Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

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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” (http://goo.gl/8BoVfa) in the Review section, and, “Is Empathy in Your Resume” (http://goo.gl/ouI4j4) 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: https://dwbracken.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/just-shut-up-and-listen/)   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.

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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.

Strategic 360 Forum

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I am organizing a one day event in New York City on July 24 for organizations that are using 360 Feedback processes for purposes beyond just leadership development.   There is no cost. Any organization wishing to be considered for attendance should contact me. The representative must be a senior leader who has responsibility both for implementation and influence regarding its strategic use in the company.

Strategic 360 Forum

July 24, 2013

Description

One day meeting, coordinated by David Bracken (OrgVitality), of organizations using 360 Assessments for strategic purposes, including support of human resource processes (e.g., talent management, staffing, performance management, succession planning, high potential programs).   Attendees will be senior leaders with responsibilities for both process implementation as well as strategic applications. Larger organizations (5000+ employees) will be given priority consideration for inclusion.

If there is sufficient interest and support from the participating companies, the Forum would continue to meet on a semi-annual basis.

Location and Date:  July 24 at KPMG, 345 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10154-0102

Tentative Participant Organizations:  Guardian, Bank of America, GlaxoSmithKline, KPMG, Starwood, PepsiCo, Federal Reserve NY, JP Morgan Chase

Benefits for Participants

  • Learn of best practices in the use of 360 Assessments in progressive organizations
  • Discover ways that 360 Assessments support human resource initiatives, including problems and solutions
  • Create personal networks for future situations
  • Create opportunities for future professional contributions, including 2014 SIOP Conference

NOTE: The specific process and agenda will evolve as the organizers interact with the participants and discover their expectations and ways that they can best contribute to the event.

Cost

There is no cost for participants beyond their active contribution. Lunch is provided.

Content

The core content will consist of brief presentations by select attendees.  For attendees interested in participating in a submission for the 2014 SIOP Conference, we will use the format and content of their presentations to feed a proposal submission.

Presentations will be followed by a group discussion where questions can be asked of the presenter and alternative viewpoints shared.

Depending on the programs and interests of the participating organizations, we will explore select  theme topics of high relevance relating to use of 360 Feedback. These topics may include:

  • Performance Management
  • Succession Planning
  • High Potential Identification and Development
  • Staffing/Promotions
  • Coaching Programs
  • Sustainability

The Forum meeting will also include a presentation by Bracken and Church based on their People & Strategy (HRPS) article on the use of 360 Assessments in support of (or replacing) performance management processes, followed by discussion.

Outputs

1)      As noted above, the content will be the basis for a proposal for inclusion in the 2014 SIOP Conference.

2)      The presentations and discussions will be organized and reported to participants.

Contact Information

Interested organizations should email me with a brief description of the 360 process(es) you wish to highlight/share (purpose, size, longevity, innovations), and your personal role/responsibilities.

David W. Bracken, Ph.D.

Vice President, Leadership Development and Assessment

OrgVitality, LLC

402-617-5152 (cell)

david.bracken@orgvitality.com

Just Shut Up and Listen

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I still get the Sunday New York Times in “hard copy” on Sundays (in addition to the electronic version the other days), partly because my wife and I are addicted to the crosswords.  Let me add that I am one of those people who mourn the fadeout of the newspaper, and often find that browsing the physical newspaper often exposes me to pieces of information that I would otherwise miss in the electronic version (whatever form your “browsing” takes, if at all).  (I believe, for what it’s worth, that a similar phenomenon is happening in the music world with the ease of downloading single songs and probably less “browsing” of albums where some other gems are often lurking.)

Back on topic, the Sunday NYT also has a feature in the Business section called “Corner Office” where a business leader is interviewed.  This week it was Francesca Zambello, general and artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival and artistic director of the Washington National Opera. When asked about leadership lessons she has learned, she says:

When you’re in your 20s and have that leadership gene, the bad thing is that you don’t know when to shut up. You think you know all the answers, but you don’t. What you learn later is when to just listen to everybody else. I’m finding that all those adages about being humble and listening are truer and truer as I get older. Creativity cannot explode if you do not have the ability to step back, take in what everybody else says and then fuse it with your own ideas.

