David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
If you can read this, then you are not too closed

June 15, 2012: If you can read this, then you are not too closed


An article from Harvard Business Review and a very nice message from a former colleague today have both got my head spinning—as in the value of 360-degree organizational analysis.  First, let’s look at the HBR article, which argues quite persuasively that many institutions can’t change because their leadership isn’t willing to see themselves as part of the problem.  Doesn’t it say it all when the author, Dennis Keller, writes, “How many executives when asked privately will say ‘no’ to the questions ‘Do you consider yourself to be trustworthy?’ and ‘Are you customer-focused?’ and ‘yes’ to the question ‘Are you a bureaucrat?’ None, of course.”  He is too politically correct to call this for what it is:  hubris, pride, arrogance, pick your poison.

To be fair, we are all snake-bitten by this notion of self-assessment. As Keller points out, far more than 50% of Americans will rank themselves above average in just about any self-assessment survey.  Blame this on our education system, our society, our lack of critical thinking skills, the 1960's, I don’t care.  Recognize the inherent dangers.

At SMC right now, I am trying to lead a change in the way faculty are evaluated, and while a prime motivation from stakeholders is accountability, for me I keep casting it as improvement.  Any evaluation in any work environment has the taint of a hatchet, a roughly hewn instrument to use in firing employees or at least denying raises.  I would rather it be a record of on-going dialogue between faculty member, chair, dean, even Vice President about self-assessed weaknesses ("I can do better here", "this is how I think I can improve", and "this is where I hope the college can support my plans for improvement").  I’m not sure the faculty can truly buy that unless I participate in some kind of 360 process that shows whether I practice what I preach. Hence, we end up back with the HBR article:  “This 360-degree feedback should not be against generic HR leadership competency models, but should instead be against the specific behaviors related to the desired changes that will drive business performance.”

Does your leader reflect the specific behaviors he or she spouts?  If your leader promotes listening to the customers, do you feel listened to by him or her?  If transparency is the key word of your organizational mission, is your leader transparent?  The problem is that most employees can answer that question; however the leader almost always has a different answer.  And that’s because leaders cannot, or are not willing to, spin around themselves, like a 360 rotating camera, and see themselves as others see them.

This is where the nice message from an ex-colleague came in.  She was mentioning her job interview from many years ago where she said my willingness to look her in the eye and smile meant the world to her (I paraphrase) and made her leave the interview feeling like she wanted to work for the organization.  As much as it could be, my openness to promoting such a presence was not uncalculated.  I want people to feel good about the place they come to work, that all of us can look each other in the eyes and convey positive feelings.  However, I was most struck by the notion that my other two interviewers at the time came across as intimidating.  I know both of them are not really intimidating, but if they could have been a 360 rotating camera and spun around the room to see how we looked, would they have looked at themselves and wondered, “Wow, is this the presence I want to project for my organization?”  I don’t think they would have wanted that.

A friend of mine noticed recently that most organizations cannot change because they aren’t willing to look at their blind spots.  It was a timely reference to me, because just recently at SMC we have come to realize that some of our “standards” for curriculum, well-intentioned because we believe certain outcomes are crucial to being a college graduate, are probably barriers that prevent students from graduating, and thus contribute to a graduation rate of which we are not proud.  We aren’t simply going to do away with that standard, but by looking at something we had never really seen before (our blind spot being our own hubris about the importance of these outcomes), we have positioned ourselves to be able to change.  Good 360-degree viewing of ourselves and our organizations forces us to see our blind spots.

Maybe if 360-degree analysis is not going to happen at your organization, you can recommend mirrors on all the walls, the ceilings, and the floor.