates directly to the hazards of misdiagnosis, another human flaw that is especially salient for those of us in consulting and coaching where we are prone to jumping to conclusions too quickly.

Several years ago my mother experienced stomach pains.  Her physician, one of the best specialists in the city, ordered the usual tests and treated her with medication.  The pains continued; she returned to his office and surgery was recommended, which she had.  After discharge the pains recurred, stronger than ever; she was rushed to the emergency room, where it was determined that her physician had initially misdiagnosed her. She had further surgery; unfortunately she was unable to withstand the stress of two surgeries, fell into a coma and died several days later.  Several days after her second surgery, her physician approached me, almost tearfully, with an apology.

“I apologize,” he said, “this is my responsibility.”  He should have done one additional test, he said, requiring sedation and an invasive procedure, but he did not want to impose the pain of that procedure on her, feeling at the time that his diagnosis was correct.  “I am truly sorry and I will never make that mistake again.”  What struck me at the time and continues to stay with me is that this doctor was willing to take the risk of telling the whole difficult truth, and that taking responsibility for the situation was more important to him than the very real possibility of a malpractice suit.  I forgave him, and I believe my mother would have as well.

Real apologies have positive impact that, in most if not all cases, outweigh the risk factors.  Ask yourself, when does an apology feel heartfelt to you? When does it seem empty?  Think of a time when you heard a public or corporate figure apologize and it rang true and think of a time when it didn’t.  What made the difference? Here are a few guidelines:

Is it from the heart or the risk management office?  If your apology reads like corporate legalese, it won’t be effective.

Is it unequivocal?  Too many apologies begin with “I’m sorry, but you were at fault in this too.”  An attempt to provoke the other party into apologizing or accepting fault will fail.

Is it timely?  If you delay your apology, perhaps wishing that the issue would just go away (trust me, it won’t), its effect will diminish proportionately.

Does it acknowledge the injury and address the future?  In other words, now that you know your words or actions have caused injury, what will you do going forward?

While we can’t avoid all errors, missteps and blind spots, we can at least avoid compounding them with empty words, blaming and justification.

Patricia is focusing on a particular behavior, i.e., apologizing. This behavior, like all other behaviors, is modifiable if we are aware of the need to change and motivated to do so.  It may not be easy and you may not be comfortable doing it, but that is no excuse. And, by the way, people really don’t care what is going on inside your head to justify not changing (e.g., “they know that I’m sorry without me saying it”). Making an apology is often difficult, as Patricia points out, and maybe that’s why it can be so striking and memorable when someone does it well.

In his book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” Marshall makes a similar point about the simple behavior of saying “thank you,” which is a common shortcoming in even the most successful leaders.  Leaders find all sorts of excuses for avoiding even that seemingly easy behavior, including “that’s just not me.” The point is that what you do and what people see (i.e., behaviors) IS who you are.

The good news for us practitioners of 360 Feedback is that observing behaviors is what it is (or should be) all about. In a 360 process, the organization defines the behaviors it expects from its leaders, gives them feedback on how successful they are in doing so, and then (ideally) holds them accountable for changing.

This also means that we go to great lengths to ensure that the content of 360 instruments uses items that describe behaviors, hopefully in clear terms.  We need to ensure that we are asking raters to be observers and reporters of behavior, not mind readers or psychologists.  We need to especially wary of items that include adjectives that ask the rater to peer inside the ratee’s head, including asking what the ratee “knows” or “is aware of” or “believes” or even what the leader is “willing” to do.

As a behaviorist, in the end I only care what a leader does and not why (or if) he/she wants to do it. That’s the main reason why I have found personality assessments to be of little interest, with the exception of possibly providing insights into how the coaching relationship might be affected by things like openness to feedback or their preferred style for guidance and learning.

Another piece of good news for us behaviorists came out in a recent article in Personnel Psychology titled, “Trait and Behavioral Theories of Leadership: An Integration and Meta-Analytic Test of Their Relative Validity” (Derue, Nahrgang, Wellman and Humphrey, 2011).  To quote from the abstract, they report:

Leader behaviors tend to explain more variance in leadership effectiveness than leader traits, but results indicate that an integrative model where leader behaviors mediate the relationship between leader traits and effectiveness is warranted.

The last part about mediation suggests that, even when traits do a decent job (statistically) of predicting leader effectiveness, they are “filtered” through leader behaviors. For example, all the intelligence in the world doesn’t do much good if you are still a jerk (or bully, or psychopath, etc.)

All of this reinforces the importance of reliably measuring leader behaviors, especially if we believe that the “how” of performance is at least as important as the “what.”


©2011 David W. Bracken


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