Dealing With Feedback from an “Outlier”

Sep 22, 2020

Q:  The LPI® is invaluable in getting leaders to solicit feedback from others. But how do you deal with the question of the “outlier” when coaching a leader through his/her LPI report?
A:  If you facilitate The Leadership Challenge® Workshop or coach people through their LPI results, you’ve likely encountered this question in almost every engagement. In fact, this question kept coming up so frequently in workshops I was facilitating that I started addressing it before it was asked.
Our job as facilitator or coach is to help leaders approach their LPI feedback with an open mind, and giving people a lens through which to view their feedback is a pivotal part of our role. So, let’s start with the basics. 
What is an outlier, anyway? It’s essentially a data set from an observer that is significantly higher or lower than the leader’s self-scores and/or any of the other responders. That said, sometimes it is the leader’s own self-scores that are the outlier—either significantly higher or lower than the combined observer responses. However, it’s often outlier data from an observer that can trigger emotional responses from the leader. 
What are people’s natural responses when they see outlier data in their reports?
Well, that depends on what kind of outlier data it is. If it’s higher outlier data, leaders often approach it with a “Well, wasn’t that person overly kind to me!” type of comment. On the other hand, if it’s lower, it’s as if there’s a flashing neon arrow bringing their gaze straight to it! Common responses include, “Well, I sure must have ticked this person off the day they filled this out!” and “This person is out to get me!” Low outlier data has the potential to trigger our defense mechanisms and can send us straight into assigning blame. 
So, what are some ways to help leaders process low outlier data in a healthy manner that invites deeper reflection?
  • First, be sure to remind them that the numbers represent FREQUENCY OF OBSERVED BEHAVIOR and are NOT an indication of whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as leaders.
  • Second, you may want to gently remind them that perception IS reality. So, even if the outlier data is significantly different from the rest, it is incumbent upon them to ask what they can take away from it—whether they agree with it or not.
  • Encourage your leaders to look for the overarching messages in the data and not get hung up on the individual outlier scores. Point out that the majority of their observers experience their leadership behavior more frequently than the outlier, and that is great news!
  • Invite them to consider the observer category the outlier is in. Using the category of Co-worker, for example, you might ask if some of these observers are located in a different city or office site; we know that lack of proximity and exposure to a leader’s behavior on a consistent basis can influence responses.  Have your leaders think through what practical changes in behavior they might make to create the most impact with their remote colleagues. 
Note: You may often find that leaders register people as observers who simply don’t have the consistent interaction to speak to their leadership behavior; in which case, low frequencies are simply an honest response.
  • Have leaders look for specific leadership practices where the outlier scores are especially low compared to other practices. What might that suggest? For instance, if there is a Direct Report respondent who has given significantly lower scores in Encourage the Heart behaviors vs Model the Way behaviors that could indicate that this person may need more focused encouragement than they feel they are currently getting. Try to help leaders identify ways to increase the frequency of those behaviors across the board, so that whoever that individual is starts to get more of what he or she needs. Plus, it won’t hurt the other direct reports to have more of a good thing!
  • Point out the open-ended comments at the back of the LPI report. Is there anything there that provides context for some of the outlier scores they are seeing?
Again, the goal is to help steer leaders toward the main themes and messages in the LPI data. What can they take from this feedback that they can put into action to improve the effectiveness of their leadership? Make sure to point them toward their strengths, encouraging them to keep focused on the leadership behaviors they are already doing frequently. Their outlier data is a part of their feedback story—valuable and important—but it shouldn’t be derailing.
Amy Savage, a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge® and a Certified LPI® Coach, is a consultant at FlashPoint Leadership, a Global Training Partner. Passionate about helping people live and lead out of their values and engage with their purpose, she can be reached at [email protected].

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