My article below was also published on Task.fm.
When I talk to coaching clients about weaknesses, I use the term “blind spot” as well, because their biggest problems are often in areas where they are not (yet) self-aware and they have no idea how they are perceived. Those unknown weaknesses can be more damaging than the ones they know about. Perhaps their boss does not take the time to tell them, their peers do not have the heart to tell them, and their staff does not have the guts to tell them.
Discovering a blind spot can be even more transformational than addressing a known weakness, because of the rich learning involved. Once revealed, a blind spot can be addressed; it may or may not be a serious weakness that is difficult to address.
Although no method is perfect, I believe that the best way to learn about your weak spots is through an anonymous 360 evaluation. I have seen 360’s be truly enlightening. Some are skeptical about the quality of conducting a 360 evaluation, but if you follow these guidelines and the tool is implemented properly, it yields invaluable information that can translate directly into professional development and performance improvement in just the right areas.
- Survey a sufficient number of people (your boss, boss’s boss, some peers, direct reports, and possibly clients or external collaborators) to guarantee anonymity to respondents (excluding the boss and boss’s boss) and a variety of perspectives such that patterns are revealed. But do not cast the net so wide that you include people who do not work with you much and do not know you. Be even-handed, including those you know you work well with and those with whom you have trickier relationships.
- Be sure to complete the survey yourself, so that you can look for any gaps between your self-assessment and the way others perceive you. Those gaps are the blind spots. The 360 evaluation may also validate known weaknesses that you want to address, and it may reveal strengths you are not acknowledging in yourself. Leaning on your strengths is a great tactic for addressing weaknesses.
- Have a third party administer the survey. This can be someone in HR but ideally is an external coach. This helps convey that it is a professional development exercise, and not a performance evaluation.
- A good 360 evaluation usually includes a couple of open-ended questions and does not reduce all the feedback to rating scales. That way, respondents can address strengths and weaknesses that the questions may miss.
- Management should not use the 360 survey results for performance evaluation purposes. They should use non-anonymous sources for that. The results should be kept confidential and shared only with the individual being profiled and their coach, and not with the boss (unless the individual chooses to).
- Keep it simple. Long generic lists of detailed questions about job-specific competencies and elaborate reports translate into information overload and may dilute the value of the feedback.
- A qualified professional (e.g., a coach) should help a manager debrief their feedback, and in particular, keep them from focusing excessively on the negative, especially when the negative feedback is coming from just a few people. There are often circumstantial explanations that put negative feedback in perspective without dismissing it all together. If you “flip” the feedback and focus on your future performance (Marshall Goldsmith calls this “feedforward”), you can stay out of the negative spiral of defensiveness and blaming. You cannot change past behavior or deny current perceptions; you can only influence future behavior and perceptions.
- Expect the results to be confusing and sometimes internally inconsistent. Look for just a few themes – views that are widely shared. Put aside the rest of the data.
- When it’s time to craft an improvement plan, choose just a couple of performance gaps to work on. Anymore than that is overwhelming and unrealistic. Look for just a few simple new rituals or experiments in support of each desired improvement, and see how things play out. You may need formal training if a hard skill, like presentation delivery or project management is revealed as a weakness.
- Do not proceed in a vacuum. Let key stakeholders, like your manager and staff, know what areas you are working to strengthen, so that they are accepting of your experiments and supportive of your improvement efforts. They can continue to give you feedback as you adjust your behavior. Engage a mentor as well, if appropriate.
- Manage your own expectations. Professional development is gradual. Celebrate your small successes along the way. You won’t be a rock star tomorrow in an area that was a blind spot yesterday.