360° Feedback: The Signal and the Noise – Using coaches to maximise the benefit

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We have all been in a room when a beautiful musical performance or an important speech has been interrupted by the loud howl of feedback. The electronic equipment is incorrectly placed, and we end up in a state of near shock- with our hands over our ears, desperately trying to block out the overwhelming noise.

At Thornhill we are strong advocates for the power of feedback. We describe it as the best tool companies have for leadership development, and critically important to help individuals learn about their impact on others, and to change and grow throughout their lives.

We are ardent advocates of 360° assessments as a way of structuring feedback to managers from a variety of sources, and in relation to a well-defined set of competencies. Over nearly two decades, Thornhill has seen many individuals and companies benefit from well conducted feedback processes using our online tools. This is because, when used properly, the 360° feedback sends the participants a few important signals about strengths on which to build, and areas of competence that they need to develop.

However, we are also aware that poorly conducted feedback processes can leave participants feeling a bit like the audience in a concert hall when the electronics are misaligned – doubled up in their seats with their hands over their ears saying, “this is too much, I don’t want to deal with this”.

We are all vulnerable in our relationships with others, we all seek respect and affirmation. And at work even senior managers are sensitive to “criticism” which they may take personally, and fear that it will impede, rather than further, their career.  When receiving their 360° reports almost everyone looks first for the lower ratings and critical comments.  This provokes an emotional and physical reaction very similar to that of the feedback howl – a defensive reaction that just wants to block out the noise.

This is why skilled feedback coaching plays a vital role in maximising the value of 360° assessments – in extracting the useful signals from the noise and showing how even the lower ratings carry useful rather than threatening messages.

Thornhill recommends two stages of coaching support for the 360° feedback process. The first stage is absolutely essential, the second is highly desirable.

Stage 1: Debriefing the report

As per best practice and in order to gain maximum learning from the feedback process, it is recommended that reports are debriefed with participants by a qualified coach to explain how to interpret the report, manage emotional responses, and guide the creation of a personal development plan (PDP). Correct understanding of the results and the necessary action steps required is crucial for a successful development process.

This feedback facilitation should happen immediately on receiving the report – certainly within a day or two. Participants must be directed to first look at, and treasure, the positive feedback in the report. Understanding your own strengths, especially those you have not seen for yourself, lays the foundation for quick wins. Improving further what you are already good at is the easy part. This positive feedback also shifts perspective about the “development areas”. It is much easier to acknowledge that there are things you could do better if your particular strengths have been affirmed. You are literally more open, and your hands are nowhere near your ears.

When looking at the lower scores it is important to recognise that no-one is good at everything, and the participant is getting a message from some people about their observable behaviour, not an unchangeable truth about their personality. With that comfort, it becomes possible to acknowledge the scores, select two or three mission- or career-critical competencies, and decide that these are the areas to develop. This makes the feedback manageable and constructive. The noise has been silenced.

It is important that this debriefing should be facilitated by someone with the skills to manage the emotions while drawing out the important messages. It is preferable that it should be someone who the participant feels is entirely on his or her side.

At the end of this debriefing, the participant is in a position to create a PDP for themselves, with specific goals, steps and timelines in mind that focus on two or at the most three development areas.

Stage 2: Staying the course

Receiving the feedback in a positive spirit and deciding on a PDP is a good start. The whole point of the exercise, however, is for the manager to change his or her behaviour in the two or three chosen areas, for their own personal growth and for the good of the company. This is a longer, more difficult process, as other work priorities come to the fore, and we almost always resist change or slip back to old behaviours if given the opportunity. 

This is where longer term coaching support can be helpful to a manager on their path to personal development. The coach will be aiming to support the manager in a number of ways.

First, it is important to make sure that the PDP is focused on clear priorities and has an implementation plan with specific steps that can be monitored.

Second, the manager must be helped to understand that the habits and behaviours of a lifetime are not easily changed, and that it can feel unsafe to tackle old situations in a new way. It is the coach’s job to help the manager develop strategies for implementing these changes slowly and to reflect on what worked and did not work and why.

Third, the coach needs to leave the manager with strategies for recognising when he or she is being dragged back into old behaviours by the habits of a lifetime, and ways to halt the slide backwards.

Getting this right works best with several coaching sessions over some months. However, in these constrained times that might not be feasible. Companies may choose to train members of their human resources departments or, better still, train individual managers to play this role.

It is even helpful if there is a single follow-up session a few weeks after the initial feedback facilitation session to support the manager as he or she works through their PDP, to embed learnings, insights, and sustainable change. This encourages participants to maintain their focus on the action required to achieve the desired results.

Experience shows that 360° feedback processes are a great way to get a general picture of how the management of the company is viewed by colleagues and the staff as a whole. They also provide individual managers with a wealth of information into how they are experienced by colleagues who work most closely with them at different levels in the company. The usefulness of the information is largely dependent on how well that information is translated into insight, and then how effectively the insight is used to change behaviour in a sustainable way. Both of these outcomes are best facilitated by introducing skilled coaches into the feedback process.

Does your company make use of coaches to help participants interpret and act on their feedback report?

For information on Thornhill’s various products and services, please contact us on admin@thornhill.co.za.

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