+Scott Watson

Thursday, 25 June 2009

What's the Point of Feedback Like This?

Why do well-meaning bosses initiate 360 degree and other feedback processes? Well, there are many reasons from protecting their territory and standing in a company - when the person or people on the receiving end of feedback are enemies, or at the very least, not trusted or respected, right through to genuinely wanting to help individuals and groups of people work together as effectively as they possibly can. Succession Planning programmes often have a full circle feedback mechanism in place so that the assessor/s can take a quick snapshot about how the subject of the feedback is doing in their day to day work.

But there are several key problems with well-intended feedback processes.

Firstly, even in this, the 21st century, some company bosses wish to impose the point that all feedback elicited from employees should remain anonymous, supposedly to protect the individual providing the feedback. What's the use of this? Well, apart from scaring the heck out of the subject of the process, there is little if any use to it - but it still happens this way. Let me share a true story which I do have permission to mention.

A middle manager in public service had been invited to participate in an assessment centre to identify their readiness (or unreadiness) to be promoted in to a higher ranking and higher salary role. A 360 degree feedback mechanism formed part of the assessment process. Ten immediate colleagues of higher, same and more junior ranks were invited to provide specific feedback via a computer system. They did. And while 80% of the feedback provided was deemed by the subject to be valuable in terms of learning and enhanced self-awareness - and this includes the non complimentary comments (harsh but perhaps accurate comments), the remaining 20% was felt to be wholly inaccurate and without foundation. One comment provided reflected that the subject was 'An autocratic, self-centred dictator'. Perhaps true for the person writing the feedback? The trouble started when, after listening to and understanding the whole feedback, he asked if he could find out more about the comment mentioned above, plus another comment from another colleague which is too sensitive to mention. The facilitator quickly stated that as the feedback was anonymous, he would have to accept the comments for what they were - OPINIONS!

The Problem?
The key problems were these. The subject was advised that he should not approach any of his colleagues to find out who made the rather severe comments. Indeed, wishing to undertake such an activity did not reflect 'leadership'. Catch 22 situation is now in place.

Neither was he able to learn more about what the intent was of the two individuals who felt it appropriate and relevant to write such damning comments. And despite his initial shock and a little upset, he really wanted to know what was behind such comments. In short, he was not allowed the opportunity to resolve any perceived problem or restore any trust that had been damaged. Clearly the other parties were in a low or no trust relationship with the subject, at least from their perspective.

Toxic Waste

During the days and weeks following completion of the feedback process, unwittingly, and perhaps not aware of the toxic comments, the other 8 colleagues who provided feedback formally started joking with the subject as to whether they had made him look great and when he got promoted he would owe them a beer or two. See what's happening? The 2 individuals who wrote the toxic comments are being identified without any effort? And no, the subject didn't start asking questions of them. What did happen though was that the relationships became strained, frustrating and then toxic. Defending their territory, watching their backs came very much in to play. And why? Largely because the feedback was anonymous and the subject was not given an opportunity to understand why such comments had been made or what he could learn from them. Ridiculous for an organisation to endorse such an approach? I think so.

Are these people working at or near their best together? Not a chance? Will they trust each other in the future? Probably not - because mud sticks even more when things aren't discussed. While tough talks can be very tough, even when what we want to say comes out wrong, if our intention is honourable rather than toxic, they often, not always, but often get worked out in the end for everyone's benefit.

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