Which Way Is Up? Ask Compass

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Welcome to the fourth installment of The Compass blog, in which we examine the leadership and collaboration behaviors that are measured and coached by the product.

Why do we measure leadership and collaboration behaviors? Because our research indicates they are the most crucial for healthy working relationships and effective outcomes.

But before we begin, let's first consider the impact of cognitive biases on the experience of receiving feedback.

These days, there's quite a bias against the term "bias," mainly because it has become conflated with racial, gender and age bias. And these biases certainly deserve our collective contempt.

But cognitive biases are not so one-dimensional; rather, they are mental tendencies that function as coping mechanisms for human beings to employ for all sorts of purposes. We use biases to make split-second decisions. We use biases to oversimplify complexity. And we use biases to protect our self-images.

Toward this last point, there are two biases in particular that are very relevant for understanding how people process constructive feedback: self-serving bias and fundamental attribution error.

Self-serving bias leads people to distort perceptions in order to enhance self-esteem. Fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to blame our own deficiencies on circumstantial/environmental factors, while attributing the deficiencies of others to character flaws.

Both of these biases highlight the enormous need for, and the extreme fragility of, positive self-image. We need it so badly that we literally distort our perception of reality in order to maintain it. Not surprisingly, this makes the processing of constructive feedback exceedingly difficult. To accept feedback, people must be willing to abandon their positive self-image (at least temporarily), which is much harder for most people than it may sound.

That is why the framing of feedback is so crucially important. When Compass provides constructive feedback to leaders and collaborators, it does not position the feedback as evidence of a deficiency. Rather, it frames the feedback in terms of the inherent needs of others — their teams and networks of peers. While this is a technically more accurate description (due to something called the idiosyncratic rater effect), it also serves to protect people's self-images. As such, Compass makes it easier for participants to process feedback in ways most conducive to positive change.

Now, let's turn to our measures.

Leadership: "I can count on my manager to have my back."

It's difficult to overstate the importance of trust in the relationship between a leader and a subordinate. Research has demonstrated that trust in a boss is a major driver of intrinsic motivation and employee satisfaction. Because trust is a foundational component in any human relationship, its presence or absence will affect virtually all other aspects of that relationship. Not surprisingly, the individual relationship with a leader or manager accounts for 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores, so it could be argued that establishing a sense of trust is the greatest predictor of discretionary effort from an employee.

Even at an anecdotal level, most people's experiences validate this very idea. When a manager or leader demonstrates the things that lead to trust — transparency in decision-making, consistency in behavior, thoughtfulness in communications and empathy in interactions — the effects are overwhelmingly positive.

Unfortunately, far too many managers have become overly burdened with their own execution responsibilities, and often don't have the time or mental energy to ensure that they are proactively nurturing trust with their teams. While managers may know (or at least believe) they have their team's best interests at heart, that isn't enough. The team has to know it, too. Compass tries to help managers understand when they have taken their team's trust for granted, and provide guidance on how best to rebuild it.

Collaboration: "Offers support when I need it."

Psychologists have long known that social connectivity is a fundamental human need. In fact, it has been shown to be the most powerful predictor of lifespans – more powerful than health, exercise or genetics. In other words, the more connected with others that we are, the longer we live. When we consider that most Americans spend at least half of their waking weekdays with work colleagues, the importance of this social connectivity comes into focus. As such, having supportive colleagues is crucially important to employee well-being, which in turn has an enormous impact on workplace engagement and productivity.

Supportive colleagues are a wonderful reflection of a healthy workplace culture. It demonstrates that people are thinking beyond themselves, a space in which most people find the greatest meaning and fulfillment. It demonstrates a healthy level of emotional intelligence. It creates social norms that influence others and create virtuous cycles. But perhaps most practically, it supports better performance. Simply put, people achieve better results when they get the support they need, due to conscious and unconscious factors. For all these reasons, nurturing supportiveness among colleagues is an incredibly worthwhile objective.

Of course, it is also easier said than done. While healthy competition is natural and positive, if unchecked it can begin to impede the levels of support that colleagues are willing to provide one another. In more hierarchical organizations, this potential becomes even more pronounced, as people vie for what they perceive as limited opportunities for advancement.

When people are operating under heavy stress and expectations, empathy becomes less accessible. This is a problem, because empathy is a precursor to support. As such, non-supportive cultures are generally unsustainable. Compass tries to guide people to find the incredible value of supportiveness, and help them identify when and how to provide it in the most impactful ways.

For more insight from Jordan Birnbaum, VP and Chief Behavioral Economist at TalentX, an ADP Venture, read Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3 of this series.