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Taking the Helm: Feedback is ‘tough love’ from the crew

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

I was speaking with a captain recently who participated in a 360-degree leadership feedback assessment from his crew. If you’re not familiar with this assessment, it’s a questionnaire that rates a leader’s abilities and is filled out by everyone who has a direct connection: co-workers above and below, as well as co-workers who are at the same level in the organization’s hierarchy. All assessments are done anonymously to encourage candor.

The captain I was talking with brought up the biggest issue of doing this type of assessment: He didn’t like the results he received. He felt the comments were hurtful and inaccurate, and served only as a way for the crew to attack him. After the assessment results, the captain wanted to fire the whole crew and get new people on the boat because he was now having a hard time interacting with his teammates.

It seemed to me the captain missed the point of the assessment. Assessments aren’t about having our ego stroked or getting kudos for how great we are in our role. An assessment is a tool to help us do our jobs better based on how others perceive us. Think of it as tough love from the crew. This captain was apparently unwilling to accept the general consensus about his current abilities as a leader.

It’s quite common that recipients of an assessment aren’t prepared for the truth that comes their way. This is partly because the yachting industry holds captains in high esteem and crew often have a hard time speaking truth to people in those positions. Another reason is that most co-workers and teammates avoid the confrontation that comes with feedback and are unwilling to start a tough, one-on-one conversation about what a leader can do to be better when it could lead to an argument or hurt feelings.

Doing the assessment requires humility and courage on the part of leaders because they never know exactly how others will rate them. But the goal of an assessment is simply to make us aware of weaknesses or habitual behaviors we don’t pay attention to on a regular basis. For example, if a bosun who shouts and curses at deckhands has developed that particular behavior over time, the bosun may not even be consciously aware of it — or its impact on others. It’s a reactive habit rather than some form of maliciousness.

In reality, no one likes to find out they’re doing a poor job. No one goes to work to hurt others. When we get feedback from this kind of assessment and it’s negative, we’ll typically go through the seven stages of grief before we take action and work on areas that need attention. Skilled leaders go through those stages quickly to reach the point at which they can work through issues that have been brought to their attention.
As for the captain mentioned earlier, it’s he who needs to change, not the crew. If there were just one or two negative comments about a particular issue or behavior, we might set those aside as being out of the norm. However, when every response includes some version of the same comment, the leader needs to seriously look inside and acknowledge the need to change.

Here are a few steps to consider when deciding to act on the results of an assessment:

  1. Thank everyone for their input.
  2. Tell your crew you intend to change.
  3. Ask a specific crew member for one or two things to work on over the next 30 days.
  4. Work on those one or two things for 30 days.
  5. At the end of the 30 days, go back to the crew member and ask how well you’ve improved those one or two things.
  6. Based on the response to Step 5, either keep working on what you’ve been doing or work on another issue.

I encourage every leader to go through some form of assessment to pinpoint areas for immediate improvement. Ultimately, the entire team will experience the benefits.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (www.marineleadershipgroup.com). Comments are welcome below.

 

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