Recently an article titled, “The #1 Barrier to Leadership – Not Listening”, caught our eye. Not much wrong in the article, except that title. It’s true; many leaders we work with should improve their listening. They interrupt, hear what they want to hear, and make assumptions that interfere with their understanding of what others share with them.
But there is another, more common, barrier that gets in the way before listening even becomes an issue. Most leaders just don’t have reliable feedback channels, the means to get consistent, comprehensive information to appreciate their impact on the people and business around them.
Every leader, formal or informal, centres a network of relationships with (hopefully) quality people they rely on to achieve results. When leaders don’t get the feedback they need, relationships go wrong, the leader’s influence declines, then results suffer. A personal weakness may be in a leader’s blind spot, but clear and significant to followers. Strengths can morph into weaknesses when a leader is unaware otherwise beneficial behaviours have become over-used habits in others’ eyes. Leaders need quality feedback, constantly, from above, beside and below them, to fully regulate their impact on others.
The simple solution is, “They should just ask.”
It isn’t that simple though. Leaders, especially formal leaders, have complicated relationships with others. The position power differential with direct reports interrupts the flow of candid observations, especially criticism, to the “boss”. Peers may not see much in it for them to casually share what they really think about a colleague’s leadership. And if bosses were effective feedback providers, then absence of feedback would not consistently be amongst the top complaints of staff at all levels on employee surveys. The ad hoc feedback leaders get on the job is likely to be incomplete, slanted to the positive, and not very helpful, no matter how well the leader listens.
Many organizations implement formal feedback mechanisms as part of their performance management process. A leader should at least get personal feedback from their boss annually. While perhaps better than nothing, these schemes more often than not deliver too little, too late. Leadership problems do fester, and shouldn’t be left solely to someone who is probably dealing with their own leadership challenges. The pace of business and pressure to execute are just too high to take that risk.
If you really want better leaders, they need 360 or multi-rater feedback. When done well, 360’s produce deep, high quality feedback from the people a leader should listen to – those they hope to lead. If you have a 360 process in place, make sure it works. If you don’t, get one.
Here are eight questions we’ve learned to ask while helping organizations implement 360 processes over the last 20+ years.
It’s simple: the more direct the link between the 360 process and performance appraisal, the weaker the feedback. Formal performance appraisal programs serve the organization more than leaders, doing more “to” leaders than “for” them. This is especially true when the program features categories (e.g. exceeds, meets or needs improvement), comparison (e.g. bell curves and ranking), and links to compensation (e.g. “here’s your bonus”). If respondents to a feedback request believe the leader could suffer negative consequences for a poor assessment, many will temper their critical comments, depriving the leader of the full picture they need to appreciate their impact on others.
Sharply focus your 360 efforts on helping leaders develop, and make sure that intent is clear to everyone involved.
Leadership is complicated. Leaders don’t know what to ask when they seek feedback, and providers won’t know what specific information will help. Adopt or adapt a leadership model to frame the 360 feedback requested so leaders get the right information, consistently, over time. While no model or framework is perfect, there are lots of good ones out there (we have one if you are interested). A custom designed leadership model can also be useful to communicate your organization’s expectations of its leaders, and then used to help them get the right feedback to better deliver to those expectations.
The more leaders feel they “own” the feedback process, the greater their acceptance of the feedback generated, especially more critical observations. Let them choose their assessors. The common concern about leaders selecting assessors who will “go easy” on them turns out in practice to be largely unfounded (especially when you heed the recommendation above to disconnect 360 and performance appraisal). For those few who might “high grade” their list, nothing wrong with having a step in the process where a coach or supervisor reviews it and offers suggestions.
Most importantly, deliver the feedback report to the leader first. Allow them an opportunity to review the feedback and consider their response, before others get involved. Again, nothing wrong with requiring that they share their feedback and planned actions with someone who will hold them to account for their development. But, give the leader a chance to prepare for that conversation.
Ideally, leaders would get their feedback in face to face conversations with others who willingly share their observations. But it doesn’t happen that way. Some potential feedback providers are concerned about the consequences of opening up to a leader, especially one that has the authority to change their working life..
Assessors promised anonymity are more likely to be candid. Your 360 process should make and fulfill that promise for assessors, other than those who are formally accountable for providing feedback – the leader’s boss. If you choose to keep administration of the 360 in-house, know that the credibility of this anonymity promise may be suspect in the eyes of some, no matter how well intended your internal staff are.
We all know feedback can be hard to hear. Harder still in most cases to figure out what to do about it. I’ve worked with few leaders who can maintain the objectivity or summon the insight on their own to fully understand why someone else would perceive them as they do, what should be done about it, and how to get it done.
Any objective 3rd party, willing to challenge the leader’s thinking, can be a real help. Better still, offer leaders access to a skilled coach experienced with 360s. Some simply need assistance interpreting their feedback report. Most will build better plans when working with a coach who understands both leadership and the challenges of personal development. A few will require longer-term support to change deep-seated habits or acquire new skills. The return in terms of real change will reward your investment.
Doing 360 right takes an investment, in time, finances and foregone work. As with any other business activity, you should get an appropriate return as evidenced by positive change. Real change can take considerable effort. Unfortunately, amongst the first things to drop from the top of the To Do list in our busy workplaces is personal development.
Before you undertake a 360 process, be sure you have an accountability process in place, with supervisors or coaches ready to hold leaders to following through on their development commitments. At the least, those who took the time and risk to provide feedback for the leader should be rewarded for their efforts by seeing a tangible response.
Benchmarking leaders against their peers is a common 360 practice, but not one we recommend. Your goal should not be “super” leaders who can do everything – it isn’t necessary or realistic. Simple comparison of any leader’s 360 ratings to those received by other leaders implies they should be good at everything, and ignores the reality that leadership effectiveness is situational. Leaders don’t need to be better than other leaders; they need to have the capabilities demanded by their circumstances.
Every leader we’ve worked with has strengths, and real weaknesses. The best look for opportunities to exploit their strengths, and constantly seek to minimize or manage the impact of their weaknesses. They don’t try to be perfect, or to become someone else. They work hard at being a better version of themselves. The only benchmark that really matters is one that indicates they are getting better. Repeating a 360 every 6 to 18 months provides just that.
A 360 is not the only way leaders get valuable feedback. Put multiple feedback channels in place, with different time cycles. At the least, consider adding leadership quality to the agenda for scheduled business review meetings.
Results are a lag indicator for leadership. Feedback about results is feedback about leadership. But in my experience, the conversation in business review meetings seldom addresses leadership in a meaningful way, as either cause of what’s happening, or cure to keep things on track. Get that conversation going so leaders get real-time information and problem-solving to re-focus and energize their development efforts.
Most leaders have the knowledge and base competency they need to get better in the role of leader. What they often lack is the information, the feedback, that would help them make needed changes. Use 360 assessment to help them get what they need.