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Effective Leadership is Not a Popularity Contest

One of the most widely used methods for feedback is the “360 degree assessment,” especially for new and developing executives. This assessment is popular because it takes into the account the evaluations of your employees, peers and superiors, and provides valid indicators and predictors of your effectiveness as a leader. This information is also potentially useful in guiding your professional development.

Recently, though, one of my clients asked, “Isn’t a 360 nothing more than a popularity contest? Wouldn’t a tough but highly effective leader get lower scores? Wouldn’t someone who pandered to people receive high scores, especially from those who benefited from lax performance expectations?”

Unfortunately, there is some validity to this client’s cynical view. A colleague of mine was working with an executive in a middle market company with several divisions and around 2,000 employees. My colleague worked with several of this company’s executives over a three-year period and, in the process, interviewed several dozen employees and executives. During that period, he ran into one executive who everyone liked. He couldn’t find one person who had a bad thing to say about him. The common refrain was, “He is such a nice guy.”

But other employees would complain about employees to Mr. Nice Guy, who would always make excuses for them. After a while, people just gave up and learned how to avoid or work around the problematic people.

When the head of Mr. Nice Guy’s division left, Mr. Nice Guy was selected to replace him. As you can guess, when the CEO surveyed employees and other executives in that division, all he heard was great things about Mr. Nice Guy. But, because Mr. Nice Guy couldn’t address employee problems, the division was barely meeting its goals a year later. Oddly, the employee engagement survey found that employees really liked working there, but two key executives left for more challenging and rewarding organizations.

All of this is to say that it’s important to ask the right questions — and get a thorough picture of the interactions between executives and their employees, peers and superiors.

Asking the right 360-feedback questions

Research conducted by Zenger and Folkman and printed in their book,The Extraordinary Leader, showed the results of over 200,000 360-feedback surveys conducted on 20,000 different executives. They discovered that there is a set of five critical competencies that executives in the top 10 percent of the pack embody:

  1. Character
  2. Domain or technical competency
  3. Focused on results
  4. Interpersonal effectiveness (not just nice)
  5. Leading organizational change (they are not caretakers)

These five competencies are why I strongly recommend that you ask questions to help determine the competency of an executive. You should also be wary of “Mr. Nice Guy” when making critical promotion decisions.

To create a valid and useful 360-feedback survey, you need to ask questions like:

  • How effective is the executive at setting clear goals and objectives?
  • How effective is he or she at holding people accountable for achieving those goals and objectives?
  • How well does the executive handle challenging personnel issues?
  • How effective is he or she at providing developmental guidance and support?
  • How effective is the executive at influencing people?
  • How effective is he or she at driving necessary change?
  • Do people respect him or her (not just like him or her)?
  • Is he or she someone that others trust?

Effective leadership is not a popularity contest. It’s about achieving results with integrity. I’ll talk more about integrity in a future issue.

Written by

Carl is a business psychologist and leadership development expert who focuses on the development of high performance leaders.

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