When the People in High Potential Programs Aren’t

At a recent professional conference I attended there was a lot of talk about high potentials.  Specifically, how to best measure potential versus actual performance (good luck getting managers to understand the difference).  The idea of identifying high potentials (HiPos) is critical for a couple of reasons:

  • If you are going to do good succession planning, you need to look at people based on their potential to be leaders at the next level (or for the first time) and not just how well they are doing in the current position.
  • Investing training dollars in HiPos will give you a much better return than the investment in lower performers. High performers got that way because they are continuous learners who welcome feedback.

But, do companies really do a good job of identifying HiPos?  This article suggests that they do not.  Using 360 feedback as a metric, the authors conclude that many of those selected into HiPo programs are not rated well on important leadership dimensions.  How does this happen?

  • Companies use the wrong data to identify HiPos. Our tendency is to use current performance to determine future performance.  And, if looking at a person’s potential in that job, this would be the best predictor.  But, it is not a good predictor if you’re trying to determine if a great individual contributor will be a good manager, or if a good manager will be a good executive.  The skill sets are too different.
  • I allude to it above, but companies place too much weight on factors that are not related to potential. I understand that it is hard to put blinders on and only focus on those attributes that would indicate success in another role (e.g., strategic thinking), but it is critical to do so in identifying HiPos.

The best way to combat this is to identify future success factors, such as strategic thinking and developing effective followers, in your organization.  If succession planners are presented with only this type of relevant data (as opposed to everything that might come out of a 360 or assessment center), it is more likely that those with the highest potential will be put into the HiPo pool.

I’d Prefer To Have My Work Eulogy While I’m Still Here

We often hear the best things about people at the end. Testimonials are generally saved for retirement dinners an almost every eulogy tells us about how wonderful a person was. Why is that? Are we afraid of embarrassing people? Would hearing such great things about ourselves be a de-motivator?

This paper posits that hearing about our best selves is motivating and we should share this praise with people early in their work careers. Instead of leading to complacency, their data show that thinking about when we have performed well and hearing others applaud our accomplishments activate us and leads to higher resilience, performance, and engagement.

I’ve written before about highlighting positive aspects of performance feedback in order to motivate people and how the best performers keep improving from feedback. The activation research gets me thinking that there is a bit more to it. The better performers may be doing more with the constructive feedback because it is surrounded by so many good stories. Perhaps if we built more positive activation into our performance feedback processes (whether they be performance appraisals or 360s) non-top performers would receive some of the same benefits

We always tell managers that intrinsic motivators are more effective than extrinsic ones because people don’t tire of them (when they are authentic) and they are free. The self-activation data tells us that reminders of employees’ best selves are deeply rooted and inspire them to return to that state. Let’s look for more opportunities to do that.

For more information on providing motivating feedback, please contact Warren Bobrow.

Do It Yourself Leadership Training

In my experience, top performers get there through understanding their deficiencies and then doing the hard work of correcting them. Aptitude and natural talent gives some people an initial advantage, but it doesn’t last. The question then becomes, “What’s the best way to develop talent?”

This blog post suggests that for leaders the development power is in their hands. Note how the description of successful leaders follows the same model of developing other talent: Leaders with a high learning orientation are seen as being more successful.

There are practical implications of learning orientation for valid selection and development of leaders:

  • Learning orientation can be evaluated via valid pre-employment tests (Openness to New Experiences is a good place to start), assessment centers (evaluating inquisitiveness during exercises), and behavioral interviewing (development steps the person has already taken). This allows for the conscious choice of bringing in (or promoting) leaders who are driven by learning.
  • Allow leaders to choose their develop plan rather than use a cookie cutter approach. Those who use their own observations and other data (such as 360 feedback or employee engagement survey results) to develop their own path have a strong learning orientation and should be encouraged. Those who do not use the data and are content are letting you know that they have no plans to improve themselves (or your organization).

For more information on validated pre-employment testing and leadership development, please contact Warren Bobrow.

A Week of Feedback

I had the opportunity to provide individual 360 feedback to a group of middle level managers group last week. As I’ve written before, I find many things intriguing about the process. I also try to learn the lessons of other research when providing the feedback so it is less painful for participants who do not have favorable reports.


There’s always some expectation of “surprise” from the ratings as not everyone is a great social monitor. However, where I do not understand this is when participants say they are surprised by their manager’s ratings. This feedback is more valuable for the manager (why aren’t you having these kinds of conversations with your direct reports?) than the participant. If the 360 process opens up this dialogue, then it has been at least a partial success.


Of course, people whose reports are generally good are more accepting of the areas where they can improve than those with poorer results. But, even among the latter group it is always interesting to see the level of acceptance of the feedback. It generally ranges from “My manager just doesn’t like me” (see above) to “I work primarily by myself, so I don’t see how my peers could evaluate me” to “I think people used Neutral instead of Not Applicable. That’s why the ratings are so low.” One can only assume that this ability to dismiss/rationalize data is one of the contributors to the lower job performance.

The organization had done good leg work in preparing this group for the process, including having the executive team go through it first. That established sufficient trust in the confidentiality of the data. Seeing that, and the subsequent development activities, established buy-in. However, HR will still have to prove itself to others, which is to be expected from such a large group.

My message to the participants was that the 360 was the beginning of the development process, not the end. While insight is nice, action (classroom training, special assignments, shifting behaviors, etc.) is what leads to change. I hope that they took it to heart.

For more information on the 360 feedback process, please contact Warren Bobrow.

