Ain’t That a Kick in the Pants
Isn’t it funny how obvious and oblivious are so close?
— Author unknown
My work with leaders sometimes involves inviting the leader’s direct reports to purposely kick him or her in the emotional keister. One of the most effective ways of doing this is having the leader go through a 360-degree feedback process, where the people they are leading rate the leader’s style and performance. The raters often include the leader him or herself and the leader’s boss(es), peers, and direct reports— hence a “360-degree” view. The feedback uses an anonymous survey consisting of quantitative data and qualitative (open-ended) questions. The idea is that people are likely to give more honest answers if they don’t feel threatened that the leader will retaliate against them for their honesty. A leader’s self-perception can be quite biased, so involving the broader perspective of others can be a useful development tool. While 360-degree surveys aren’t perfect, having administered hundreds of them over the years, I’ve seen them result in positive leadership change. Sometimes dramatically so.
The challenge is, some leaders do everything they can to justify or explain away the feedback they get. In my new book, A Leadership Kick in the Ass, I describe a headstrong leader named Bruce who rejected his feedback and harmed his career in the process. Bruce is a headstrong senior executive in the construction industry. He is physically imposing (six foot four) and socially dominant. He is the proverbial bull in the china shop, viewing nearly every interaction with clients, subcontractors, and direct reports (“subordinates”) as a competition to be won. While Bruce has developed a strong track record of taking on the toughest and most complex projects, he also has a well-earned reputation as a controlling hard-ass who has left a trail of human wreckage in his wake.
A lot of pent-up frustration spewed forth from Bruce’s direct reports in his 360. Though he rated himself nearly perfect on every leadership question (giving himself nines and tens on a ten- point scale), the people rating him gave him ones and twos. The qualitative comments were just as bad, including one from his boss, who called him “petulant” and “irrational.” One direct report called him a “blockhead,” and another said he was a “brute.” So what did Bruce do? He blew it off, dismissing the feedback as sour grapes from midcore performers.
For a controlling and hardheaded guy like Bruce, all that mattered were the financial results he brought in to the company. Why should he care what people thought of him? He had built the biggest and most profitable projects in the company. From his perspective, his exceptional results proved that he was a good leader. But in rejecting the feedback of the people who had directly experienced his leadership, Bruce was making the deliberate choice not to grow. Choosing otherwise would mean chipping away at his blockhead and cracking open a deeper truth about his successes; the money he made for the company had come at a great cost in human suffering. Yes, Bruce had made a lot of money for the company. But he had also cost the company a lot of money in the form of low morale, high turnover, and lost leadership potential. Not admitting that hard truth was easier than changing. Eventually, by choosing to remain oblivious to himself, combined with his intimidating ways, Bruce ended up getting fired.
To be sure, it takes courage to subject oneself to a leadership 360. The feedback can be raw and hurtful. In rare instances raters will use the process as a way to get back at a leader they don’t like. But mostly the feedback is helpful because it allows the leader to illuminate blind spots that may be blocking his or her effectiveness. All it takes is an open-mind and a willingness to value the perspective of others.