Ben was a middle manager in the purchasing department of a company that manufactured tyres for the motor industry.  He worked in a large, draughty Victorian building that, despite refurbishment, still showed its age. The purchasing office was tucked away in one wing of the building along with other administrative functions.  The bulk of the site, however, was given over to tyre manufacture – a dirty process. The manufacturing areas looked as if they belonged to another epoch. 

There were two distinct categories of employee working on the site.  About a quarter were salaried staff paid monthly and the rest were hourly-rated labourers paid weekly.  The hourly-rated entered the building by a different entrance where they had to clock in.  They also ate in a different canteen.  The rationale for this segregation was that the hourly-rated workers were grubby and sweaty and salaried staff, many of them women, would not want to share the same facilities for fear of dirtying their clothes.  It was also argued that the blue-collar workers preferred to take their breaks with their own kind, where they could relax, smoke and swear without feeling constrained or incurring displeasure. 

In this predominantly macho environment, Ben cut an incongruous figure. A tall, dapper man, with spectacles dangling on a cord round his neck, he had a polite word for everybody. He was a well-read, well-travelled man with a love of opera and other things aesthetic. He was a leading light of the local choral society and a keen stamp collector.  His job took him abroad three or four times a year on visits to rubber plantations in remote places (he was an expert on rubber production).  Somehow Ben managed to disregard the pictures of naked and scantily clad girls that plastered walls and lockers throughout the manufacturing areas.

Ben had a small team of purchasing officers working for him, but he found the business of managing other people somewhat distasteful.  He much preferred to leave them to their own devices and operate on the basis of ‘no news is good news’. He called it managing by exception.  In truth, he was much happier in his role as a specialist – an expert in rubber production with an industry-wide reputation. 

Ben was therefore alarmed when he heard that the company was recasting the appraisal system and introducing 360-degree appraisals for all the managers.  He went to a management briefing session run by an outside consultant – an American who worked for the company that was to supply the 360-degree package and provide the backup.  Despite the consultant enthusing about the benefits of wholeheartedly embracing 360-degree feedback, Ben didn’t like the sound of it at all. He considered it inappropriate and intrusive.  How could his staff, or even his colleagues and bosses, assess him fairly given the specialist nature of his work?

Ben wrote a memo to his immediate boss, the purchasing director, arguing that specialists and professionals should be exempted from the scheme. It should be for ‘proper’ line managers.  Predictably, the reply was that, in addition to being a specialist, Ben was a ‘proper’ manager and stood to learn from the feedback.

So, with a heavy heart, Ben filled in the detailed ‘self’ questionnaires indicating, from a list of 39 competencies, which he thought were critically important in the light of his current responsibilities, and assessing his skill levels against each competency.  In addition to his manager, he elected to receive feedback from his five direct reports and two colleagues in neighbouring departments who knew him well.

After a couple of weeks, Ben’s report arrived.  It was 30 pages long with charts comparing the way he had rated himself with the way other people had rated him, followed by specific suggestions for development (in priority order) and a vast amount of supporting data.  Ben was horrified to see that his manager had a completely different perception of which competencies were important.  Ben, for example, had picked out competencies such as ‘Functional Expertise’, ‘Recognising Global Implications’ and ‘Commitment to Quality’ whereas his boss had earmarked items like ‘Provide Direction’, ‘Motivate Others’, and ‘Coach and Develop’.  Clearly this indicated some significant misunderstandings between him and his boss. 

Furthermore, Ben was very hurt when he saw that, though his colleagues had rated his skills highly, his subordinates had marked him down in many areas, particularly the people-management aspects that his boss thought so important.

After the shock, denial set in as Ben became more and more convinced that he had suffered a terrible injustice.  He decided to lodge an official complaint and demanded an early meeting with the purchasing director.

The purchasing director greeted him cordially and Ben let fly with his complaint – the gist of which was that the 360-degree system failed to take  any account of his undoubted professional expertise.  The director heard him out patiently with an ‘I’ve-heard-all-this-before’ smile on his face.  When Ben had finished, the director opened the top left-hand drawer of his desk, drew out a single sheet of paper, and slid it over the desk to Ben.

‘Tell me, Ben,’ said the director, ‘which of these apply to you?’

The sheet of paper was headed: 360-degree feedback – indicators of denial.

It went on to list the following:

·        ‘My job makes me act this way – I’m not really like this’

·        ‘All my strengths are accurate but they’ve got my weaknesses wrong’

·        ‘My job is so specialised that it is impossible for ordinary mortals to understand it’

·      ‘I used to be this way but I’ve changed recently’

·        ‘The wrong people obviously filled out the questionnaires’

·        ‘My boss marked me down because he/she doesn’t like me’

 ·        ‘I wasn’t like this in my last job’

·        ‘I have global responsibilities and my respondents don’t speak English very well’

·        ‘It’s just that I have a reputation to keep up; I’m actually much nicer than this’

·        ‘I purposely picked people who don’t like me’

·        ‘People are jealous of my success’

·        ‘This must be someone else’s report’

·        ‘The computer must have scored this wrong’

It was Ben’s turn to smile.  And, to give him his due, he did!

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