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Checking In Is Not Enough

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It has been two years since I last raised the question in this blog about “what is a coach?” (   While I think (and talk) about this topic often, I haven’t been moved to write about it in this forum until now when my friend Jon Low published in his daily Low-Down a piece from Fast Company by Kris Duggan titled, “Why The Annual Performance Review is Going Extinct.”  (

There’s a lot going on in this article.  I disagree with the notion that performance appraisals are going “extinct,” so I want to focus on this question of coaching.  Most of the arguments for dismantling the appraisal call for more interaction between the employee and the manager/supervisor, sometimes as if it’s an “either/or” type of choice, like you can’t do both have an annual appraisal and regular feedback and coaching.

Kris does the same in this article, as in “turning managers into coaches,” which here literally means checking in more frequently on progress toward goals.  Taken to its logical end and the capability to monitor some jobs continuously, the best “coaches” will be those managers who constantly monitor their subordinates.

Actually, goal setting and monitoring are often set outside the definitions of “coaching” and reserved more for “managing” performance.  Coaching requires some sort of situational diagnosis, but only as a starting point.

My reflex reaction is to say that “checking in” in not “coaching,” any more than “showing up” is 80% of success (according to Woody Allen).   But maybe “checking in” is an activity (behavior) that is the transition from managing into coaching, the opportunity to clarify goals, check for understanding and identify possible barriers (e.g., resources). That also assumes that “checking in” is more than just saying, “Hey, how ya doin’?”

Here I may be falling into my own trap of making assumptions about what “checking In” means and is intended to mean. Kris and BetterWorks coworkers  may have some particular methodology around training managers on how to “check in” to determine progress against goals. Yet “checking in” has a very casual feel to it in our vernacular, and has the very real risk of being misused as some sort of type of “coaching.”

What IS important is that manager/leaders/supervisors aren’t somehow led to believe that “checking in” is synonymous with “coaching,” and that they are “coaching” when they check-in and that’s the total requirement for being a manager-coach.

Building on a simple model of coaching that I started in the “Redux” blog mentioned above, let me propose a taxonomy of basic manager-as-coach that can create shared expectations for the manager and his/her team members. When there is a clear understanding of what various types of “coaching” can be used to approach a given situational need, and the understanding is shared by both parties (coach and coachee), then the event is expedited.

In an effort to be open-minded, I propose four basic types of coaching style that includes the “check in”:

  • Checker: Ensures understanding of goals and resources.
  • Director: Identifies problems and provides a recommended solution(s). Tells what action to take.
  • Activator: Guides coachee through identification of options and optimal approach, aligned with team/org goals.
  • Developer: Engages coachee in regular, formal discussions regarding current, short term and long term (e.g., career) goals and development implications/steps.

Imagine that the organization requires that every team (defined as a group with a manager/supervisor) has training on these four types of manager/employee interactions, when and how often each type is optimally used, how the conversation is best accomplished, and some role modeling.

Using elements of the ALAMO model ( (across the top), we can provide examples of how the various interactions might go when initiated by the manager/supervisor.  This table is provided to show the hopefully stark differences in the coaching styles available to a manager, each of which is appropriate under certain circumstances, though typically overused (Director) or underused (Activator).

Alignment Ability Motivation Opportunity
Checker “Are you clear on your assignment?” “Is there anything you need to know?” “Are you making progress?” “Do you have what you need?”
Director “I know what is best. Go do it.” “Here’s how to do it. It has worked for me before.” “Success or failure will affect your PA rating.” “Here’s your time frame and budget. Make it work.”
Activator “What do you think is the best way to achieve this goal?” “Yes, that approach is a good match for your skills.” “It seems like you are most excited by this approach.” “Are there any barriers that might hinder your progress?”
Developer What are your career goals?  What does the organization need? What abilities will you need to develop to get there? Why do you want to go that direction? Why haven’t you already started?

This can create a “language” for the team and for the organization, for that matter. Whether initiated by the manager or the employee, any formal or informal conversation might begin by saying, “Here’s the situation, and let’s have a quick Directive discussion”, or “Let’s have an Activation discussion on how to approach this,” and then dive in. Each person knows they are having a “coaching” session, whether informal or formal, and the basic objective. Or “I’m just checking in. Everything going OK?”

