Setting the Stage for Positive Growth

“So, why a 360?” the executive coached inquired.

Tanya looked puzzled. Thinking for a moment, she answered, “Well, I want to know how I’m doing as a leader and how to get better.”

The coach nodded. “So, how do you think you’re doing?” he continued.

“I’d say pretty well,” she answered with a smile. “They all seem to like me pretty well.”

“What about those things you think you could improve on….or more to the point, those things your boss and your direct reports would say you could do better?”

A seasoned leader with nearly twenty years of military experience inspiring and motivating others, Tanya’s entrance into the corporate world had gone rather smoothly. And yet, she only smiled slightly and squirmed in her seat…..

It’s a scenario not uncommon within coaching engagements. Leaders seek out 360-degree feedback, but are somewhat uncomfortable with the possibility of uncovering chinks in their managerial armor. It’s predictable. It’s expected. And it’s completely normal.

Criticism is inherently uncomfortable. Psychologically, there are only subtle differences between a physical and emotional attack – both facilitate a fight-or-flight response, triggered by the chemical transformation within the amygdale, the hub of the brain’s emotional processing center. Pleasure equals good. Pain and discomfort equal bad. That’s how humans are wired.

How then is the perceived “negative” feedback – a nice way of saying constructive (or not so constructive) criticism – moved into a positive light that avoids the defensiveness of a fight-or-flight response? The answer lies in the attitude individuals bring to their own development, and the path along which executive coaches guide individual clients.

In her Harvard Business Review guest blog, Amy Gallo emphasized the importance of entering into the 360-degree review process with an open mind. Easier said than done, most executive coaches would answer. But indeed, the most successful coaching engagements are those in which leaders either enter the process genuinely seeking their weaknesses or are gently massaged into that mindset. More often than not, it’s the coach’s role to help ease clients in the latter direction, to guide the discussions and thoughtfulness of others to the realization that growth is only possible when the truth is revealed.

For any type of assessment, whether an individual 360-degree review or an organization-wide culture audit, the following questions should be asked (and answered) before diving head-long into the process:

1) What do we hope or expect to discover through this process? – Is this truly a step toward improving as a person, a leader, a team or an organization, or we really just wanting to validate the way things are being done now? Either answer is valid, but it’s critical to have a full understanding of the fundamental reasons for what can be a costly endeavor.

2) What are we planning to do with the results? – If an improvement plan isn’t in place prior to undergoing any assessment, it is too easy to manipulate intended approaches to validate the positives and bury the negatives. Truth be told, there is always room for improvement.

3) What is the worst case scenario with regard to the results we may receive, and how will we address that if it happens? – This is a question to be posed to all levels of leadership, not just within the HR/OD circles of the organization. Assessments are wonderful tools, but they often tend to shine light on the flaws of the organization and its people. That’s a good thing, and if acknowledged up front, can be positively channeled for real results.

Essentially, the importance of possessing an open, development mindset is critical for the success of any assessment process. Tanya’s hesitation in the opening scenario is acceptable, as long as she goes on to demonstrate what she sees as the true developmental benefit to the 360-degree review. If Tanya or any organization, doesn’t really want to develop (or worse, feels they have no room for improvement), it makes best sense to avoid the assessment process altogether.

After all, ignorance is bliss……right?

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