One of the paradoxes of leadership: Your effectiveness as a leader is directly tied to how you affect others. Yet you cannot accurately know how you are perceived by others unless you can somehow ascertain their honest perceptions.
As Shakespeare put it in Julius Ceasar, “the eye sees not itself, but by reflection” (Brutus to Cassius; Act 1, Scene II).
This is why it is so important for you as a leader to obtain truthful and meaningful feedback on how you are perceived by those with whom you work.
Leaders are accustomed to providing their direct reports with evaluations of their performance on the job. But what feedback do leaders receive on how they are going about their work?
A popular form of providing leaders with feedback is the multi-rater review, or so-called 360-degree assessments. (360 for a full panoramic sweep of opinion from direct reports, peers, and other important constituents.)
Unfortunately, most off-the-shelf versions of 360° feedback instruments often yield precious little useful, actionable information. That’s because they provide their subjects too little information, especially around criticisms. Comments from the leader’s constituents usually lack context, and are devoid of useful specifics about the behaviors critiqued such as the problem behaviors’ frequency, rate, duration, and their relative import.
I’ve conducted many follow-up interviews to standard 360s that contained harsh criticisms (all of them written under the cover of anonymity, They all had very brief narratives because of the design of the 360s, which were completed online, likely in haste.
Almost without exception, the critic unloaded vehemently on the subject of the 360 for one rather aberrant incident that occurred a few to several years prior! This painting with a very broad brush was not at all evident in the original 360 report, and could have created a false development agenda for the 360’s recipient. (Losing your patience one day after an unfortunate sleepless night five years ago doesn’t make you a hopelessly hotheaded jerk.)
In addition, traditional 360s tend to feature great numbers of tedious rating items, such as five point scales for various dimensions of personal behavior. These scaled items do not provide you as a leader with actionable information. If you receive an average rating of ‘3.5’ on “Communication,” is that good? What do you do about that?
Much of the “data” in supposedly standardized 360s is without context, apparent meaning, or actionable implication.
Useful Alternative to a 360:
Get Direct Actionable Feedback
If you already have received feedback in a standard 360 report that has encouraged you to start your agenda for professional and personal development, you have a great beginning.
Even if you have never received a 360, you can solicit meaningful input from your associates. Here’s how.
Set up a brief meeting with colleagues (direct report, peer, internal customer…) whose feedback you would value. Say something along these lines:
I would appreciate your help with something important to me. I would like you to suggest an idea to me. What is one thing I could do that would improve my effectiveness in working with you?
Your associate may have an instant reponse on the spot. She may have more than one thought for you. No matter what the recommendation(s), express gratitude for her sharing her ideas with you.
Be careful of committing. You might want to consider the implications of what you hear before raising expectations and making a promise you might not keep.
If you colleague can’t think of anything on the spot, wants time to think, or seems reluctant to make a recommendation, request a time to follow up. Reiterate your commitment to self-improvement, the import of your colleague’s input, and the value you put on receiving her suggestion.
After you have spoken to several colleagues, assess the feedback you have received. Are there common themes? What actions will you commit to taking? When — and how — will you integrate this new behavior into your routine? Might an executive coach help you implement that process?
As you plan to make these changes, add to your calendar about 12 months from now, a series of conversations to repeat this process of inquiry and development.
Leading is a continual process of seeking input and adjusting performance.