Performance management systems can be set up to allow managers to keep track of the very basics of when  these types of sessions occur.  This can help them track their own progress on using different styles of coaching, and also see when it is time to do career coaching, for example, if that has slipped through the cracks.

I heard, via a webinar, of one organization that gives employees cards with different types of interactions printed on them, and they can “redeem” them with their manager to initiate informal or formal discussions at their discretion.  The manager, on the other side of the equation, can be challenged to collect the cards from each employee over the course of a quarter and/or year. So the employee will have cards that say, using my model,  Checker, Director, Activator, or Developer.  There will be a lot of Checker cards, but only a few (2-4) Developer cards. Each card might have some verbiage with guidance on how and when to best use them.

Finally, let me loop back around to a question Jon Low raises, namely “who should be judging who?”  There is no question that employees should have the opportunity to provide feedback regarding their manager’s performance as a coach. Instruments such as The ManagerCoach© help define the desired behaviors and outcomes (e.g., trust) that will only occur if managers are measured and held accountable to, and hopefully developed, trained and selected as well.

We can’t create effective manager-coaches if we aren’t clear as to what they look like, and then select, train and reward accordingly.  “Checking in” isn’t enough to be a manager coach, any more than just showing up leads to success.

Sorry, It’s Not Going Away

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Performance Management is not going away, and we need to continue to find ways to make it more effective. And we continue to find ways to make 360 Feedback more a more powerful tool for workforce assessment and development, important needs for both the organization and the employee.

Please join me for a webinar

Adding Insight to Add Value: 

Integrating 360s with Performance Management

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015  at 12:30 PM EDT, 9:30 AM PST

Implementing 360 Feedback processes that are sustainable and create sustainable change is challenging, to the extent that they sometimes do not succeed. Join us and learn about the best practices and biggest pitfalls in the creation of integrated performance management processes that support a feedback culture and move us away from total reliance on the annual supervisory exercise. We will also consider the proliferation of feedback tools and how they compare to traditional 360 Feedback.

Register here: 

Hope you can join me then!


Written by David Bracken

September 16, 2015 at 9:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

No Fighting in The War Room!

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My apologies (or sympathies) to those of you who have not seen the black satire, “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” which contains the line, “No fighting in the War Room!”  I was reminded of this purposively humorous contradiction in reading an otherwise very insightful summary of the state of feedback tools by Josh Bersin that I hope you can access via LinkedIn here:

Mr. Bersin seems quite supportive of the “ditch the ratings” bandwagon that is rolling through the popular business literature, and his article is a relatively comprehensive survey of the emerging technologies that are supporting various versions of the largely qualitative feedback market.  But right in the middle he made my head spin in Kubrick-like fashion when he starts talking about the need for ways to “let employees rate their managers,” as if this a) is something new, and b) can be done without using ratings.  Instead of “No fighting in the War Room!”, there is “No rating in the evaluation system!”   I’m curious: Is an evaluation not a “rating” because it doesn’t have a number? Won’t someone attach a number to the evaluation? Either explicitly or implicitly? And wouldn’t it be better if there were some agreement as to what number is attached to that evaluation?

What I think is most useful in Bersin’s article is his categorization and differentiation of the types of feedback processes and tools that seem to be evolving in our field, using his labels:

  • Next Generation Pulse Survey and Management Feedback Tools
  • “Open Suggestion Box” and Anonymous Social Network Tools
  • Culture Assessment and Management Tools
  • Social Recognition Tools

I want to focus on Culture Assessment and Management Tools, in the context of this discussion of ratings and performance management, and, in doing so, referencing some points I have made in the past. If you look at Mr. Bersin’s “Simply Irresistible Organization” (in the article), it contains quite a few classic HR terms like “trust,”, “coaching”, transparency,” “support,” “humanistic,” “inspiration,” “empowered,” and so on, that he probably defines somewhere but nonetheless cry out for behavioral descriptors to tell us what we will see happening when they are being done well, if at all. Ultimately it is those behaviors and the support for those behaviors that defines the culture. Furthermore, we can observe and measure those behaviors, and then hold employees accountable for acting in ways consistent with the organization’s needs.

