The Danger of Making Average Your Goal

Author

Joseph Folkman

September 16, 2016

Does it make any difference in leadership development whether you set the target on becoming good versus becoming exceptional? I have the strong impression that it does, and my colleagues at Zenger Folkman and I have data that reinforces that conclusion.

For the past decade, we have been working with corporate leadership development professionals. We have seen how a well-researched 360-degree feedback process to elevate leaders’ behavior through accurate feedback from colleagues can motivate and shape a leader’s development.

Over that decade of experience, we became convinced that merely encouraging people to be moderately better leaders is not likely to change that leader’s behavior.

We also became increasingly convinced that great leaders excelled because they were particularly effective in 3-5 specific behaviors or competencies. They didn’t need to be exceptional at everything. While that may not sound like an earth shaking discovery, it had the double edged effect of reducing the expectation that a leader needed to be “practically perfect in every way” as Mary Poppins described herself, while providing latitude and variety in what each leader should develop. We learned that while extraordinary leaders need only be exceptional in 3-5 specific areas, those areas could be extremely varied. There was no need for cookie cutter leaders. Exceptional leaders could make their choice of which competencies to emphasize.

A case study with average as the goal

Recently, we analyzed some data that once again demonstrated the power of these discoveries. We assessed a client with an existing leadership development program. They differed from our other clients in two ways.

  1. They resisted emphasizing the idea of building strengths.
  2. They did not provide the research on how a leader can transition from good to great using non-linear development.

This company wanted their leaders to receive 360 degree feedback on their performance and at the same time hoped that this would encourage everyone to change. Their goal was to help every leader to become a good, solid performer; but excellence was not the target.

We analyzed results from 96 leaders who received feedback in the pre-test and were then rated on their level of improvement in a post-test 18 months later. Comparing the pre- and post-test results, we found that overall, 41% had made a positive change. This group had significantly improved their overall effectiveness, while 32% stayed essentially the same, and 27% were rated significantly more negatively in the post test results than in their pre-test. The pie-chart below shows the results.

Screen Shot 2016-09-13 at 9.15.38 PM

We then analyzed what differentiated these three groups. What separated those who changed, from those who stayed the same, and from the others who got worse?

Screen Shot 2016-09-13 at 9.16.38 PM

A. Negative change group. The most notable attribute of this group was that they had significantly more positive scores in the pre-test. Evidently these leaders got the message that they were doing fine and as a result most did nothing to improve. Rather than the high scores on the pre-test encouraging them and raising their aspirations; it appeared to have brought tranquility and complacency.

Often times positive results or praise has the effect of breeding complacency, which in turn led to less effective leadership behavior in the long term. Receiving feedback from others generates expectations of change and when no improvement occurs often ratings decline. In short, positive feedback generated a 24th percentile poorer performance. Good news was bad news as far as change was concerned.

B. Static Group. As we compared the pre- and post-test results of this group, we saw no overall change. Overall effectiveness was originally at the 53st percentile in the pre-test and 50st percentile in the post-test. This is in contrast to other studies where we challenged every leader to move from good to great and taught them how to build strengths. We emphasized that the organization needed “great leaders” not just “good leaders.” In our most recent study of nearly 5,000 leaders we measured a significant change in the overall results where participants moved from the 55th percentile in the pre-test to the 75th percentile in the post-test.

The insight we gained is that for leaders who initially get above average scores, the lack of an aspirational goal prompts them to at best stay the same. In order to remain at the same level of effectiveness these leaders did make a minimal effort to thank others for their feedback but no forceful effort to change. Feedback describing a leader as average with no aspirational goals sends a message to leaders that everything is okay.

We believe that those in this middle group actually made some small efforts to improve, which enabled them to keep their place in comparison to others.

C. Positive change group. The most notable differentiator of this group was the lower initial scores on the pre-test. These leaders were obviously motivated to take action by their initial results. The message from the feedback was that they were not okay. Few people are content to be perceived as being inferior to their peers. The data they received presumably became a wake-up call that thrust them into action and caused them to improve 25.5 percentile points.

Critical, or what some would call negative, feedback had the effect of causing a 26th percentile improvement. Bad news was good news from the perspective of bringing about change.

Conclusion

Reviewing these findings has reinforced the conclusion that if organizations want all leaders to improve, not just the ones who initially receive below average scores, they must make excellence the goal. They must also show leaders that there is significant value in leadership excellence. In essence they need to show that great leaders produce great results. This case study has also reinforced the reality that doing nothing rarely keeps you in at the same level of effectiveness. Organizations face new challenges every day. To stay at the same level requires effort. The study also reinforces the very premise of our leadership development beliefs: that effectiveness of messaging and technology around building strengths is the best way to raise the bar on leadership effectiveness.

 

This article was written by Joseph Folkman from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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