Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How Am I Doing? 360-Degree Feedback in Asia

I recently returned from Singapore, where I taught an executive MBA class in Global Leadership to a group of mostly Asian managers and executives. As part of the course, they were required to participate in a 360-degree feedback process using a a popular instrument, the Leadership Practices Inventory (Kousez and Posner, 2012). For many of them, although they were working for global, multinational companies, it was the first time they had experienced this kind of feedback from others – their managers, their co-workers, and others.

Now I know that it is simplistic to make generalizations about Asian cultural values, and even more so with this class (with students representing at least six different nationalities, including a few American expatriates). My class was certainly not representative of Asians in general, nor even of Asian managers in general. As scholars such as House et al. (2004) have shown, there are at least two distinct cultural clusters in Asia: Confucian Asia (e.g. China, Singapore, South Korea) and Southern Asia (e.g., India, Malaysia, Thailand). Hofstede (2001) and others have pointed out that Asian cultures tend to have higher Power Distance and Collectivism scores than Western cultures. More specifically, Power Distance tends to be higher in Southern Asia than in Confucian Asia, while Collectivism is higher in Confucian Asia than in Southern Asia. Southern Asia managers more so than Western managers tend to value leaders who are somewhat more authoritarian and more decisive in their decision-making; Confucian Asia employees value work places where harmony, relationships, and group recognition rather than individual achievements and confrontation are emphasized. In addition, as Ready et al. (2008) point out in their HBR article on attracting talent in emerging markets, employees from these markets (which include Asian countries such as China and India) value work place cultures that emphasize meritocracy, opportunities to learn and develop, and a strong connection to their teams and to their company. I kept these contextual factors in mind as I coached my students around their feedback and their reactions. Having spent time with these students, both as a group and individually through one-on-one coaching sessions with their 360-degree feedback results, the following are three impressions I have about their reactions to feedback, and how these tie to the use of 360-degree feedback in Asian cultures.

First, these managers and executives were eager not only to understand and learn about their feedback, but to also figure out what they could to do to develop themselves. When I met with each of them, they had already pored over their results and were especially interested in the written comments, some of which they claimed never to have heard before from others in such overt fashion. This is perhaps consistent with the generally non-confrontational and high-context language in many of these Asian cultures, especially among peers. About half had asked people outside their work place to give them feedback, including childhood friends, elderly relatives, parents’ friends, and their spouses. Many had actually already shared their results with their spouses.

Second, perhaps because educated Asians were focused on grades as they were going through school, many of my students were particularly interested in the numerical scores and the percentile ratings. They wanted to know how “good” they were, and tended to view the results as a sort of report card. While coaching them, I suggested reframing their view of these results not as a grade, but as developmental feedback. As I explained to them, the ratings are based not on how well or how poorly they were demonstrating certain leadership behaviors, but on how frequently their raters observed them performing these behaviors. It is certainly possible that in the context in which they interacted with some of their raters, these raters did not have an opportunity to view some of their leadership behaviors. For example, a family friend who provided ratings may not necessarily have observed the manager “challenging the process” (one of the leadership categories in the Leadership Practices Inventory).

Third, consistent with the higher Power Distance among these cultures, many students focused on the discrepancies between their ratings and their managers’ ratings. What was interesting was that of the 30 specific leadership practices, not one showed a statistically significant difference between self-ratings and managers’ ratings as well as for all observers’ ratings for the class as a group. Eckert et al. (2009) had reported in their comparisons of rating discrepancies from 31 countries that cultural values affected these discrepancies. For example, they found that self-ratings and observer ratings were more discrepant (with the former significantly higher than the latter) in high Power Distance cultures versus low Power Distance cultures.

In this small sample, I did not find this to be the case. Among my class, I also did not find differences in self-manager discrepancies among those from Confucian Asia and those from Southern Asia. There are several possible explanations for this. First, many of these students work in large companies with established performance management practices. While 360-degree feedback may not be universally practiced in these companies, regular performance reviews with one’s manager certainly are. Second, as some students explained to me, they tended to be “hard” on themselves and were downplaying their own self-ratings (similar to some research around gender issues that suggests that females tend to provide lower self-ratings then males). This was interesting, since another study (Gentry et al., 2010) found a “leniency bias” among its sample of Asian managers, and others have found such a bias in general when comparing self-ratings and observers’ ratings (e.g., Church, 1997); that is, self-ratings were more favorable than ratings by other sources. Third, as Gentry et al. (2010) have suggested, it might be that those with greater agreement on their ratings with their managers are in fact better performers. My class (most of whom were taking their executive MBA class with the approval of, and in some cases, the financial support of their companies) was most certainly reflective of this population of high performers. Fourth, especially for those in countries where Collectivism is a strong cultural value, supervisors, co-workers and others might have a tendency to inflate their ratings a bit in the spirit of preserving harmony. This might be the case especially for those who may believe that their ratings might not be anonymous.

Overall, I found receptivity to 360-degree feedback to be very positive. The students did not seem to go through the “SARA” feedback stages - from Shock to Anger to Resistance/Rejection and finally to Acceptance (Zenger and Folkman, 2010) – and were eager to move on and identify steps they could take to improve their leadership. Based on this small sample, there do not seem to be serious concerns about implementing 360-degree feedback in these cultures. In fact, use of 360-degree feedback is fairly common in many multinationals today, both Western and non-Western. In a study of over 650 organizations in the Asia Pacific region, for example (Mercer, 2013), 45% of organizations report that they do use 360-degree feedback; and 42% of them report that they provide individuals new in a global role with 360-degree feedback within the first year of their new assignment.

Unlike even say, twenty years ago, many Asian managers today are being constantly exposed to Western management practices, whether through their organizations, their formal education in school, or through the internet. This does not mean that cultural and contextual factors should be ignored, and that cultural preferences no longer exist. Some of these cultures are over two thousand years old, and their beliefs and assumptions are very deep-seated. It would be naïve to suggest that these values can change in a generation or two. Yet changes at least in work place practices are indeed coming, and perhaps accelerating. In the U.S. culture, for example, individualism has continued to be a very strong cultural value, yet we see collaboration and team work practices being emphasized and in many cases embraced in the work place. Companies such as Goldman Sachs and Accenture have implemented programs in their Japanese offices to help local employees interact more effectively with their Western colleagues and clients. With continued globalization, we will most likely see a greater evolution and transformation of work place practices around the world.

Church, A. (1997). Managerial Self-Awareness in High-Performing Individuals in Organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82: 281-292.

Eckert, R. et al. (2010). “I Don’t See Me Like You See Me, But Is That a Problem?” Cultural Influences on Rating Discrepancy in 360-degree Feedback Instruments. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 19 (3): 259-278.

Gentry, W. et al. (2010). Self-Observer Rating Discrepancies of Managers in Asia: A Study of Derailment Characteristics and Behaviors in Southern and Confucian Asia. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 18(1): 237-250.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences (2nd Edition). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

House, R. et al. (2004). Culture, Leadership and Organizations: the GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kousez, J. and Posner, B. (2012). The Leadership Challenge (5th Edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ready, D. et al. (2008). Winning the Race for Talent in Emerging Markets. Harvard Business Review, 86, November.

Zenger and Folkman (2010). http://zengerfolkman.com/meet-sara-our-emotional-response-to-bad-news/