In the parallel universe of my personal life, my daughter Ali sent along an edition of the ABA Journal that references a study of the happiest and unhappiest workers in the US (http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/why_a_career_website_deems_associate_attorney_the_unhappiest_job_in_america/) that cites associate attorney as the unhappiest profession (which by coincidence is her husband’s job).  If you don’t want to go to the link, the five unhappiest jobs are:

1) Associate attorney

2) Customer service associate

3) Clerk

4) Registered nurse

5) Teacher

The five happiest are:

1) Real estate agent

2) Senior quality assurance engineer

3) Senior sales representative

4) Construction superintendent

5) Senior applications designer

Looking at the unhappiest list and possible themes/commonalities among these jobs, one is lack of empowerment and probably similar lack of influence in their work and work environment. (The job of teacher may less so, and its inclusion on this list is certainly troubling and complicated I am sure).  But I suspect that these first four jobs have a common denominator in the way they are managed that ties back to Ms. Zambello’s reflections on her early management style, i.e., having all the answers and not taking advantage of the knowledge and creativity of the staff.  It also causes me to remember the anecdote of the GM retiree who mused, “They paid me for my body. They could have had my mind for free.”

This is certainly not an epiphany for most of us, but more serendipity that two publications this week once again tangentially converged on this topic. I will once again recommend Marshall Goldsmith’s book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” that is a compendium of mistakes that leaders make in their careers, including behaviors that might have served them well when starting their career but lose their effectiveness as they move up the organization. The classic case being the subject matter expert who gets promoted and assumes that being the “expert” is always the road to success. In Marshall’s book there are 20 of these ineffective, limiting behaviors (some might call them “derailers”), and when we think of the prototypical leader who wants to be the “expert” and doesn’t listen, it potentially touches on multiple behaviors in the list of 20, including:

2. Adding too much value

6. Telling the world how smart we are

10. Failing to give proper recognition

11. Claiming credit we don’t deserve

13. Clinging to the past

16. Not listening

Considering this list as possible motivators for the umbrella behavior of “not listening,” we can see how it might be very challenging to change this behavior if the leader believes (consciously or unconsciously) that one or more of these factors are important to maintain, or (as Marshall also notes) are “just the way I am” and not changeable.

We behaviorists believe that any behavior is changeable, whether a person wants to change or not. What is required is first awareness, i.e., that there is a gap between their behavior and the desired/required behavior, followed by motivation to change that may come internal to the person, but more often requires external motivation that usually comes from accountability. Awareness and accountability are critical features of a valid 360 feedback process if designed to create sustainable behavior change.

Let me add that the “shut up and listen” mantra is a core behavior for coaches as well. This consultant believes that the challenge that most organizations have in morphing managers into effective coaches is also rooted in this core belief that the role of coach is to solve problems for their subordinates, versus listening to fully understand the issue and then help the subordinate “discover” the solution that best works for them and the situation.

This is a serious problem that has two major downsides. For one, it, at least in some major way, is likely a root cause of creating the “unhappy” job incumbents that in turn leads to multiple negative outcomes for the organization. The other major downside is a version of our GM retiree’s lament, that is, the organization is losing out capitalizing on a significant resource in the form of the individual and collective contributions of its workforce.

There may be no time in our history where involving our young workers is more critical, which includes listening to their input and empowering them to act. Consider the many reasons that this might be so:

  • The pace of change, internally and externally, requires that we have processes that allow us to recognize and react in ways that most likely will diverge from past practices
  • Younger workers bring perspectives on the environment, technology and knowledge that are often hidden from the older generations (that are, by the way, retiring)
  • As the baby boomers do retire en masse, we need to be developing the next generation of leaders.  Another aside, this means allowing them to fail, which is another leadership lesson that Ms. Zambello mentions (remember her?).