No, This Will be Good For You

Is receiving feedback rewarding?  Perhaps, if it’s positive.  But, feedback providers tend to borrow from behaviorist psychology (Skinner, etc) in assuming that getting the feedback will result in learning, much in the same way that rewarding a behavior will.

In most cases, performance or 360 feedback is not nearly immediate enough to be linked to specific behaviors.  Also, the feedback from these processes tends to focus on what a person should be doing (which can be vague) as opposed to rewarding good behaviors (which leads to learning).

So, how can the feedback process lead to more learning?  Here are two tips:

  1. Focus more on rewarding good behaviors than pointing out poor ones.  Not only will this help the person receiving feedback, but if others see which behaviors are rewarded they will want to emulate them.
  2. If you point out a behavior that should be changed, point out what the better replacement behavior is and then reward the new behavior.

Some people prefer the “brutally honest” approach to feedback.  I’m sure you’ve heard something to the effect, “We’re all big boys and girls here, tell it like it is.”  There are a couple of problems with this approach.  One is that there is research on 360 feedback (Smither, J. & Walker, A.G., 2004) that those who received a relatively small number of negative comments (in relation to positive ones) improve more than those who receive a relatively large number of negative comments.  You could argue that strong performers got that way because they are better at receiving negative feedback and improving, hence fewer negative feedback comments.  However, another interpretation is that people who get LOTS of negative feedback lose interest in improving.  Perhaps they decide that the system is rigged against them or that there is no way they can get better at everything or they just don’t believe that they are that poor at their jobs.  Either way, being “brutally honest” in spades comes with costs.

Another reason to ease back on the negative feedback is the pain it causes.  I’m not exaggerating.  Neuroscience studies (Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M. & Williams, K., 2003) show that the brain reacts to negative feedback the same way it does to physical injuries.  I think it’s fair to say that no one comes to work for that kind of experience.

Remember, insight alone won’t change behavior (otherwise, therapists would be out of business).  If your feedback is solely focused on pointing out what’s wrong with a person and you don’t reward them for doing what is right, the people receiving the feedback will always treat it like a trip to the dentist rather than a learning experience.

For more information on employee engagement, skills assessment, 360 feedback, and talent management, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or warren@allaboutperformance.biz.

Surveys – Confidential or not?

Some surveys (like 360s or those that measure employee engagement) are conducted in confidence, meaning that you only share group level data, and not individual responses, with others.  Other surveys, such as those given to customers or asking group members for suggestions may not be.  Under the latter condition, what level of confidentiality do you owe the participants?

First and foremost, you want to make the level of confidentiality very clear before giving the survey.  In some cases, people are asked to give up any confidentiality (please give us your name if you’d like to be contacted).  In others, the lack of confidentiality is explicitly given up (in which projects would you like to be involved?).  Additionally, let people know how the data is going to be used before asking them to give up their confidentiality.

However, even when confidence is given up, there are other factors to be considered before you would share results by name with others in the organization.  Are the person’s responses to the survey offensive or mean-spirited?  Does it appear that the person thought that the comments would be made in confidence?

Remember, confidence implies trust.  Use your judgment when protecting it.

For more information on 360 feedback, employee engagement, and talent management, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or warren@allaboutperformance.biz.

360 Degree Feedback

I am often asked to help companies implement multi-rater (aka 360-degree) feedback.  This is a process where a person rates him/herself on a set of competencies along with his/her direct reports, boss, peers, and sometimes customers.   Theoretically, seeing information from each of these perspectives provides the person with the insights required to improve.  Before implementing a multi-rater feedback process (MRFP), you should consider these four issues.

1.   Insight, while necessary, is not sufficient to bring about change.  You can’t have a successful MRFP without post-feedback development opportunities available and a way to measure changes in behavior.

2.   There are two serious methodological flaws with most MRFPs that you need to address.  Among them are:

  • Do You Really Know What You Are Measuring?  No matter how well thought out your competency model is, or how behavioral your items are, most MRFPs can be boiled down into 2-3 elements of performance: Halo, Management/Leadership, and Technical Skills.  Halo is when a person who is well liked get high ratings in a lot of areas because s/he is well liked (the opposite can also occur).  What’s the best way to avoid halo and measure more distinct competencies?  Ironically, use fewer items.  This reduces rater fatigue and allows them to focus more on key elements of a person’s behavior.
  • What Do You Get When You Mix All Of the Colors Of the Rainbow?  Gray.  Since we love bottom line numbers so much we like to give an overall score on MRFP dimensions (usually an average of the different rating groups).  However, by doing so you are killing the best part of your data.   For example, by averaging Bob’s delegation scores, you get a meaningless number that masks the most important ratings from his direct reports who know best whether or not he delegates effectively.  Be sure to provide feedback based on rater group, at least for key items where one group will have more insight than another.

3.  Be clear on the goals for your process.   For example, is it to develop your top talent or increase the skill level of poorer performers?  The ugly secret of doing assessment for training and development purposes is that it tends to benefit those who need it the least.  Top performers get better while the lower performers view the process as a reminder of their flaws.  For poorer performers you should consider a more objective process that does not rely on sources of data that have existing prejudices (real or perceived), such as an assessment center.

4.  Whatever you do, don’t make an MRFP part of your performance management system.  It ruins the objectivity of the ratings and focuses people on the process rather than using the results.

For more information on 360 Feedback, leadership, skills assessment, and talent management, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or warren@allaboutperformance.biz.

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