Before you read this column, pull out your company’s organizational chart. Put a G next to individuals who always seems to get along. Next, put an S next to those who generally speak their minds, regardless of the issue or its popularity, and a P to denote those who pick their battles, only speaking their minds on a few issues.
In the best companies the Ps dominate (they’re P-rated), 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 it.
G-rated companies rank last, because their leaders avoid any discussion that might cause hurt feelings or cause conflict. G-rated companies are almost guaranteed to slide into mediocrity, because the only programs 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 program.
360-degree feedback programs seemed like such a good idea. Instead of being subjected to their manager’s narrow perspective, employees get reviewed by peers and “internal customers” (ugh!) as well, so they get a more complete picture of their performance, or so says the theory.
It’s a good theory. Sadly, it suffers from both bad execution and the law of unintended consequences.
Bad execution? Yes, it’s frequently bad, and sometimes execrable. I’ve seen the forms used by several companies; many asked only social questions: “Was the employee pleasant to work with?” “Does the employee work well in a team environment?” “Does the employee show a customer-service attitude?”
I once asked the coordinator of a company’s 360-degree feedback program why her 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 will usually outweigh the intended ones. Performance appraisals determine salary increases, bonuses and promotions, and have an impact on self-esteem as well. Faced with 360-degree feedback programs, employees tend to act so as to generate good feedback, which means these programs quickly degenerate into popularity contests. Who’s going to take an unpopular position with a 360-degree feedback program in place? It’s better to get along.
Managers often use 360-degree feedback as an excuse to avoid their own leadership responsibilities. What was supposed to be 360-degree feedback becomes something less, because now the manager’s perspective is missing. Managers are supposed to set goals and hold employees accountable, so when their perspective is missing, so is accountability. Heck — the people providing all the feedback don’t even know what goals and priorities the manager established, so it’s easy for feedback givers to become confused about where a given problem begins.
360-degree feedback isn’t worthless. It 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.