Managers have gotten into some bad habits. In the name of getting along, they’ve coated information in whitewash and obscured the hard facts. Instead of being open, honest and transparent, they encourage anonymous feedback and hide behind 360 assessments.
Susan Scott, author of "Fierce Leadership," argues that many of today’s management best practices are actually holding us back. Worse yet, there's a fundamental disconnect between what managers say and what they believe.
"Our practices include not only what we do, but what we believe, because it's our belief that drives our behavior that produces results," Scott said. "It's very difficult for them to behave differently and to sustain that behavior if what they believe underneath doesn't support it."
Moving forward requires awareness, honesty and the courage to act, what Scott calls fierce leadership. The first step is to develop "squid eye" — the ability to spot signals that foretell potential problems.
Scott co-opted the term from divers who scour the sea floor in search of squid. Beginning divers often have difficulty spotting the creatures because of their camouflage, but soon develop squid eye — the ability to identify the signs of their presence.
"I want people to be able to spot the "tells" that indicate we're headed in a good direction or a bad direction," Scott said.
The ability to spot these corporate tells will allow companies to adjust their practices in order to operate more effectively individually and in teams and drive performance. Scott identified six "worst" best practices that are key tells that a company is headed in the wrong direction, including hiring for smarts, legislated optimism and anonymous 360-degree feedback.
Scott said the way 360s are used in most organizations fails to provide meaningful feedback that improves individual and organizational results. Anonymous feedback indicates an organizational belief that it’s risky to disclose what you are thinking or feeling or that people can't handle delivering or receiving the truth.
"When an organization gives the message quite overtly that we are unable to give one another feedback candidly face to face; then you have to ask where else in the company does anonymity live," Scott said. "Where else in the organization are people withholding what they think and feel, and what price are we paying for that?"
On an individual level, anonymous feedback lacks context and meaning. The person receiving the feedback often struggles to understand what to do with the results because he or she has no idea where it is coming from. More importantly, Scott said people lose the opportunity to build meaningful relationships.
"The language of anonymous feedback is colorless and soul-killing, and I just don't see any life or intimacy or humanity [in it] that could truly enrich a relationship," Scott said.
That failure to establish and enrich relationships is what costs organizations in the long run. The inability to have a candid conversation about performance leads to a tendency for relationships to flatline and fail, Scott said.
"A key premise of fierce conversations is that our careers and our companies and our relationships succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time, and secondly, the conversation is the relationship," she said.
Rather than anonymous 360-degree feedback, Scott suggested that companies practice face-to-face feedback, 365 days a year.
"Unfortunately, we don't care enough to do the hard things that also happen to be the right things because we are not connected with people at a deep level," Scott said. "If you want to become a great leader — or a great human being, a great parent — you must gain the capacity to connect with your colleagues, with your customers, with your community at a deep level, or lower you aim."
Scott said that those relationships — our emotional capital — are our most valuable currency. Executive suites are littered with the corpses of brilliant people who flamed out because they failed to recognize the importance of human connectivity.
"We might be technically proficient and very smart and very well-intentioned and bomb if we don't know how to connect with our colleagues and our customers at a deep level, if we don't know how to have the conversations that need to take place," Scott said.
Those authentic conversations tackle reality, provoke learning, resolve tough challenges and enrich, rather than devalue, relationships. But Scott cautioned against immediately pulling the plug on anonymous feedback. While it's not difficult, having a conversation that tackles these challenges requires preparation and training.
"You just need to be shown how to do it and then practice doing it on real issues," Scott said.
The ultimate goal of eliminating anonymous 360 feedback, and the other "worst" best practices, is to create a transparent, authentic performance-driven culture.
"Leaders need to examine their practices and look at the results their practices are producing," Scott said. "Where they love the results, then obviously their practices are working. Where they're not getting the results they want, perhaps it's time to clear the windshield."