“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
One form of “cognitive distortion” that is common in 360-degree feedback processes occurs when the participant rates him or herself significantly lower than how they are perceived and rated by others. These “under-estimators” are actually viewed as possessing strengths but not recognizing or acknowledging them relative to others giving them feedback.
At Envisia Learning, Inc., we have looked at this “leveraging strengths” concept from an interesting angle in the last few years. In our use of 360-degree feedback assessments, we have an interpretation based on the Johari Window concept that shows self-ratings compared to others who provide feedback in a graphic manner. We can classify individuals into four types, based on the profile that emerges from self-other ratings.
We have polite labels for these quadrants that include:
- Potential Strengths: the under-estimation of self-ratings compared to others
- Confirmed Development Areas: both self and other ratings are low
- Confirmed Strengths: both self and other ratings are high
- Potential Development Areas: self ratings are inflated relative to others “Under-estimators” (about 25 to 30 percent of those taking our assessments) have a substantial number of competencies appearing in the “Potential Strengths” quadrant, and our feedback meetings with them are predictable.
Individuals with this type of cognitive distortion are particularly fascinating, and when you sit down to debrief a 360-degree feedback report, we consistently find the following characteristics and behaviors:
- Highly perfectionist
- Expect high performance for themselves and others
- Often express a history of one or more depressive episodes in their adult lives
- Focus on their weaknesses and look for fault, criticism, and potential deficits in their feedback from others
- Ignore and gloss over any feedback suggesting strengths as being too complimentary
- High anxiety (Goff & Anderson, 2002)
In short, these participants tend to blow off all of the strengths seen by others and dwell on anything that isn’t perfect in their summary feedback report. No matter what we try to do, these clients won’t leverage their strengths as seen by others. All they want to do is focus on what they see as their developmental opportunities or weaknesses.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Kaplan and Kaiser (2009) show that it is just as detrimental to overdo strengths as it is to under-do them. Those expressing the right amount of strength showed an association with a measure of leadership success.
As the authors point out, leveraging and emphasizing strength might lead to actually interfering with being flexible and adopting new behaviors. If you receive feedback that you are admired for your perseverance in the face of ambiguity and challenge, you might find that “letting go” and backing off won’t come easily, even if it is clear that repeatedly banging your head against the wall creates a dent in the wall and a possible concussion that further impairs your reasoning and thinking.
It is important for coaches to do their best to help under-estimating clients see their feedback in balance and prepare for the likelihood that they will accentuate and focus on the negative, despite feedback from others that they are actually performing strongly or possess high competence in particular skills and abilities being rated.
One of my primary goals as a coach is to help my clients perceive themselves as they actually are. I find that the more accurate they see themselves, the less resistant they are to a behavioral change initiative. So, how results are interpreted during the 360-feedback sessions are absolutely crucial.
I often come across those clients that carry a strong sense of self-doubt, and generally regard themselves as less than they actually are. These Under-estimators can be challenging to coach, especially when interpreting 360-degree feedback reports. Even with the most positive scores, these individuals tend to hone in on the minimal aspects of lower scores. They tend to neglect all the positive feedback, and focus on the negative. It’s almost like they are searching for criticism.
So, how do you coach such individuals? When they hear the positive, it’s not good enough, and when they hear the so-called “negative”, they react in a self-depricating manner. I often try to revert my clients focus on the positive feedback, while not participating too much in a discussion about why some of their scores are lower than others. I try to divert their attention to what works, rather than what doesn’t. Furthermore, my overall feedback about their underestimating tendencies takes precedence over a “never-ending” discussion about their reactions to the specific rating that they deem as “not good enough”.
What has been your experience with under-estimating participants of 360-degree feedback?