To quote from Booz & Co in 2013:

On the informal side, there must be tangible behaviors that demonstrate what the culture looks like, and they must be granular enough that all levels of the organization can exhibit the behaviors.”

“On the formal side — and where HR can help out — the performance management and rewards systems must reward people for displaying the right behaviors that exemplify the culture. Too often, changes to the culture are not reflected in the formal elements, such as the performance-management process. This results in a relapse to the old ways of working, and a culture that never truly evolves.

Of course, all that requires measurement, which requires ratings. Which, in turn, begs for 360 Feedback, if we agree that supervisory ratings by themselves are inadequate. My experience is that management demand ratings. My prediction is that unchecked qualitative feedback will also run its course and be rejected as serving little purpose in supporting either evaluation or development.

There may be a place for the kind of feedback that social networks provide that is open and basically uncontrolled in providing spontaneous recognition. But I totally disagree with Mr. Bersin who states that any feedback is better than no feedback.  I have and still do counsel against survey comment sections that are totally open and beg for “please whine here” types of comments that are often not constructive and not actionable.

Mr. Bersin brings up the concept of feedback as a “gift” that I recently addressed as going against the notion that feedback providers need to have accountability for their feedback and see it as an investment, not a gift, especially a thoughtless gift (

There is a very basic, important difference in how the field of feedback is trending, i.e., more quantity, less quality, too many white elephants. We need more 401Ks.

©2015 David W. Bracken

Empathy Is a Choice

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There were two items in this Sunday’s New York Times that had “empathy” in their title:  “Empathy is Actually a Choice” ( in the Review section, and, “Is Empathy in Your Resume” ( in the Business section.

The first article is a summary of some research on empathy that supports the stance that empathy is not an immutable personality trait or reflex emotion, but instead is a set of behaviors that can be changed.  As the author states, “… empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.” (Emphasis added)  The article speaks to some of the challenges in getting people to show more empathy, starting with lower empathy from leaders in high positions (perhaps due to the perceived cost of empathetic actions) and towards people of different race.

The second NYT piece is from the Corner Office column, this time an interview with Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of Slack, and earlier Flickr. In Stewart’s responses, he calls empathy an ability, but then goes on to describe how it is manifested in simple behaviors, such as showing up on time and being courteous (a series of behaviors).  (Also check out the 3 questions he asks of job candidates and see if you would pass.)

Often the choice is based largely on the person simply knowing that there is a choice to be made and what the organization’s preferred response is supposed to be. That often comes in the form of Values statements.

In the context of this blog on 360s, ultimately, much of what we include (or should include) on feedback instruments comes down to basic behaviors that are choices, not abilities or skills that require training or development plans. Many of them, like showing up on time, are simple choices of whether to do it or not. They are also observable, a basic requirement for inclusion on feedback instruments if we don’t want raters to be mind readers.

Typical leadership competency models are a mix of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA’s)  that usually do justify inclusion in selection and/or training processes, such as Communication (as defined as an ability, not a choice whether to communicate) and Values such as Teamwork, which is really a choice of whether to support others or not.  Another example that we see in some competency models is the contrast of Decision Making (that can be trained in the context of problem solving processes) versus Decisiveness, the “choice” to make a decision or not.  We should distinguish within our leadership requirements which variables are KSAs (Communication, Decision Making) and which are “choices”  (Teamwork, Decisiveness).

Back to Empathy, most of us agree that a good starting point for creating empathy is to listen.  (I wrote on this topic once before:   In The ManagerCoach© upward feedback instrument, we ask direct reports whether their manager listens more than talks during coaching; it’s the lowest scoring item overall and a very consistent finding.

Getting leaders to listen more and talk less typically requires some awareness, beginning with breaking down the stereotypical view that most managers have that it is their job to have all the answers and to make sure those around them know that.  There is a time when a manager needs to be in the “Director” mode, such as in crisis situations or when the employee is new to the task (as in the Situational Leadership Model of a person low on task maturity).  But I believe that the preferred and most commonly used type of coaching should be what I call the “Activator” mode where the manager and employee engage in mutual problem solving, creating trust and mutual understanding.

