Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Full Stops, Neutrinos and Rocket Science

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I don’t know why I feel compelled to respond to what I see are unreasonable positions (primarily in LinkedIn discussions). But I do, and this blog gives me a vehicle for doing so without taking up a disproportionate amount of air time on that forum.

So what got me going this time? A LinkedIn discussion (that I started on the topic of 360 validity) got diverted into the topic of “proper” use of 360 feedback (development vs decision making).  The particular comment that got me going was, “I believe these assessments should be used for development – full stop.”  (Virtually 100% of 360 processes are used for development, but the context indicates that he meant “development only.”) Having lived and worked in London for a while, I realized (or realised) that the “full stop” has the same meaning as “period,” implying end of sentence and, with emphasis, no more is worth saying.  By the way, I am using this person only as an example of the many, many individuals who have expressed similar dogmatic views on this topic.

There are probably a few things that are appropriate to put a “full stop” on. That would be an interesting blog for someone, e.g., would we include the Ten Commandments? “Thou Shall Not Kill. Full stop.”  Hmmm… but then we have Christians who believe in capital punishment, so maybe it’s only a partial stop (or pause)?  Like I said, I will let someone else take that on.

Are the physical sciences a place for “full stops?”   Like, “The world is flat. Full stop.”  “ The Sun revolves around the Earth. Full stop.” Just this last week, we were presented with the possibility that another supposedly immutable law is under attack, i.e., “Nothing can go faster than the speed of light. Full stop.”  Now we have European scientists who have observed neutrinos apparently traveling faster than the speed of light and are searching for ways to explain and confirm it. If found to be true, it would challenge many of the basics of physics, opening the door to time travel, for example.  The fact that some scientists are apparently challenging the “full stop” nature of the Theory of Relativity is also fascinating, if only for the reason that they are open to exploring the supposedly impossible. And, by the way, are begging for others to challenge and/or replicate their findings.

I firmly believe that the social sciences have no place for “full stops.”  To me, “full stop” means ceasing to explore and learn. It seems to indicate a lack of openness to considering new information or different perspectives.

I suspect there are many practitioners in the “hard” sciences who question whether what we do is a “science” at all. (I think I am running out of my quota of quotations marks.)  Perhaps they see our work with understanding human behavior as a quest with no hope of ever having answers. That’s what I like about psychology. We will never fully know how to explain human behavior, and that’s a good thing. If we can explain it, then we probably could control it. I think that is a scary thought. BUT we do try to improve our understanding and increase the probabilities of predicting what people will do. That is one of the basic goals of industrial/organizational psychology.

(I have been known to contend that what we do is harder than rocket science because there are no answers to what we do, only probabilities.  The truth is that even the hard sciences have fewer “full stops” than even they would like. I just finished reading a book about the Apollo space program, Rocket Men, and it is very interesting to know how many “hard stops” that used to exist were bashed (e.g., humans can’t live in weightlessness, the moon’s crust will collapse if we try to land on it. Insert “hard stops” appropriately), how much uncertainty there was, and how amazing the accomplishment really was.  I also learned that one of the reasons the astronauts’ visors were mirrored was so that aliens couldn’t see their faces. Seriously.)

Increasing probabilities for predicting and influencing employee behavior requires that we also explore options.  I can’t see how it is productive to assert that we know the answer to anything, and that we shouldn’t consider options that help us serve our clients, i.e., organizations, more effectively.

On top of all that, the most recent 3D Group benchmark study indicates that about one third of organizations DO use 360 data for some sort of administrative purpose, and that almost certainly understates the real numbers. What do we tell those organizations? That they should cease doing so since our collective wisdom says that there is no way they can actually be succeeding? That we cannot (or should not) learn from what they are doing to help their organizations make better decisions about their leaders? That a few opinions should outweigh these experiences?

I don’t get it. No stop.

©2011 David W. Bracken

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One Response

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  1. First off, I completely agree with your premise. Any good psychologist will tell you that nothing in human behavior is “full stop.” Full stop! Sure, there might be a few good rolling stops (people tend toward self preservation but not always; rewards usually work better than punishments; goal setting usually works better than “do your best”), but nothing is quite as easy to predict as gravity or the speed of light.

    When people ask me “should 360 degree feedback be used for development or decision making?” I point to 3D Group’s benchmark study (http://tinyurl.com/3jtbjly) and say “yes.”

    As I have always suggested David, your argument is that the either/or question is not only a foolish distinction but that the issue is moot because of current practice. The example is that 360s are frequently used for many types of decisions such as what development activities to pursue. Unfortunately, people seem so scared of using 360 feedback scores as a proxy for performance measurement (e.g. “you scored 3.71, so you get a 2% raise”) that they miss the fact that the information can be used well for some kinds of decisions (e.g. “despite a year of development efforts on this, you continue to severely struggle with delegation, perhaps managing people isn’t the right role for you”).

    Of course, the legitimate concern I’ve heard raised is that some research shows that when you change the purpose of 360 from only development to include decision making, then raters change their motivation from “I want to help this person learn” to something like “I don’t want to get this person fired” in which case scores get artificially inflated. Nonetheless, the 3D Group benchmark results are clear that almost a third of companies openly admit to using 360s for some kind of decision making (such as succession planning). So, instead of asking if 360s should be used for decision making, the real questions should be 1) what kinds of decisions can we responsibly use 360s for? and 2) what process features need to be in place to make valid decisions without messing up the data in the future?

    Dale rose

    September 26, 2011 at 6:36 pm


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