Looking for Warts

All good managers give feedback. But how many managers welcome feedback about their performance? 360-degree feedback is a proven method of finding out what people really think about us, but some managers prefer not to ask...

Apparently it was gnarly old Cromwell who gave rise to the following phrase.

The artist Peter Lely was busying himself preparing paints and palette when the Lord Protector looked him straight in the eye and demanded that Lely painted him “Warts and all”.

Lely did not disappoint him.

It took a brave soul to exhort an artist to tell it ‘as it is’. Especially given the fact that they built a profitable business on painting their subjects in as flattering a light as possible. Blemishes were cunningly ‘airbrushed’ under china complexions, and the paunches and potbellies of sumptuous living were smoothed out by the sweep of a palette knife.

Brusque and uncompromising Cromwell may well have been, but he had one talent that would serve us all well in our working lives, the desire that people tell the truth ‘warts and all’, even though the truth may prove unflattering and difficult to stomach.

Employees seldom get the opportunity to tell their boss what they really think about them. Too many managers view feedback as a one-way process, the opportunity to praise or to censure a direct report. But 360-degree feedback and upward appraisal can be two of the most enlightening – and developmental – feedback mechanisms a manager can lay their hands on.

Or maybe, unlike Oliver Cromwell, some would prefer that staff did not bring the warts to their attention?

Do staff choose better leaders?

Seven years ago, Professor Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, a UK expert in leadership studies, conducted research that concluded that staff opinion may be one of the most accurate ways of predicting future leaders.

Speaking on 'Assessing Leadership Potential' at the Institute of Personnel and Development's recruitment conference, she told delegates that 360-degree assessment and upward appraisal had been found to be better at predicting a manager's effectiveness as a leader in the intermediate period of two to four years, than assessment centres, interviews or psychometric tests.

Her results also indicated - very strongly - that when it came to managers’ judgement of their own leadership qualities, they tended to rate themselves more highly than their colleagues or direct reports did!

Professor Alimo-Metcalfe was keen to pursue her research to its logical conclusion: "When considering leadership development in the future, we need to look very carefully at who the assessors are. We need to include staff opinion…if we wish to get the calibre of leaders we need," she concluded.

Staff recruitment – with a difference...

But staff choosing Leaders? Surely not! And yet there are organisations that have already pioneered this approach.

One high-street retail chain leaves the final stage of their recruitment process up to the team that the successful manager will eventually manage; when the team is happy - via a formal interview - that they have found an individual with the credibility and respect they value in their leader, only then is the job offer made.

And what does such a system create? It creates a working relationship circumscribed by a steel-hooped band of good old-fashioned accountability. Staff have the accountability of having appointed the manager; the manager has the accountability to the staff by being held to the promises they committed themselves to during the interview.

But how can a manager continue to deliver the promises made in the manifesto of a CV? After all, the successful applicant is now past the door and have their feet planted firmly beneath their workstation. What if the warts appear only after the alabaster complexion has begun to fade?

Delivering the CV manifesto

Like the notion of 360 degrees itself, now the measurement process comes full circle. But this time the measurement net is spread wider; now the team, colleagues and senior personnel have their say. In the safety of an anonymous appraisal form they can calmly assess the contribution of the manager. Of course there may always be one with an axe to grind, but such vendettas are usually safely absorbed within the overall averages of the combined feedback.

And sometimes – just sometimes – it doesn’t make for pleasant reading...

Many years ago a manager I worked with was crowing about the fact that his feedback was bound to be wonderful. After all, he was much loved in his office. Staff looked up to him – laughed at his jokes, took his ‘witty repartee’ all in good heart…

He received his 360-degree feedback, from an experienced coach, after the first day of the course.

I never saw him again.

And would you believe it? His name was Oliver.

But, unlike his more famous namesake, he preferred to pretend that the warts weren’t really there