It really is lonely at the top. Employees may receive ample feedback during the early and mid-points of their careers, but that lessens as they grow in leadership positions. “By the time they’re considered high potentials, that feedback may not be authentic,” notes Mary Herrmann, managing director of the executive coaching practice at BPI group.
The U.S. office of Doctors Without Borders addressed this challenge seven years ago. “When I came on board, there was no mechanism for senior leadership evaluation other than an annual, bilateral meeting,” recalls David Epstein, director of Domestic Human Resources, and member of the SHRM Global Expertise Panel. “Without a 360-degree view, senior executives and members of the board lacked the feedback they needed to improve. The 360-degree evaluation isn’t connected with raises or conducted with a performance review. This is purely a developmental tool,” he stresses.
KPMG LLP focuses on high-potential executives for its 360-degree program, and “incorporates it into coaching conversations,” says Joan M. Gutkowski, Ph.D., executive director, Leadership Development, KPMG LLP. “The feedback gathered is used only for developmental purposes. It’s a key element in building the participant’s career development plan.”
The blind spots that ensue from a lack of awareness can dampen executives’ effectiveness and reverberate throughout the company. In a recent VitalSmarts survey of 200 managers, executives said that fewer than 18 percent of employees received clear, constructive feedback. Although the study was of all employees, many of those not receiving feedback were executives, says Justin Hale, master trainer, VitalSmarts, a leadership training company with a Fortune 500 client list.
VitalSmarts reports that 360-degree feedback is most effective when specific behavioral patterns are directly linked to the cost of failure. Having a dollars-and-cents figure that shows how an element such as poor communication affects the company makes it real.
Focus on Behaviors to Enhance Effectiveness
BPI group’s Herrmann conducts 360-degree reviews—which she calls key stakeholder feedback—for executives at the director level and above to determine how they are perceived by those who see them on a day-to-day basis and know how they operate. Ten people typically are interviewed for each executive assessment.
Questions are designed to go past generalities to yield substantive responses. For example, “Describe (the executive) at his or her best.” That often takes people by surprise, she says. “We assume the executive is wildly successful, which helps those providing feedback to think about that leader when he or she is operating in a powerful way,” Herrmann says.
Then she addresses opportunity with the open-ended statement: “The executive would be even more effective if he/she…” “The resulting lists gives us a lot of information,” she notes.
The point of the feedback is to uncover patterns of behaviors, not to judge someone on a bad day. Another example of a question for a CEO review, Hale adds, is this: “When the CEO proposes a new idea to the C-suite, does he or she most often say, ‘Does everyone agree?’ ‘Who sees this differently? Or ‘I’d love to hear different opinions. What do you think?’” Those questions have the effect of restricting discussions or opening them for great productivity.
KPMG aligns questions with its Leadership Competency Model—the basis of its talent development platform. “This assesses the skills and behaviors expected of a KPMG leader and provides insights into strengths and areas that offer opportunities for development,” Gutkowski says. “This includes applying strategic perspective, developing and motivating others, and building collaborative relationships.”
Importantly, once an executive chooses the people performing the rating, those raters are trained on how to give constructive feedback, Epstein says. “Their language should be constructive and focused on behaviors, not the person.”
As Hale notes, “the goal of 360 reviews isn’t to determine whether a particular person is perceived as being kind, but to reveal specific behaviors that negatively affect his or her effectiveness.” Frequently cutting off other speakers in meetings, taking more than two days to respond to requests, or overstating one’s opinions are some examples. “Being perceived as unkind can be depressing, but that can be dismissed. Knowing, however, that peers think you cut off others in conversation is actionable. This is a specific behavior that can be improved.”
After the Assessment
After the assessment, customized feedback reports are provided to the executive, who shares them with a coach. The feedback becomes one element in the executive’s career development plans. Hale recommends prioritizing the needed changes to identify the one or two behaviors that must change immediately and the metrics that can show the extent of the change.
“Having a coach is key,” Epstein stresses. An external coach provides a safe, objective space in which to discuss the results and compare them to global benchmarks (such as those set by the National Diversity Council or various think tanks) for the organization and the industry. He recommends having an outside company administer the survey, too.
Doctors Without Borders encourages executives to share their actions plans with their supervisors to increase accountability. “We encourage people to give ongoing feedback throughout the year, so nothing in the evaluation should come as a surprise,” Epstein says.
