360-degree reviews rich with problems

MANAGEMENT SPEAK: This is the most difficult decision we've ever had to make. TRANSLATION: The decision was easy. Telling it to you is difficult.

MANAGEMENT SPEAK: This is the most difficult decision we've ever had to make.

TRANSLATION: The decision was easy. Telling it to you is difficult. - The decision to use IS Survivalist Robert Pirnie's contribution was easy. Pull out your company's organisational chart. Put a G next to the people who always seem to get along. Put an S next to those who generally speak their mind, regardless of the issue or its popularity. Use a P for those who pick their battles, only speaking their mind on a few issues. Ps dominate the best companies because leaders know how to focus their energy on what's important. I'd rank S-rated companies second, because issues at least get raised and thrashed out, even if the process is more raucous than it needs to be. S-rated companies can be a lot of fun, once you get used to them. G-rated companies rank last because their leaders avoid any discussion that might hurt feelings or cause conflict. G-rated companies are almost guaranteed to slide into mediocrity — the only programmes they put into action are the safe ones. The Gs dominate most American companies today. Getting along is their core competency. How do companies get to be G-rated? Lots of factors contribute, but one of the most pernicious is the so-called 360-degree feedback programme. It seems like a good idea. Instead of being subjected to their manager's narrow perspective, employees are reviewed by peers and "internal customers" (ugh!), so they get a more complete picture of their performance, so says the theory. It's a good theory. Sadly, it suffers from both bad execution and the law of unintended consequences. I've seen the forms several companies use. Many ask only social questions: "Is the employee pleasant to work with? Does he or she work well in a team environment? Does the employee show a customer service attitude?" I once asked the coordinator of a 360-degree feedback programme why the form had no questions about job performance. Her non-verbal response was as though I'd noisily eructated. Her verbal answer? "We think that will come through from the questions we did ask." Even when done well, the unintended consequences of 360-degree feedback usually outweigh the intended ones. Performance reviews determine salary increases, bonuses and promotions — but impact on self-esteem as well. Faced with 360-degree feedback programmes, employees tend to act so as to generate good feedback, which means these programmes quickly degenerate into popularity contests. Who is going to take an unpopular position with a 360-degree feedback programme in place? It's better to get along. Managers often use the programme as an excuse to avoid their own leadership responsibilities. They are supposed to set goals and hold employees accountable; when their perspective is missing, so is accountability. Without goals and priorities it's easy for feedback givers to become confused about where a given problem begins. This type of feedback can be a useful source of information for managers, so long as the manager applies good judgment in evaluating the results. But that's about all it's good for — unless you want to work in a company where everyone concentrates on just getting along.

Bob Lewis is a consultant at Perot Systems.

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