Over the years we have been asked to coach managers who have demonstrated poor leadership behaviours for years without any consequences. Similarly, we have been asked to work with underperforming managers who repeatedly received a ‘satisfactory’ performance rating even though they have been working at sub-par levels. Why do we expect leaders or managers to grow if there are no robust discussions or consequences for inappropriate behaviour or poor performance?

The problem with this lack of relevant feedback is that without learning there is no growth and without awareness of mistakes there is no learning. We learn by trial and error. Only once you apply theoretical knowledge in practice and see how it works (or doesn’t) do you make the mental connections that mean that you have ‘learned’ something. This means that learning requires a feedback loop. Mostly, your brain is adept at providing the correct feedback so you can learn ‘as you go’. The catch is that the brain filters out any feedback that doesn’t fit with your self-image and beliefs.

For example, if you believe that you are a very good leader who is accomplished in getting things done on time, then you will ignore any evidence to the contrary. Like the followers you pushed too hard and who decided to leave your team (‘They just weren’t up to scratch’). Or the ones who disengaged due to a lack of positive feedback on their performance, as you relentlessly demanded more and pointed out every mistake they made. From an independent observer’s perspective this leader would have a lot to learn about leadership. From your perspective everything looks great, you are delivering results and getting ahead.

There is no contradiction in this story, just a focus on different aspects of what ‘good leadership’ entails. The most commonly mentioned attributes of good leaders are honesty, integrity, being forward looking and consistency. The leader in question may well have all these attributes. Yet still it is not enough. A leader who routinely writes off ‘non-performers’ or people who simply sometimes need positive encouragement to know that they are doing a good job is not yet a well-rounded leader, he or she still has a lot to learn.

That we are all highly selective in what information to process and hence what feedback to accept has been known for a couple of decades. Yet this knowledge has not resulted in the creation of feedback systems for leadership development that are fit for purpose. Training programs commit facts to memory, but don’t actually create learning without a trial-and-error feedback loop. Six monthly performance reviews are woefully inadequate to get someone accept a poor behaviour from 4 months ago. Most performance measurement system that don’t involve detailed 360 degree feedback will not pick up on the right areas for improvement. And 360 feedback alone will not result in a change of behaviour without coaching to support the development process.

The result of this lack of attention to effective leadership development is that Australian managers continue to trail their OECD counterparts by a long way. This is not news, it was first established in the 1995 Karpin report. The key findings are contained in these two pictures:

karpin1 karpin2

What is news is that very little has changed on these measures in the last 20 years based on recent follow-up research, we are as far behind international best practice as we were in 1995 when it comes to developing highly regarded leaders and highly performing managers at all levels. The authors of the Karpin report issued 28 high-level recommendations to the government to close the gap in management performance. I don’t know how many of those got implemented, but I doubt it would be up to the government to do anything other than provide incentives for manager training and a reliable training and development accreditation framework.

It is really up to business to invest in effective leadership and management skills development and to put in place the feedback systems that will assist managers in identifying the right areas for growth, which means that this may involve causing discomfort for the person giving the feedback and the person receiving it. That this has not happened despite increased globalisation, cultural diversification and despite having known about our relative standing compared to world’s best practice for nearly two decades would strongly suggest that we have a cultural problem. This cultural issue is probably best encapsulated as the ‘avoidance of timely and direct feedback’ in Australian public and private sector organisations.

We are only going to make inroads in regards to closing the gap to world’s best practice on management and leadership performance once we are prepared to acknowledge our cultural bias to avoid direct and timely feedback. This does not have to happen on a national scale, it would be enough for an organisation to be upfront about it and make it part of a ‘culture change’ within the organisation. In contrast to many other culture change initiatives this one would be relatively easy to define and measure and make a big difference to productivity and performance within a short period of time.