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Words Are Better Than Numbers

Get More from Your 360

Jan. 24, 2020
Words are better than numbers if you want to maximize learning insight and behavior change

Nine out of 10 U.S. Fortune 500 companies use a 360-degree feedback process to support the development of their high-potential leaders. If you want to administer a reliable and normative assessment of your people, choose a traditional instrument that is based around numerical ratings. However, if you want to maximize learning insight and positive change in how your leaders behave, you will want to gather predominantly narrative feedback.

Traditional 360-degree assessment instruments feature a set of rating questions followed by a couple of open-ended text questions. The good ones can cite empirical evidence that the rating questions are reliable and valid measures of the characteristics they assess, e.g., communication, teamwork, work ethic, performance drive , innovation. And there is solid evidence that these characteristics correlate with superior leadership and job performance.

The problem is that it’s often difficult for the individual receiving the feedback to know what to do with their ratings.  Too often, the time and money spent administering and tabulating a 360 delivers underwhelming insight and no change in behavior.

For example, knowing that you scored 3.9 in communication or teamwork compared to the norm of 4.1 isn’t really that helpful. To improve, you need specific examples of how you can be more effective, circumstances that you could have handled differently, and suggestions for how you can do better in the future.

Imagine that instead of receiving a 3.9 for communication, you received practical suggestions like these examples I have seen recently:

  • “It comes back to listening and waiting for the other person to finish before speaking.”
  • “Try not to speak any more, or any less, than others in a meeting.”
  • “Show that you are interested in and open to others’ ideas.”
  • “In a group, your voice is not heard.  You have great ideas.  I’d like to hear them more!”

Text answers cannot be correlated with job performance in the same way as ratings  where we can perform regression analyses and comparisons across populations. In this aspect they are less helpful as an HR assessment tool. However, natural language feedback is more helpful for individuals because it provides candid perspectives and valuable learning suggestions from colleagues who know us well and have seen us in action firsthand.  

The most common open-ended questions in a traditional 360 are: “What are this person’s strengths?” and “What are this person’s greatest weaknesses?” Of course, weaknesses are typically phrased more politely as “learning opportunities” or “areas for development.”  There is nothing wrong with these questions.  In fact, recipients often find them the most useful part of the 360 exercise.

To make 360s even more useful, you need to ask more probing questions. Imagine how valuable honest answers to the following questions from 10 of your closest colleagues would be:

  • What am I like at my best?
  • What are my other key strengths?
  • What three words best capture my workplace brand or persona?
  • What are my greatest areas for growth?
  • What could I do to operate on a whole new level?
  • How could my interactions with others be improved? Specific examples please!
  • What should I explore over the next 3 months to become an even more effective teammate?

Beyond Strengths and Weaknesses

One of the challenges with soliciting narrative feedback is that people don’t feel comfortable writing it. Not only does it take time and require good communication skills, it can feel weird—wrong, even—to give truly candid feedback about colleagues or about your boss. This is why we typically find only two text questions at the end of a long 360-degree assessment, and why participants often leave these questions blank.

Here are some ideas for soliciting and collecting more narrative feedback:

1. Talk to people directly.  While people tend to resist putting their leadership assessments and suggestions in writing, they love to talk.  A conversation framed to support the development of a colleague along with a few well-structured questions will elicit plenty of pertinent feedback. Some people may need to be reassured that their comments will remain anonymous.

2.  Encourage positive candor.  This is a balancing act that requires some degree of tact. If you push for Radical Transparency, which includes public criticism (as institutionalized at Bridgewater), you may get more honest views but at a cost of losing good talent. (they lose 1/3 of first-year hires) Try to encourage safe and supportive “learning conversations”—the kind you get from a trusted partner who has your best interests at heart.

3. Do it in groups. There is a broad trend toward managing through team meetings over one-on-one meetings.  If your team is ready for hearing constructive feedback this way, try going around the room with some of the questions above.  Start with yourself!

4. Request feedback. Some top-notch firms have institutionalized this practice into their leadership development processes with great success.  PwC expects its employees to request feedback from colleagues at least once a month. At Deloitte, people are expected to solicit feedback once every two weeks. It’s easier for people to give feedback and positive suggestions when asked.  Giving unsolicited advice can easily hurt a relationship.  Reaching out for advice builds trust and friendship.

5. Use technology.  There are a number of HR applications that include feedback functions. There are even some clever mobile-based applications that allow leaders and managers to request and give feedback while killing time waiting for their cappuccino.

6. Hire a professional. A skilled executive coach will know how to solicit feedback from direct reports. In many aspects it is easier for a coach to gather such intelligence because their role is, by definition, to help executives improve, and they work outside of the standard hierarchy. Some larger organizations have internal coaches dedicated to such activities. (Note: administering interview-based feedback is a step up in cost as well as a step-up quality and usefulness.)

While it can take some creativity and effort to collect, there is no doubt that listening to narrative feedback from people around us can be a highly valuable and powerful exercise.  It can be career-changing, even life-changing.  After 25 years of doing this type of work, I am still struck by how deeply moved business managers and leaders are when they hear what others have to say in their own words. It’s amazing how much more receptive they become to trying new approaches and changing their mindset in order to perform at the next level.    

Based in the San Francisco Bay area, Chris Morgan is founding principal of Morgan Alexander, a consulting firm that coaches senior management teams to lead winning organizations, and co-founder of ListenTool. He is one of a few executive coaches with more than 20 years of experience, having started with The Alexander Corporation. Morgan’s clients are primarily CXO engagements with Fortune 500 companies, and high-tech startups in the San Francisco Bay area.

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