Listening is actually a very complex behavior to change, but it begins with increasing awareness of ineffectiveness, and the creating motivation to change by educating leaders on its negative consequences and lost opportunities.

©2013 David W. Bracken

Pay Attention to That Leader Behind the Curtain

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One of my early posts was titled “Snakes in Suits”   (https://dwbracken.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/snakes-in-suits/), which is also the title of a book about psychopaths in industry, specifically in leadership positions, and how skilled they are (because they are psychopaths) in escaping detection until the damage has been done.  The blog post highlighted a 360 process whose primary purpose is to identify the bottom tail of the performance distribution, essentially managing the quality of the leadership cadre by fixing or removing the poorest performers/behaviors. The metaphor is pulling back the curtain on the pretender/offender, like Toto does in “The Wizard of Oz,” who has escaped discovery for many years through cleverness and deception. Of course, he cries out, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

I got to thinking about this topic recently (no, not because of the new Wizard of Oz movie) when I got an update from Bill Gentry at the Center for Creative Leadership regarding his evolving thinking and research on the topic of Integrity (see his YouTube video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4d7yQHHUL-Q&list=UU9ulOx1rJK5FMlC5gbS91cQ&index=1).

One of the possible reasons that the “Snakes in Suits” book didn’t get more traction in our field is the fact that true psychopaths are relatively rare in our society (maybe 3-5% of the population by some estimates), though their “cousins” (bullies, jerks, add your own adjectives) are much more prevalent and all can cause substantial damage.  By expanding the definition of inappropriate behavior to include integrity (or lack thereof) as Dr. Gentry highlights, we now have a behavioral requirement that hopefully applies to every leader, and every employee for that matter.

One of Bill’s research articles uncovers a finding where integrity is identified as a critical trait for senior executives but much less so for mid-level executives. His hypothesis is that success in mid-management is much more on the “what” that is achieved (e.g., revenues, sales, budgets) than the “how” (e.g., adherence to the values of the organization).  This de-emphasis on the “how” side of performance measurement causes organizations to promote leaders to the most senior levels without sufficient scrutiny of their character, resulting in some flawed leadership at the top of companies where integrity is essential (including some very high profile examples that Bill enumerates as part of his publications).

While I’m at it, I found another piece of research that relates to the significant impact that abusive management can have across large swaths of the organization. This article (cited below) suggests that employees partly attribute abusive supervision to negative valuation by the organization and, consequently, behave negatively toward and withhold positive contributions to it. In other words, employees may believe that abusive supervisors are condoned by the company, and then lose commitment and engagement to said organization.  And there is probably a lot of truth in that logic.

Organizations have a responsibility to identify and to address situations where leaders are behaving badly, and the research cited above strongly suggests that it is in the best interests of organizations to do so.  So how is that done?  Many organizations rely on anonymous processes that encourage employees to “speak up” without fear of retribution.  That is such a passive approach as to almost be amusing if it weren’t so important.

Of course, you know where I am going with this.  A 360 Degree Feedback process that is consistently administered across the organization AND has provisions for the results being shared with the organization (e.g., Human Resources) is about the only way I can think of where this systemic problem can be addressed.  This should be a critical aspect of Talent Management systems in organizations, and as common and ubiquitous as performance management.  As the authors of “Snakes in Suits” point out, 360 feedback can be a powerful way to identify the “snakes” early in their careers. One problem is that these snakes are very skilled at avoiding detection by finding loopholes in inconsistently administered 360’s so that they don’t have to participate, or don’t have to share their feedback with anyone.

Who is that leader behind the curtain? It may be a wizard. It may be a jerk. It may be a hero to be honored.  But we won’t know unless we have our Toto to pull back the curtain, hopefully before it’s too late.

Reference

Blaming the organization for abusive supervision: The roles of perceived organizational support and supervisor’s organizational embodiment.  Shoss, Mindy K.; Eisenberger, Robert; Restubog, Simon Lloyd D.; Zagenczyk, Thomas J.  Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 98(1), Jan 2013, 158-168. doi: 10.1037/a0030687

©2013 David W. Bracken