One tool we use to create more listening is the WAIT acronym, that is, to ask yourself, “Why Am I Talking?”  Not long ago, I saw a blog where a mother was proposing using that same tool as a parent.

Another argument for enhanced listening is referenced earlier in the finding that people have difficulty in showing empathy for people of a different race.  When I was an undergraduate, I took a seminar (about 15 people) on nonverbal communication.  One of the most impactful exercises we performed was to go into a room alone with cue cards that had emotions written on them (Happy, Sad, Angry, Fear, Surprise, etc.) and take a “selfie” (certainly not what it was called then). Then a week later we were shown pictures of various people in the class and had to judge which emotion they were showing.   You got scored as an actor and as a judge.

The seminar membership was not very diverse, but we did have one African American male (big football player) and an African American female. While I don’t recall how I did as a judge or actor, what I really remember most is that I could not differentiate his various emotions but the woman of the same race could.  This is very anecdotal, but I believe (and have seen) that my experience is reflective of the larger populations.

In the context of listening as a means to the end of creating empathy, understanding and trust, it is even more critical when we are hampered by not having accurate access to nonverbal clues that is likely when conversing across races.  There is other research that not only supports that observation, but branches out to other types of differences between the two parties in an exchange.

The author of the research summary adds this other insight:

…when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded; it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.

This additional research finding gives us even more ammunition for positioning abstract constructs such as empathy not as fixed personal attributes but as behaviors that can be changed by creating awareness and alignment, and providing incentives (including accountability). We are doing ourselves as developers of leaders a disservice when we attach labels to groups of behaviors (e.g., Emotional Intelligence) that potentially cause unintended consequences such as, a) believing the construct it an unchangeable characteristic, b) leading to unclear definitions (sometimes by shear laziness), an c) assuming the “group” cannot be deconstructed and improved one behavior at a time, i.e., the sub behaviors are highly correlated (which they probably are not).

Once the choice is made whether to perform a behavior or not, then there can be some guidance/training to further refine it. For example, if the choice is whether to thank and/or recognize someone, we need to motivate the person/leader to do so. Once he/she has made that decision, we can help them to consider various ways of doing it that fit the situation and person.

But first the choice must be made.

ALAMO: A New Performance Model (Webinar)

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Please join OrgVitality for our next webinar in the 2015 series!

ALAMO: A New Diagnostic Performance Model for Individuals, Teams and Organizations

Thursday, June 11th, 2015 at 12:30 PM EDT, 9:30 AM PST

David Bracken, PhD

Performance management and improvement are discussed constantly at all levels of an organization, i.e., individual, team and organizational. We can argue that all performance is sub-optimal (improvable), so the question is: what are the primary factors that drive performance, and then how to ensure that all those causal factors receive full consideration when prescribing interventions. Just considering individual performance alone, ALAMO addresses a huge need to provide managers with tools that support their critical roles of coaching and performance management.

The webinar introduces the ALAMO model of performance that is an acronym which mathematically combines ALignment, Ability, Motivation and Opportunity. We will discuss the value of acronyms, such as SMART and GROW, that promote the communication, retention and use of performance tools. In addition to being easy to remember, ALAMO promotes a holistic view of performance that considers a wide range of causal factors, derived from psychology, change management, and organizational culture. We will demonstrate how ALAMO can be applied to post-feedback discussions, including performance management and coaching at the individual, team and organizational levels.

We are pleased to inform you that this webinar has been approved to offer HR Certification credits. The use of this seal is not an endorsement by the HR Certification Institute of the quality of the activity.  It means that this activity has met the HR Certification Institute’s criteria to be pre-approved for re-certification credit.

 Register here:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinars. We look forward to “seeing” you there!

Hope you will join me!


Feedback is NOT a “Gift.” It’s an Investment.

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I am designing 360 Feedback workshops and got to reflecting on how we have historically positioned the value of feedback from the perspectives of both the giver and the receiver.  One phrase that has become a cliché is that “feedback is a gift.” Clearly this message is primarily used to manage the reactions of feedback recipients, especially when the message is negative.  And, as in the gift giving tradition, the leader is supposed to thank the givers for their thoughtfulness and then do whatever he/she wants with the “gift,” including nothing. While some leaders might take actions, the connotation of “gift” is that the recipient has no obligation to do so.

