Knowledge Center

360-Degree Feedback Overview

By Timothy Bentley

In the past half-century, 360-degree feedback has had a growing influence in the development of effective workers and fine leaders. But it is successful only when both the organization and its people have been carefully prepared, and the tool selected carefully.

What makes 360 so powerful? It's the fact that stellar performers are those who have the greatest insight into themselves and understand of how others see them. 360-degree feedback informs them whether the messages they intend to send are the messages being received.

Ironically, many people go through life doing their jobs dutifully, without ever knowing what they're really good at. 360 helps them build on their strengths, at the same time as it addresses skill gaps. And for leaders, it help them align with the requisite competencies of this age: continuous learning, genuine team-playing, growing self-knowledge, and growth in productivity.

On the other hand, 360-degree feedback has sometimes been imposed on unready organizations or deployed in a risky manner. Those instances have earned it a mixed reception.

These guidelines, based on the experience of organizations that have used it successfully, will help you avoid pitfalls.

Development Strategy

It is best that 360-degree feedback be integrated into the organization's strategy for leadership development, rather than deployed in isolation. Consider these factors.

Are opinion-leaders convinced of the business benefits of leadership development and the cost of not making changes? This might seem like a no-brainer, but it is amazing how many people think that intensifying the same-old same-old will net new results.

The key question is whether there is a commitment to continuous learning within the organization. In an internationalized and highly competitive world, everyone has to scan the environment constantly for relevant new information. What 360-degree feedback offers is a wealth of data about the impact of our technical skills and interpersonal relationships.

Leaders often worry that critical comments in 360s will discourage their most productive team members. Studies have shown that this worry is groundless. Recipients tend to value the critical comments in their feedback even more than the positive comments. That's because personal development is built into our human genetic makeup.

Still, to help recipients make best use of their feedback, it is essential that they have supports in place. The organization's commitment to coaching, mentoring, and carefully-selected training programs will make a major contribution to positive outcomes.

Cultural Readiness

It is also important to decide whether at the day-to-day level, the organization has fertile ground prepared for feedback.

  • Informally, does the culture support honest feedback?
  • Are employees likely to believe when you say it's safe to be frank?
  • Are leaders aware that, because feedback encourages openness, it may reveal unexpected requirements for changes in culture or procedures?
  • Are senior executives willing to lead the way by volunteering for 360?

If the answers to these questions are not positive, it is a good plan to delay implementing 360-degree feedback until your leadership is ready to lead a culture change process.

Well-designed Plan

Only a 360 process that is designed with care will encourage buy-in and commitment. For that reason, ask representative groups to help develop competency lists that will form the basis for the survey.

Establish written policies about the issues that will have a big impact on acceptance of 360. Make it clear whether the results of the survey are intended for private use by the recipient (best at the beginning), to be shared with the supervisor, or to be more widely available (say to HR or OD). Are the results for personal development only (best at first), for use in performance appraisals, or for compensation use.

Assure responders of their safety and anonymity. Even in the most nurturing environment, it can be frightening to respond honestly.

Refer to the process, frequently and by a variety of means, so that 360 comes to be seen as a norm within the organization, rather than a flavor-of-the-month.

Find the Right Tool

Early 360 tools were clunky to set up, requiring reams of paper to be shipped and scored at distant facilities. Questionnaires were frequently inflexible, and results sometimes delayed by the thankless task of hand-scoring, with all its potential for errors.

By the time the results got to the person being assessed, enthusiasm had often evaporated.

While disk-based programs initially showed greater promise of speed and immediacy, it turned out that responders didn't like the idea of their input being passed from desk to desk and stored in the HR department.

The watershed was the advent of a new generation of Internet-based tools, provided by application service providers. I'm proud to have been involved in designing the first one, Panoramic Feedback, launched in 1998, now in use from Hong Kong to London and across North America.

These tools allow responders to reply to questionnaires via the Internet from work or home -- a big advantage for those with little privacy at the office -- with the data stored securely off-premises.

Each 360 provider has a different structure. Check for

  • Technical requirements: Internet access is essential, but are paper questionnaires available for employees without on-line access?
  • Support: Is the documentation comprehensive, tech support free? Is an action planning workbook provided for subjects?
  • Full customization: Can you design your own survey?
  • Simplicity: Is the setup straightforward? Are sample competency lists provided?
  • Speed: Can you set up surveys at once and generate reports within a week or two?
  • Reports: Are they attractive and clear, with colorful charts plus unstructured comments to make information accessible in two learning modes?

Costs

  • What is the fee to register?
  • Are there hidden fees to train administrators?
  • Is the running cost calculated per recipient, or are there extra charges per responder?
  • Is it cost-effective to run only one or two 360 assessments? Are there discounts for larger quantities?

Training subjects and responders

Develop brief training meetings for responders and recipients, which will reduce anxiety and the potential for misleading results. Let them know why the organization has decided to use 360-degree feedback, how it will be implemented, and the protections in place for confidentiality.

Help responders see how they will benefit from providing frank feedback. Brainstorm how to phrase suggestions for change so they will be "heard" by the recipient, rather than rejected.

Prepare recipients by helping them discover the growth benefits 360 offers. Remind them to reassure responders that there will be no recriminations for honesty.

Presenting Reports

The culmination of this process, receiving one's report, is often a time of high anxiety. To read it in isolation can de-motivate and discourage, so make sure good supports are available.

  • Hand over reports in person. A group context is best, providing lots of space in the room for privacy, and the opportunity to ask questions.
  • Reports are crammed with useful info. Provide graduated help in comprehension.
  • Help the individual focus on compliments, not just critiques.
  • Provide help in action-planning; a workbook is the minimum, available coaching is valuable.

360-degree feedback is being widely used with great success by governments (for instance, the U.S. and Canada), multi-nationals (Lipton, Deutsche Bank), media (Time Warner Cable), science and technology leaders (Celera Genomics, Advanced Fibre Communications), hospitals (St. Joseph Mercy Health System), and consultancies (BDO Dunwoody).

Yet in the end, it is only a tool. To be safe and effective, it must be operated by steady hands. When you design the process with care and generosity, you can be confident that it will offer your organization a vital boost to productivity and its competitive advantage.

Timothy Bentley is Chief Operating Officer of Panoramic Feedback.


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