One, two, cha-cha-cha: How a dance competition offers lessons for HR

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So I’m in a gift store doing some Valentine’s Day shopping (you don’t stay married 25 years by forgetting your wife on Valentine’s Day, even if she says not to worry about getting her anything…make that especially if she says not to worry about getting her anything), and I overhear the clerks talking about their plans for the week. Of all things, prominent in their weekly planning process is making time to check out the announcement of the next round of contestants for the popular TV show, “Dancing with the Stars.”

It’s crazy, I know. But the show, which features “celebrities” of various notoriety—and even more varied levels of dancing skill—competing in ballroom dance each week, has become a cultural phenomenon. If you’re one of the three people in America who hasn’t watched at least one episode, you should. Seriously. I myself reluctantly watched it one night at my wife’s urging (thinking I would rather have a root canal without Novocain), and I must now admit to being more than a little hooked.

Besides being entertaining, the show is actually quite fascinating from an HR perspective. Yes, that’s right—I said I watch “Dancing with the Stars” for its HR value. While some of you may scoff at that statement as being only slightly less disingenuous than the guy who says he gets the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition “for the articles,” I’m being sincere here…well, mostly.

While I have to admit to being unabashedly amazed by 82-year-old Cloris Leachman’s ability (and audacity) to walk onto the dance floor, let alone perform a high kick, what fascinates me the most about the show is the judging process. It’s a perfect exercise in delivering performance feedback—one from which any people manager worth his or her salt could learn a thing or two.

As we’ve discussed before, good performance management involves, most importantly, honest feedback. That’s tougher than it sounds. It requires a degree of what we call managerial courage. The ability to “tell it like it is,” especially when the “it” is not positive. To do less is a disservice to the employee and virtually ensures the behavior or poor performance will continue.

While all three “DWTS” judges are good at this, the best of them is—in my humble opinion—Len Goodman.

Len’s not afraid to let a team know when they’ve made a mistake (or two, or three…), and he doesn’t mince words about it, even when it’s not the popular thing to do. Carrie Ann and Bruno (the other two judges, for you non-believers out there) may be positively gushing over a performance, and the crowd may be going wild, but if Len sees something that’s not right, he’s not afraid to point it out—often to enthusiastic boos from the crowd and no little scoffing from his fellow judges. That’s textbook managerial courage.

Additionally, Len doesn’t allow what we in HR call the “halo effect” to color his views of a performance. In other words, he doesn’t let the fact that he likes the couple overall—or that they have performed well in the past—keep him from being objective about their current performance. His assessment is strictly about the performance in question. Nothing more, nothing less—and more importantly, nothing personal.

And, of course, Len’s feedback is always grounded on Specific Observable Behaviors. He doesn’t generalize or make sweeping, non-specific characterizations. His criticisms are always based on some observable mistake that has been made—a step missed here, an improper lift there, etc. And there’s no arguing with it, because he’s so darned knowledgeable (having himself won the prestigious British Exhibition ballroom dance competition not once, but four times). If Len says you did “this” when you should have done “that,” then you can bet he’s right.

Having said all of the above, one should not be led to believe that Len only focuses on the negative. He’s not averse to giving high praise when that praise is appropriate. He’s not out to catch the dancers doing something wrong; he’s perfectly happy to catch them doing something right. But as with his criticism, Len’s praise is specific, honest and fact-based.

To be fair, this is true of the other judges as well. They all exude an enthusiasm for the work and a genuine desire for the dancers to do well. They’re not just looking for an excuse to criticize. You really get the impression that they’d like nothing better than to give perfect tens to every couple.

Another lesson to be learned from all of the “DWTS” judges is that their performance feedback is delivered immediately after the performance. They don’t wait until the end of the show to deliver their evaluations (or the next week, or the week after that, or the end of the season). They do it while the performance is still fresh in the dancers’ minds.

Lastly, the feedback on “DWTS” is delivered face to face. The judges don’t send an e-mail or fill out a form to be tallied and delivered to the dancers through an intermediary. They look the dancers in the eye and tell them what they think, for better or worse, and then—and only then—follow that up with a numerical assessment.

By now you’re probably wondering how far I can take this analogy…I am too. So I’ll close with this challenge: Next time you’re watching “Dancing with the Stars” (and if you haven’t yet, you really should), see if you agree with my assessment of Len Goodman’s performance management skills. Who knows, he may have a third career as a business management “guru”!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to practice my tango (or was it my samba?).

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes any comments or questions via e-mail at kwiedenkeller@amctheatres.com.