Of course, there are multiple things wrong with this scenario, including:

  • The leader is left to his/her own design
  • The quality of the “gift” is assumed to be constructive and valuable, even when it isn’t
  • The raters are excused from their role as partnering with the leader in his/her development

When coworkers provide feedback in a 360 Feedback process, they should be encouraged to view the exercise as one where they have a vested interest in the leader’s development and improved effectiveness.  This message includes the viewpoint that the feedback needs to be honest and constructive, and their responsibility (accountability) for the development of the leader doesn’t end when they submit their feedback.

We can create that vested interest through the language we use in training raters, even if it is primarily through instructions and emails. One concept is to describe the feedback as an “investment” in the leader, i.e., the raters will also benefit if the leader becomes more effective.

What are some of the ways the raters can maximize the value of their investment?  They can:

  • Ensure they participate in the 360 Feedback process
  • Provide honest, constructive feedback, including constructive write in comments
  • Encourage the leader to discuss his/her results with them
  • Act to ensure that the leader clearly understands the messages
  • Help the leader in crafting an impactful, actionable development plan
  • Give the leader ongoing informal feedback if/when the leader exhibits progress

Let’s put the “gift” language to rest. Let’s encourage coworkers to see 360 Feedback as a sound investment in their future, but an investment that needs to be nurtured and supplemented.

©2015 David W. Bracken

Written by David Bracken

April 6, 2015 at 11:04 am

What are “Strategic 360’s”?

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A colleague recently asked me, “Exactly what is ‘Strategic 360 Feedback’?”  Heck, it’s only the name of this blog and in the name the consortium I have helped form, The Strategic 360 Forum (that is meeting for its 5th time in April).  The concepts are also laid out pretty well in the article Dale Rose and I published in 2011 in the Journal of Business in Psychology (“When Does 360-degree Feedback Create Behavior Change? And How Would We Know It When It Does?”).

In as succinct way as I can muster, here are the four core requirements for “strategic” 360 feedback systems:

  1. The content must be derived from the organization’s strategy and values, which are unique to that organization. Often derived from the organization’s values, they can be explicit (the ones that hang on the wall) or implicit (which some people call “culture”). To me, “strategic” and “off-the-shelf” is an oxymoron and the two words cannot be used in the same sentence (though I just did).
  2. Participation must be inclusive, i.e., a census of the leaders/managers in the organizational unit (e.g., total company, division, location, function, level). I say “leaders/managers” because a true 360 requires that subordinates are a rater group. One reason for this requirement is that I (and many others) believe 360’s, under the right circumstances, can be used to make personnel decisions and that usually requires comparing individuals, which, in turn, requires that everyone have available the same data. This requirement also enables us to use Strategic 360’s to create organizational change, as in “large scale change occurs when a lot of people change just a little.”
  3. The process must be designed and implemented in such a way that the results are sufficiently reliable (we have already established content validity in requirement #1) that we can use them to make decisions about the leaders (as in #4). This is not an easy goal to achieve, even though benchmark studies continue to indicate that 360’s are the most commonly used form of assessment in both public and private sectors.
  4. The results of Strategic 360’s are integrated with important talent management and development processes, such as leadership development and training, performance management, staffing (internal movement), succession planning, and high potential processes. Research indicates that properly implemented 360 results can not only more reliable (in a statistical meaning) than single-source ratings, but are also more fair to minorities, women, and older workers. Integration into HR systems also brings with it accountability, whether driven by the process or internally (self) driven because the leader knows that the results matter.

Let me hasten to say that a) all 360’s, strategic or not, should have a development focus, and b) none of this minimizes the value of 360 processes that are used in support of the development of leaders, one at a time. There is no question that innumerable leaders have benefitted from the awareness created by feedback, though often also supported by a coach who not only helps manage the use of the feedback, but also should be creating accountability for the constructive use of the feedback.

Strategic 360 processes and “development only” processes can successfully coexist in a single organization. But they have different purposes, and purpose should be the primary driver of all design and implementation decisions.


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