Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Built to Fail/Don’t Let Me Fail

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This is a “two sided” blog entry, like those old 45 rpm records that had hit songs on both sides (think  “We Can Work It Out”/”Daytripper” by the Beatles),though my popularity may not be quite at their level.  This is precipitated by a recent blog (and LinkedIn discussion entry) coming from the Envisia people. The blog entry is called, “Does 360-degree feedback even work?” by Sandra Mashihi and can be found at http://results.envisialearning.com/.   It would be helpful if you read it first, but not necessary.

Sandra begins by citing some useful research regarding the effectiveness of 360 processes. And she concludes that sometimes 360’s “work” and sometimes not.  Her quote is, “Obviously, the research demonstrates varied results in terms of its effectiveness.”

What is frustrating for some of us are the blanket statement about failures (and using terms like “obvious”) without acknowledging that many 360’s are “built to fail.” This is the main thesis of the article Dale Rose and I just published in the Journal of Business and Psychology. http://www.springerlink.com/content/85tp6nt57ru7x522/

http://www.ioatwork.com/ioatwork/2011/06/practical-advice-for-designing-a-360-degree-feedback-process-.html

Dale and I propose four features needed in a 360 process if it is likely to create sustainable behavior change:

1)      Reliable measurement: Professionally developed, custom designed instruments

2)      Credible data: Collecting input from trained, motivated raters with knowledge of ratees

3)      Accountability: Methods to motivate raters and ratees to fulfill their obligations

4)      Census participation: Requiring all leaders in an organizational unit to get feedback

We go on to cite research that demonstrates how the failure to build these features into 360 can, in some cases, almost guarantee failure and/or the ability to detect behavior change when it does occur. One such feature, for example, is whether the ratee follows up with raters (which I have mentioned in multiple prior blogs). If/when a 360 (or a collection of 360’s, such as in a meta analysis) is deemed a “failure”, I always want to know things such as whether raters were trained and whether follow up was required, for starters.

We are leaning more and more about the facets that increase the probability that behavior change will occur as a result of 360 feedback. Yet all too often these features are not built into many processes, and practitioners are surprised (“shocked, I’m shocked”) when it doesn’t produce desired results.

Sandra then goes on to state: “I have found 360-degree feedback worked best when the person being rated was open to the process, when the company communicated its purpose clearly, and used it for development purposes.” I assume that she means “development only” since all 360’s are developmental.  I definitely disagree with that feature. 360’s for “development (only) purposes” usually violate one or more of the 4 features Dale and I propose, particularly the accountability one. They often do not generate credible data because too few raters are used, even the best practice of including all direct reports.

The part about “being open to the process” is where I get the flip side of my record, i.e., don’t hurt my feelings.  In one (and only one) way, this makes sense. If the ratee doesn’t want to be in a development-only process, then by all means don’t force them. It is a waste of time and money. On the other hand, all development only processes are a waste of money in my opinion for most people. (And, by the way, development only is very rare if that means that no decisions are being made as a result.)

But if we ARE expecting to get some ROI (such as sustained behavior change) from our 360’s, then letting some people to opt out so their feelings aren’t hurt is totally contrary to helping the organization manage its leadership cadre. Intuitively, we should expect that those who opt out are the leaders that need it the most, who know that they are not effective and/or are afraid to be “discovered” as the bullies, jerks, and downright psychopaths that we know exist out there.

I have some fear that this fear of telling leaders that they are less than perfect is stemming from this troubling trend in our culture where everyone  has to succeed. I think that the whole “strengths” movement is a sign of that.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have seen a few things that further sensitized me to this phenomenon. One big one is this article in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to-land-your-kid-in-therapy/8555/1/.  Protecting our children from failure is not working. Protecting our leaders from failure is also dooming your organization.

I swear I never watch America’s Funniest Videos, but during a rain delay of a baseball game recently, I did stumble upon it and succumbed. AFV is all about failure, and I’m not so sure that people always learn from these failures. But one video I enjoyed showing a 2 year old boy trying to pour apple juice from a BIG bottle into a cup. He put the cup on the floor and totally missed the first two times (with the corresponding huge mess). As a parent and grandparent, I was quite amazed that the person behind the camera just let it happen. But on the third try, the task was accomplished successfully, followed by applause and smiles! There was a huge amount of learning that occurred in just a minute or two because the adults allowed it to happen, with a bit of a mess to clean up.

How many of us would have just poured the juice for him? His learning isn’t over; he will make more mistakes and miss the cup occasionally. But don’t we all.

As a parting note, Dale and I support census participation for a number of reasons, one of which is the point I have already made about otherwise missing the leaders that need it most. We also see 360’s as a powerful tool for organizational change, and changing some leaders and not others does not support that objective. Having all leaders participate is tangible evidence that the process has organization support and is valued. Finally, it creates a level playing field for all leaders for both evaluation and development, communicating to ALL employees what the organization expects from its leaders.

©2011 David W. Bracken

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