At KPMG, after debriefing with a coach, themes from the feedback are integrated into a career development plan, and are discussed in a four-way conversation among the executive, the manager, coach, and a talent development professional, Gutkowski says.
For many companies, that would conclude the program. But KPMG summarizes and aggregates the feedback across large groups of participants, Gutkowski says. “It helps identify common development themes to inform development programs and approaches.”
Although trouble spots vary, “the category that gets most executives in trouble is communication,” Herrmann says. Examples include introverted leaders who are perceived as disengaged, and a casual leader who seems to lack executive presence despite years of accomplishment. One executive was a micromanager without realizing it. “He was shocked. He truly thought he was being helpful,” Hermann points out. A 360-degree review should help executives, regardless of their management style, to become more effective.
Benefits Accrue to the Organization, Too
The benefits of 360-degree reviews accrue to the company, as well as to individual executives. “Leaders get the real perception of how they’re viewed by their direct reports, supervisors, mentors, peers, and, when relevant, the board of directors. For organizations, the feedback is equally profound. “We see evidence that stakeholder reviews can shift the organizational culture and affect their return on investment,” Herrmann says.
When organizations are receptive to 360-degree feedback, it signals an openness that fosters innovation. “The coaching relationship gets mimicked throughout the organization,” Herrmann says. That results in higher levels of engagement through the organization because now employees at all levels understand themselves better.
MISTAKES PEOPLE MAKE IN DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS
People want to make their relationships work with their managers, teams, and peers. They want to give feedback that makes a difference, they want to lead people through change, and they want to bring their ideas and concerns to the table regardless of who is in the room.
During our 20 years of delivering leadership training, assessments, and coaching, we’ve identified common mistakes people make in difficult conversations that can be damaging to the relationship and will trigger the other person’s defensive emotions:
NOT MODELLING RECEIVING FEEDBACK. According to Albert Einstein, “Modelling is not the main means of influencing people, it’s the only means.” Whether you are getting feedback directly or through a 360-degree assessment, if you want people to respond skillfully to your feedback—even when you don’t do it perfectly—then you should model being on the receiving end.
LETTING YOUR OWN NEGATIVE EMOTIONS HAVE AN IMPACT. If we go into a conversation and we are emotionally triggered or anxious, those emotions immediately will impact the other person, and he or she will move into a defensive mode. Emotions are infectious, so you want to enter any conversation with confidence, optimism, and belief there will be a positive outcome—even if that positive outcome is simply that you said what you needed to say.
NOT CLEARLY STATING AN INTENTION THAT IS POSITIVE. We often start a conversation when the other person isn’t clear why we are having the conversation. Without that clarity, the emotional brain of the other person will assume you don’t have a good intention, and he or she will start acting defensively right away.
NOT ASKING ENOUGH QUESTIONS. People often start conversations with statements that are accusatory or blaming. The emotional brain is triggered by statements such as, “You did this” or “You should have done that,” or even questions that sound like statements such as, “What were you thinking?” or “Didn’t you think about how this would impact others?”
NOT SAYING THE LAST 8 PERCENT. When facing a challenging conversation, most people adequately cover the first 92 percent of the content. When they get to the more difficult part of the conversation—where the other person often starts reacting emotionally by shutting down, blaming, or getting defensive, they avoid the last 8 percent of the conversation, which is the part that really needs to be said. What’s missed is the critical information and feedback an individual or organization needs to improve performance and grow and achieve objectives.
Having effective difficult conversations is one of the key differentiators of high performers and world-class organizations. In our research, it was one of the behaviors most highly correlated with top 10 percent performers, and also one of the skills people most admired in their exceptional leaders. While having difficult conversations is not easy, it’s a skill that can be learned and mastered. It’s not just something that helps us at work; it makes a huge difference in our personal lives, too!
For an additional article on this topic, visit: https://trainingmag.com/mistakes-people-make-difficult-conversations-and-how-overcome-them/
Doctors Without Borders surveys its executives based on:
- Business strategy
- Business focus
- Planning and organization
- Integrity and trust
- Innovation and creativity
- Results orientation
- Leading change
- Teamwork and collaboration
- Leading others
- Developing others
- Performance management
- General performance