It’s my opinion that today’s “best” practices of leaders not only fail to resolve the problems they’re meant to resolve or achieve the results they’re meant to achieve, they actually escalate problems. I’d like to recommend alternative practices to take their place. After all, reality has shifted and those who cling to old practices that no longer serve them and perhaps never did, will fail to thrive. Seriously. Fail to thrive.
Here, I will touch on the first “best” practice and hope to provoke your thinking, in subsequent entries, regarding all six.
Consider that you are always practicing something. The question is: what are you practicing. And why? Are you emulating practices of well-known, global companies, many of whom are now struggling and, in some cases, bankrupt? It’s time for some original thinking.
“Worst” Best Practice #1: 360 Anonymous Feedback
Which word in “360 Anonymous Feedback” alerts us that a company professing to value openness, honesty and transparency is out of integrity? Anonymous. I expect to take a lot of heat from those who make a living ensuring anonymity, but I believe that, while there is a time and place for anonymity, we only need it in trace amounts.
It starts early in our impressionable lives – this attraction to anonymity. This hiding. So it’s no wonder that, when there are invaluable opportunities for candor, we send in good old underpaid, overworked “anonymous”, slip the feedback over the transom and run like hell. The fact is that 360 anonymous feedback rarely creates real or lasting impetus for change, which is crazy because the whole idea is to encourage professional growth and it most certainly doesn’t connect us with one another; rather, it tends to drive us apart. Here are a few highlights, or lowlights:
- The culture suffers side effects. Commercials for the latest, greatest drugs include the warning that side effects can include loss of vision, muscle spasms, internal bleeding, uncontrolled barking and sudden death. OK, maybe not barking, but you get the drift. The warnings for anonymous feedback should read: “Not to be used within organizations that value honesty, transparency, or openness or by anyone who views “authenticity” as a desirable character trait. Side effects can include a culture of terminal niceness, avoiding or working around problem employees, tolerating mediocrity, beating around the bush, dancing around the subject, skirting the issues. If you experience rapidly deteriorating relationships or have difficulty maintaining eye contact with others, call your doctor immediately as these may indicate a serious problem and could become permanent.”
- Most people hate performance reviews – hardly the response you’d hope for regarding a best practice. Other emotions associated with performance reviews include: dread, anxiety, hopelessness, fear, frustration and a firm conviction that a trip to the bathroom for a surreptitious examination of the boil on your backside would be a far better use of your time.
- Anonymous feedback doesn’t tell us what we really need to know because it is ANONYMOUS, lacking specific examples to support the evaluations and instead, using sanitized phrases and a “score” of some sort, all of which tells the recipient very little about how to improve his or her performance.
- When the feedback comes only once or twice a year, it rarely immediately follows the behavior that generated the evaluations so exactly what we did right or wrong to merit a certain evaluation often remains a mystery. We are embarrassingly clueless about how our behavior affects others anyway, so lacking timely, specific feedback, we are unlikely to change our behavior.
- Most feedback merely affirms what we already know about who we have been since the day we were born. Our reaction is, “Yep, that’s me alright!” Creating real impetus for change requires compelling feedback, delivered in a way that gets our full attention. 360 degree anonymous feedback fails on all counts.
- Even anonymous feedback isn’t honest! This may be the most bizarre, unexpected “tell” of all. When no one will know it was us, you’d think we would tell it like it is, or at least, like we see it. We don’t.
- Triangulation (otherwise known as talking about people behind their backs) is a popular bonding activity. Friendships are formed over person A and person B’s mutual loathing of person C. People don’t talk directly to the persons with whom they have difficulty. Instead, they talk about them behind their backs.
- Employee engagement scores are low. Face it, the formal language of feedback is uninspiring and de-motivating. Does “satisfactory” capture anything specific that we could feel good about? Would it inspire us to work harder, do better? How about “meets expectations”? The colorless language of anonymous feedback, with its numbers, ratings and boxes to check, is soul killing.
- People aren’t told how much they are appreciated. It’s a huge tell if your recognition program occurs every two weeks and is called a paycheck.
- When managers decide to let someone go, they must wait or risk a lawsuit. When we finally reach the end of our rope, we learn that we’ll have to have the conversations we’ve avoided in the past, give the employee another chance, and document the heck out of everything.
- You and others aren’t motivated to do your best work. We get what we tolerate. Without timely, candid feedback, people whose behaviors or attitudes are a problem continue unchanged, blissfully unaware, dragging everyone down, including you. One problem person becomes a rock in everyone’s shoes. Rather than remove the rock, we grow accustomed to limping, while execution is delayed and frustration grows.
- Relationships flat-line and fail. The conversation is the relationship. When the conversation stops because we don’t want to risk a negative reaction or if you and I add our candid assessments of each other’s performance to the list of things we’re unable to talk about, all of the possibilities for our relationships grow smaller.
- There is no joy in Mudville. Employees walk around unhappy, unhealthy, on edge, bored, unengaged. Your company is not happy workplace. Just a workplace.
- The organization’s long-term survival is at risk. Profits are down, customers are fleeing, good employees are leaving. This occurs in part because an organization professing to value honesty and openness while promoting anonymous feedback is out of integrity. Companies in which stated values actually drive behavior and decisions will weather tough times far more successfully than companies whose practices are at odds with their so-called values statement.
- Respect for leaders is waning. Everyone is thinking: How could you, our leader, allow this to continue? Would somebody please bell the cat?!
- You become invisible. If you remain silent in the presence of poor performance or a lousy attitude, you will become increasingly invisible to yourself and to others. Yes, you will be safe. You will also be anonymous, undifferentiated, your identity blurred. With mounting unease, you may realize that you are what’s missing.
- People fail to grow professionally and personally. It’s hard to imagine anyone of substance saying, “I’m so glad I’ve remained blissfully unaware of how others feel about me, enjoyed few insights into my character and have experienced zero growth as a human being.”
Anonymity is addictive and contagious. We grow accustomed to it, become anesthetized, barely registering the consistent message our gut has been sending us for years. “Tell the truth.” And we infect others. Ask yourself, where else does anonymity live in the organization and what damage is it doing? At what level in the organization? In what other situations are people withholding what they really think and feel? What are the implications?
My publisher would be displeased if I revealed more prior to publication of Fierce Leadership, but no doubt you can guess correctly at the replacement practice for anonymous feedback. The book will walk you through what to do and how to do it. In the meantime, consider that while most leaders fulfill their basic job descriptions, including conducting performance reviews, filling out surveys, listening politely (with gritted teeth) to anonymous feedback, Fierce leaders do something more interesting, more real. They engage in compelling conversations that translate to stronger relationships and better performance, which translates to personal and professional success and happiness.
Who deserves your praise? Who deserves an apology? Whose behavior or attitude is causing serious problems? What are you waiting for?
Copyright by Fierce, Inc., 2009. All rights reserved.
Susan Scott is the Founder and CEO of the global training company Fierce, Inc. whose clients include Fortune 1000 companies worldwide. For 13 years, Susan ran think tanks for CEOs and designed and delivered training to peers working with CEOs in 18 countries. In 2002, Fierce Conversations—Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time, was published in four countries and, shortly thereafter, was listed on The Wall Street Journal and UPI best seller lists, and was one of USA TODAY’S top 40 business books of 2002. Her much anticipated second book—Fierce Leadership: An Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices in Business Today will be published in September 2009. For more info on Susan Scott and Fierce, Inc. please visit www.FierceInc.com.