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Jo Ayoubi

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360 Feedback v Positive Psychology: Are they compatible?


A couple of weeks ago I was taken by surprise by a comment from an associate; we met for coffee and were chatting through what is current for each of us at the moment. My colleague is a coach and talent consultant, and works with many leading companies, as I do.

He told me that his exclusive focus is on positive psychology - i.e. working with people's strengths.  In his view, people don't really change much, and after around 40 years of age, feels that most of us are unable to change.  Therefore the only useful way forward is to ignore both the past and anything that is not a strength.  On this basis, he does not use 360 Degree Feedback in his development and coaching work.

This surprised me because I work with so many learning and development, HR and coaching professionals who use 360 as part of their toolkit: to build self awareness, get a more rounded view of someone's performance and behaviours, as an input into development and talent planning, and to generate data on talent and leadership development.

This was a good challenge though, and got me thinking about the basics again, and whether 360 and positive psychology can work together or really are incompatible.

It's certainly the case that critical feedback can trigger fear and resistance in some cases, and can therefore put a block on learning or changing. With positive psychology, there is only focus on what is positive and where the individual's strengths lie.

However, here are some challenges to the view that feedback that is anything other than completely positive, is a bad thing:

- How do you know what your strengths are?  You may think you do, but of course self-assessment is notoriously inaccurate.  Don't 95% of us think we are better than average drivers?! (...'when all eight dimensions were considered together it was found that almost 80% of participants had evaluated themselves as being above the average driver') (1).

To get a more balanced view, you need a clear understanding of your strengths, not just from the person you report to, but also from your wider working teams.

- How do you stop your strengths being overused and then becoming weaknesses, or a derailer?
An article in Leadership Excellence summarises how this can come about (2).  The balance can be redressed by obtaining feedback on both strengths and development needs, from a variety of sources and working relationships.

- Some people are more motivated when they receive critical or challenging feedback. In some cases, the most powerful feedback for individuals has been feedback that was unexpected and critical, and which, when addressed, allowed them to make a significant change. Therefore having a clear idea of what you need to change, or develop, is the first step in making a change. (3)

- Situational leadership inherently requires the leader to be able to flex their behaviours to enable and engage others; there is clear evidence that feedback, a desire to change and the support to do so can help people to modify and adapt their behaviours.

- Finally, is it really true that we can't change?
Whilst personality is generally fixed, there is evidence that people can indeed change their behaviours, and in particular their responses to certain types of situations, at any stage in their life.  These changes are currently being investigated and tracked by neuroscientists, and the evidence is that adults can indeed change how they behave (4).

- Surely we are not completely stuck in our ways?

The evidence is that whilst some people are more able and willing to change than others, good feedback, coaching and support can help people to change for the better.

Can you really improve your Emotional Intelligence?

Positive psychology, and its organisational twin, appreciative enquiry, certainly focus on what is possible rather than what definitely cannot be changed, and this focus on future possibilities is a powerful activity.  At the same time, there is a strong argument for balanced feedback that includes critical but constructive advice.  Combining the balanced input from 360 Degree Feedback, and using it to point forward to achieving specific, positive goals and changes, seems to be a great combination.

I'd love to hear your views.


(1) McCormick, Iain A.; Frank H. Walkey; Dianne E. Green (June 1986). "Comparative perceptions of driver ability— A confirmation and expansion". Accident Analysis & Prevention 18 (3): 205–208. doi:10.1016/0001-4575(86)90004-7.

(2)  Fear Your Strengths- Strength can become weakness: by Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser, Leadership Excellence May 2013

(3) Marshall Goldsmith: What Got You Here Won't Get You There

(4) Walter Mischel: The Marshmallow Test

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Jo Ayoubi

Senior Consultant & CEO

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