Norms, 360-Degree Feedback, and Behavior Change

What are norms? A norm is the average score of all people who have taken a specific 360-degree assessment (or any other assessment survey for that matter). It can also represent the average score of a specific norm group or target population. A norm group is a target population, say managerial personnel, stored in a database (yours or the vendor’s). If you can access this norm group you can compare your folks with those folks in the norm group.

Normative data is mistakenly seen as the paradigm or the standard to strive for. Some see the score as a best practice or a target. It is an average score. Think of that C from your days in college. C= excellence? No dean’s list for excellence here! Well, the item, the behavior, may be a best practice and something to include in your change efforts, but the score is not a best practice by any stretch of the imagination. It represents mediocrity. Do you want your folks to strive for mediocrity?

Norm junkies, beware! Yes, you can compare and benchmark your middle managers by gender, title, years of service with other middle managers who share those demographics from your SIC code (Standard Industrial Classification). That is the easy part. What you do not know is whether the people in the database represent the best employees, average employees, or simply those employees who fit the demographic (e.g., who have worked with the organization for two to three years and at one time were thought to be breathing). You do not know their levels of competence. As a result, the data in this normative data set, for example, could include folks who range from Mensa member to village idiot, from highly motivated and effective to catatonic and mentally retired.

Focus on the behavior, not the score. Think about your last discussion regarding norms. Did the discussion focus on an item that had a score of 3.4 or a 3.6? Or did you focus instead on the actual wording of the item, the behavior? Did you overly analyze the significance of a .02 delta between the scores or the actual wording for that behavior? Did you identify the positive and negative consequence for resolving this potential area for development?

Purge your mind of scores! Focus on the behavior and the direction for change.

If your results indicate a weakness in, say, “Challenging current thinking for how we have always done things,” then that is a potential area for development for a specific individual or a sub-set of your target population, regardless what the norm or score happens to be. Your developmental efforts can then include whether the individual or a group of individuals should do more of the behavior or do less to resolve this behavior and what specifically needs to be done to resolve this issue.

Deferring Behavior Change. Focusing on norms can be a very convenient way to avoid implementing needed change. One benefit of 360-degree feedback is that it can act as a catalyst for implementing needed change. However, when comparing their feedback to a national norm, people do funny things. If their score is above the norm, they feel change is not needed. We are better than others (according to the norm).When they are at the same level, they feel change is not needed. We are doing what everyone else is doing.

The real fun occurs when they score below the norm, as in below average. People attack the survey. Who created this assessment? How relevant are the questions to what we really do? Is this a valid survey? Is the data reliable? People tend to look for excuses rather than expend the energy to become more effective or more competitive or to become more influential with others. In the end, all this sound and fury amounts to nothing more than if one were sitting in a rocking chair: There is the appearance of movement, but no forward progress.

We are unique. Why do you think you need to compare your employees with those from other organizations? National or industry norms provide demographic comparisons, but they do not identify the specific organizations within that normative database. If they do, that is an ethical breach of confidentiality.

If you believe your organization is unique, why would you want to compare your unique organization with organizations that are not as unique? And if you believe that the normative database is chock-full of unique organizations, then what is so unique about your organization? The discussion becomes a bit circular. Many organizations that are number one or two in their markets tend not to use national norms for comparative purposes. What would be the point?

Alternative to National Norms.One alternative to national or industry norms and scores in general is to create your own normative database about the people within your company. Create data that is self-norming to your targeted populations. Compare the data of your best performing employees from those who are least effective. Identify your own critical behaviors and practices for all employees and for specific functional units. For example, you can compare your group of newly minted managers with, say, your more experienced managers. Compare the strengths and developmental needs of folks who work at different locations, and so on.

These internal comparisons can allow you to develop more relevant training and development programs. They can help reinforce your core strengths while resolving your developmental needs. Self-directed action plans become more relevant for changing non-productive behaviors when you focus on the behavior, rather than the score.