Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Posts Tagged ‘Talent management

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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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

Strategic 360 Forum II

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Last July, 12 companies convened in New York city for the first meeting of the Strategic 360 Forum, a full day of presentations and discussions by companies that use 360 Feedback for more than just leadership development.  The event was a great success and the group agreed that a second meeting would be useful.  Almost all of the same organizations will be returning, and we already have 3 new member organizations signed up!  We have room for a few more attendees, so here is the information:

Strategic 360 Forum II

February 25, 2014

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..

Location and Date:  February 25, 2014 at KPMG, 345 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10154-0102

Tentative Participant Organizations:  GlaxoSmithKline, KPMG, Starwood, PepsiCo, Federal Reserve NY, JP Morgan Chase, Cargill, Estee Lauder, WalMart, Schott NA, Thomson Reuters

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.  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

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

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