Online Exclusive: Is 360 Feedback Measuring the Wrong Stuff?

Online Exclusive: Is 360 Feedback Measuring the Wrong Stuff?

Almost all of us have participated in multi-rater feedback, or “360 feedback. It has been in widespread use since at least the late 80s, with almost all large corporations using it in some form or other. But does the self-awareness it brings actually change behavior?

Organizations employ 360 feedback for a wide array of reasons, including leadership development, succession management, improving understanding of what it takes to be successful in the organization, improving the safety process and managing performance.

At its core, 360 feedback rests upon the assumption that improved self-awareness will lead to improvements in behavior. This is not a new assumption.

Paul Brouwer, in the 1964 Harvard Business Review classic "The Power to See Ourselves," explored the importance of helping leaders grow by seeing the differences between their own self-image and the way others see them. Brouwer puts it bluntly: “As a matter of cold, hard, psychological fact, a change in behavior on the job ... means a change in self-concept.”

This type of feedback would seem to be uniquely positioned to help leaders improve self-awareness and change their self-concept. Because 360 feedback provides inputs from multiple sources, it gives leaders the opportunity to look in multiple mirrors – to understand the perceptions of bosses, peers, direct reports and others. This more well-rounded view of performance helps leaders see themselves as others see them.

The beauty and the challenge of 360 is that this more well-rounded view both is realistic and often not particularly straightforward. Differences in perspectives, varying interpretations of rating scales, different opportunities to observe the leader as well as actual differences in behavior can each affect how others see a leader and can make interpretation challenging.

Challenge: What to Measure?

A more fundamental challenge in 360 feedback, however, is determining what to measure. As mentioned, the ultimate goal of 360 feedback is a change in self-awareness leading to a change in behavior. Consequently, organizations need to think carefully about what types of behaviors they target in their 360 instruments in order to ensure that the self-awareness fostered is as productive as possible. What is measured sends a message about what is valued.

Most 360s currently on the market focus on “competencies,” which have been defined by Klemp (1980) as “underlying characteristics of a person which result in effective and/or superior performance on the job.”

Consequently, the self-awareness that the leader derives from using the 360 feedback tool primarily focuses on positive aspects of leader behavior. So the messages sent to feedback recipients are essentially two-fold: “You exhibit this positive behavior well,” or “You could exhibit this positive behavior a little more or a little less.”

For example, a leader might learn through 360 feedback that he or she is seen as excellent in planning and organizing (a positive behavior), but could exhibit a little more coaching (another positive behavior) and a little less follow-up (yet another positive behavior).

The issue, though, is that in spite of the recent movement to accentuate strengths, positive aspects of behavior are not necessarily the ones that underlie leader ineffectiveness. Hogan, Hogan and Kaiser, in their 2011 review of research on why leaders fail, phrase it succinctly: “Failure may be less about lacking ‘the right stuff’ and more about having ‘the wrong stuff’ – dysfunctional characteristics associated with failure.”

Arrogance, interpersonal quirks, Machiavellian politics or outright deviousness aren’t measured in the typical 360 instrument and thus are exposed peripherally, if at all. Hogan et al.'s review emphasizes the problem for a 360 assessment instrument that fails to examine such ‘wrong stuff’ behaviors: “Every study of managerial failure ... points to ‘overriding personality defects’ ... as a key issue.”

Behavior Frequency

Interestingly, though, in addition to focusing only on competencies, many 360 instruments look at the frequency of behaviors. While that works with positive behaviors where “more” often is “better,” that is not the case with negative behaviors rooted in character flaws or interpersonal issues. Such “wrong stuff” behaviors likely are exhibited less frequently and often under periods of stress. They don't have to occur often, however, to be searing in their impact.

Leaders who behave unethically, who lie or who are patronizing or bigoted do not need to exhibit such behaviors routinely in order to irreparably damage their effectiveness.

The implications for developing or selecting a quality 360 feedback instrument are clear. Because what is measured by the 360 instrument shapes the messages that leaders will receive from it, the 360 instrument should assess both positive (“bright side”) and derailing (“dark side”) behaviors. If an organization's 360 instrumentation does not provide a structured opportunity for raters to provide feedback on the full range of leader behavior, it will not help leaders address “dark side” issues that are torpedoing their effectiveness.

What 360 Instruments Should Include

So what might an effective 360 assessment tool look like? Certainly a 360 instrument should include a section that looks at “the right stuff,” with questions that examine “bright side” behaviors. “Right stuff” questions typically look like the following, where more of the behavior typically is better:

  • Treats others with dignity and respect.
  • Delivers what she or he promises.

A lower score on “right stuff” questions typically is interpreted as “the leader is not doing enough of the behavior.” So then, a lower score on “treats others with dignity and respect,” for instance, would signal the 360 participant that he or she needs to behave more respectfully towards others. The hope is that either other items or the comments shed light on what “more respectfully” should look like.

In contrast, “wrong stuff” questions ask directly about “dark side behaviors.” These questions might look like this:

  • Doesn’t admit when she or he has made a mistake.
  • Says one thing and does another.

These examples show both the clarity and the potential power of the feedback that can be provided by character-based or interpersonally focused “wrong stuff” items. Not only does this type of item measure wrong stuff behaviors that are unlikely to surface in a structured way in a “competency-only” instrument; it can do so in a way that hits home – hard. Receiving a less-than-desirable rating on “Says one thing and does another,” for instance, packs a punch that is difficult to ignore.

Wrong Questions Contribute to Derailment

In his 2009 book, Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership, Tim Irwin said that “derailment is not inevitable but, without development, it is probable.”

A 360 intervention that fails to identify significant performance issues by not tapping “wrong stuff” behaviors is not just a lost opportunity; it actually may contribute to derailment by lulling an ineffective leader into a false sense of security. (“See, nobody thinks I am all that bad.”)

The promise of 360 feedback is a profound one: That by helping leaders improve their self-awareness, they can grow, develop and shape their behaviors to become even more effective in their chosen realm. Back in 1964, Brouwer phrased it even more inspirationally: “Strong leaders fulfill themselves as they live lives that are an unfolding of their potential ...The self-concept of the strong executive is a constantly evolving, changing thing as they continuously realize themselves.”

Careful selection of 360 instrumentation to ensure a balanced look at both the “bright side” and the “dark side” of leader behavior is one way to realize even more self-reflection, personal evolution and business impact.

About the authors: Gail Wise is a partner at enVision Performance Solutions and Clinton Wingrove is executive vice president and principal consultant at Pilat HR Solutions.

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