Generic Leadership Traits Don’t Work for 360 Degree Feedback

When I received my copy of Inc. Magazine’s June issue, the cover quickly caught my attention:

“7 Traits of True Leaders”
As I read through the articles in this issue, I noticed that the feature article, written by Leigh Buchanan, described these seven desirable traits as those that may have been previously considered feminine:  empathy, vulnerability, humility, inclusiveness, generosity, balance, and patience.  While I don’t disagree with these points (in fact, I have also found these seven more important today than ever before), I wonder whether most organizations reward employees for these traits, and if they are proficient at measuring each of these, beyond the anecdotal.  But, that’s a topic for a future blog.
For me, the real “ah-hah” here came from one word: traits.
Trait theory is not new to leadership or industrial psychology.  In fact, its psychological roots extend to the earliest known studies of human nature.  Trait theory suggests that there are certain characteristics, or traits, that an individual or group possesses that will determine success.

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Although introduced decades before, leadership trait theory took hold in the early ‘80s with a proliferation of books and models suggesting that there were certain traits a leader must possess in order to be effective.  Some of these included physical traits, such as height, gender, and overall dashingly good looks (thank you).  The theories here fell along the lines of claiming that “men over 6’2” are perceived as better leaders.”
Behavioral traits included such areas as assertiveness, communication style, and extroversion.  One of the reasons trait theory gained great popularity was that it was easily identifiable.  One’s communication style, for example, was something that was observable.  Trait theory also allowed an individual—one seeking to become more effective—to observe traits of successful leaders, and work to emulate those traits.

Enter 360-degree feedback

While these traits were observable, they were often difficult to quantify or measure with any objectivity or common measurement criteria.  Using 360-degree feedback became an attempt at measuring these traits.  Using 360 feedback also addressed a common problem, in that many times we are poor at assessing our own traits, particularly when these are behavioral, rather than physical.  Using 360-degree feedback is a way to gather views of those around us who are in a position to make observations about both our traits and how we put these to use (our behaviors).

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However, trait theory has a number of limitations:

  • First, trait theory would suggest that a leader’s ability to succeed depends entirely upon that leader’s traits.  It excludes the impact of the environment (economic situation, position in the organization, the team, organization fit, or the product or service) on the individual’s ability to lead.  However, what makes a leader effective in one environment may not make him/her as strong in a different situation.
  • Second, humanity has developed an endless list of “desirable traits.” One merely has to look at the exhausting list of books, articles, blogs, and training programs to see that we don’t all agree on the “18 Qualities That Make Leaders Great” (insert your own favorite leadership book with number in the title).  Often, it’s based on the subjective experience of the person writing the book.
  • Further, we have a tendency to think that those leaders who are most like us tend to be the best.  Therefore, our best qualities become those we look for and measure in others.

So, back to 360-degree feedback…

Taking the above into consideration, how can we possibly design a 360-degree feedback assessment that effectively measures all components critical to an individual’s success?  The truth is, regardless of what many would claim, we can’t—not perfectly, at least.  However, that doesn’t take away from the value of 360-degree feedback; in fact, it strengthens it.
Recognizing that those same traits that make you great would not necessarily make me great is a critical first step.  Those same traits that make me successful in one situation may not make me as effective in another (this is, by the way, known as contingency theory).  Because of this, it’s important that a 360-degree feedback process and instrument be customized to fit the environment.

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Although some common threads would certainly exist across all leadership positions, others do not.  For example, the required competencies of a nurse who deals directly with patients likely differ somewhat from those in hospital administration.  Similarly, those traits required for a hospital executive may be different from a comparable-level position in a technology firm.  The 360 process, then, should be aimed at those common behaviors that are critical to the specific position, level, role, situation, environment, and industry.  Measuring an individual on a generic set of traits or behaviors may provide little value.
One of the benefits of 360-degree feedback that few talk about is its use in communicating desired leadership traits, as well as articulating behaviors critical to a specific role.  Used correctly, the 360 is a good way to let employees know at which competencies they will need to be proficient to succeed in their roles.
While coming up with a favorite list of “18 Qualities That Make Leaders Great” can be helpful in articulating general traits and behaviors desirable for leadership, keep in mind that the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work in leadership—and doesn’t work in 360-degree feedback.

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