Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Posts Tagged ‘leadership

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

What is a Manager? What is a Coach?

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My last blog was a brief description of the notion of the “ManagerCoach,” and that continues to be a topic of great interest for me.  Evidently it is of great interest to a number of people given some recent (and not so recent) articles that have popped up.

For example, just recently Human Resource Executive had a piece called, “Employees Improving Bosses” ( that describes a survey of 2700 workers. One of the findings was that approximately a third said their bosses needed to improve in communicating a clear vision of success, motivating employees during adversity, and being open about their own strengths and weaknesses. (That last part is more about the manager than the employee, and is an interesting twist on effective management.)

Also a recent Fortune magazine (Dec. 3, 2012) included a one pager called, “Five Ways to Keep Your Employees Excited” by Verne Harnish (whom I am not familiar with).  The third “way” says, Grow Better Bosses, and includes “Do they know how to coach your employees so they can excel…”

These articles made me recall a study from Google that was described in the New York Times in 2011 regarding the critical abilities of leaders there.  Eight such abilities were identified, the most important of which is coaching, defined as 1) provide specific, constructive feedback  balancing the positive and negative, and 2) have regular one-on-ones, presenting solutions to problems tailored to your employees’ specific strengths.

Finally (for now), we have a client that collected over 4000 responses to leadership effectiveness behaviors with the finding that coaching behaviors are not only the lowest scoring but also the greatest drivers of engagement.

When I ask leadership development professionals in organizations whether their managers need to be better coaches, there is unanimous and vehement agreement. And many organizations have “coaching” built into their training and development curriculum to varying degrees.

But what is a “coach,” particularly in the context of also being a manager/supervisor inside an organization with (usually) multiple direct reports?  There a many mental models of what a “coach” can/should be. The Google model seems to suggest that being a coach is accomplished by telling the employee the “best” way to solve a problem, with “best” defined by the manager on behalf of the organization and focusing on strengths.

To this person, that is not “coaching.” I (and others) believe that the “best” solutions are discovered by the employee (coachee) through a process of discovery facilitated by the coach.  Coaching should also be built upon a foundation of a trusting relationship that is created and sustained over time. That facet is probably the biggest barrier to establishing a coaching relationship where the employee has significant input into determining the best actions to take to make him/her more effective and a better contributor.

There is an important role for the manager to “tell” (i.e., inform) their employees about organizational goals and priorities, and how their jobs contribute to the achievement of those goals.  But at some point the “telling” should drop off and “listening” should replace it. If you are a manager and you are talking/telling more than 50% of the time, you are not being a coach.

©2013 David W. Bracken


Written by David Bracken

January 14, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Who’s in charge here?

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In my last blog, I touched on an issue that I would like to give a little more attention, namely the question of who our leaders (i.e., the recipients of 360 Feedback) should be listening to when prioritizing their leadership skills and behaviors: the organization, their coworkers, and/or some combination?  This is a topic that has cultural implications that I alluded to in that earlier blog, and I will post this out on the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology (SIOP) Going Global group on LinkedIn to see if I can get a response from someone there. But it also has broad implications for how we approach leadership selection, assessment and development in general.

One end of the continuum is to state that an organization has the right (and need) to define leadership competencies/behaviors, ideally derived from strategy, to support its initiatives and create a unique competitive advantage (see the treatment of leadership as an intangible asset in the book, The Invisible Advantage).  Organizations regularly create leadership models that are used to align HR systems in creating the type of leader needed to succeed at the individual and organization level.  This includes values statements that often are operationalized through behavioral items in 360’s that hopefully apply to leaders and line employees alike.

In the context of 360’s, I have long maintained that 360’s can draw their relevance (read “validity”) from a direct line of sight from strategy to leadership models to 360 content, and that it is not necessary to conduct predictive studies to demonstrate the validity of the 360 process. The content of a 360 instrument can define success, and that leaders that behave in ways consistent with the model are successful by definition.  Those who do not conform to those expectations should be give the choice of changing or to find alternative employment.

That is the “top down” version of “who’s in charge here?”  I was influenced in my thinking many years ago by some monographs by Bill Byham at DDI on this topic that were often in the context of assessment center processes but certainly no less applicable. Dr. Byham has written a number of papers on aligning HR systems with competency models, and you can find much of that on their web site.

The other end of the continuum of “who’s in charge here?” is the “bottoms up” view of leadership effectiveness that suggests that the leader’s behavior should be directed by coworkers, particularly direct reports. This view came into greater clarity for me at SIOP during a symposium that I briefly described in my last blog on implicit leadership models.

For decades, this “bottoms up” view of leadership has been implicit in the use of importance ratings. I have been opposed to importance ratings for as long as I can remember, partially because of the extra burden to raters, but, more importantly, because raters are not in a good position to understand the needs of the leader and the organization. I still believe that importance is best determined by the ratee and his/her boss in conjunction.  Asking raters for importance ratings feels like a customer survey. If your 360 treats raters as “customers” of leader behavior, then use a satisfaction scale and design the whole system accordingly.

The SIOP symposium had a number of interesting research studies that explicitly state that an effective leader should understand and react to the needs of coworkers based on the coworkers’ expectations of how an “effective” leader should behave which is, in turn, derived from their cultural backgrounds (i.e., nationality). This is very interesting and cultural awareness is an important issue in our global community.  As some of these papers pointed out, leaders now (especially with virtual teams) can have coworkers and direct reports from multiple nations and cultures, which creates a requirement that somehow the leader has to understand and adapt to the needs of each of these people. My head began to spin!

By the way, I first learned about the concept of Situational Leadership back in the 80’s and I still believe that philosophically it makes a lot of sense to not treat every subordinate the same way. But if you know Situational Leadership, it focuses exclusively on the person’s “maturity” (ability to perform a task) and the need to adapt leadership style depending on an assessment of that maturity level. It is very task oriented, and has little (if anything) to do with the needs and expectations of the follower.

There was some sentiment on the SIOP panel for asking the leader to negotiate or compromise between the “bottoms up” and “top down” views of leadership. I’m not sure how that would work, but it probably compounds one of the main problems I cited as discussant, namely the overload we are creating for leaders by inundating them with all this information in the form of job expectations. I have to believe that leaders are asking, or will ask, this question of “who is in charge?”, the organization or their coworkers?

I will take a stance. I believe that the organization is “in charge.” I did some consulting for a company of about 3500 people in Dubai that had employees with 80 different passports. They were run by South Africans, and ran the company that way. In a nutshell, they expected employees to conform to a common set of values and expectations, effectively leaving their cultural backgrounds at the door. Or at least the company “culture” should take precedence in defining effective leadership. I believe that this aligned focus on organization needs is a necessity, and that we need to make it clear to our leaders “who is in charge” when it comes to deciding how the company will leverage one of its most powerful intangible assets.

©2011 David W. Bracken