Knowledge Center

Understanding 360-Degree Feedback

By Esther Kohn-Bentley and Timothy Bentley

(Excerpt from Leadership Coaching for the Workplace)

The 360-degree feedback assessment

360-degree feedback is the most exciting development to enrich human resources, organization development, consulting and coaching. Where these have generally been limited by the perspective of the subject and supervisor, 360-degree feedback broadens the canvas dramatically.

It got its name because it provides information from many directions. If you picture the individual being assessed as holding a compass, that person's peers are responding to the survey from 90 degrees, the direct reports from 180 degrees, internal customers from 270 degrees, and supervisor(s) from 360 degrees. It expands the very private coaching relationship into a wider and more realistic forum, providing frank evaluation by direct reports, peers and others.

The result is new motivation and direction for the coachee. As a result the coaching moves toward its goals more quickly and with greater precision.

The value of feedback in general

Before we look more closely at 360-degree feedback, let's understand feedback in general. For most people, 'feedback' refers to the squeal you hear when a live microphone is placed in front of a speaker. Tiny sounds are magnified until the point where you cannot ignore them.

Inter-personal feedback is similar. Things people might say about you so quietly that you don't hear them, are made so clear you cannot ignore them. You end up with new knowledge about yourself. Additionally, things you have always known and accepted about yourself appear in a new light.

Feedback has always been part of the workplace, generally with the emphasis on critical feedback. Someone described this aptly as 'feedback between the eyes'. Everyone is familiar with supervisory appraisals that contain no positive guidance and situations where peers will 'freeze out' a fellow employee.

Recently, however, there has been greater recognition of the cost of careless, unbalanced feedback. We now know that performance can suffer as a result, commitment to the employer may waver, and the system may harm itself by handing out rewards to the wrong people (typically those with the right political connections and the wrong work ethic) while ignoring others less well-connected.

The good news is that properly designed feedback mechanisms encourage our coachees. We now have expertise in the use of 360-degree feedback, an excellent body of knowledge about how to use it effectively.

Good feedback tells individuals where they are doing well, and points out where they could improve. So it provides a reliable road map to added value. As coaches, we often watch people respond with surprising eagerness to information that helps them see themselves, sometimes for the first time, as others see them.

People may express an initial fear of being assessed by their co-workers. But once they have actually experienced it, many will say they prefer to be assessed by a group who see their performance from a variety of perspectives, rather than from limited perspective of their supervisor.

They see 360-degree feedback as more accurate and fair than that which derives from only one perspective In one survey, a massive majority of workers said they most valued feedback which came from both supervisor and co-workers. Only a small percentage said they preferred to receive feedback from one or the other.

Feedback about the coaching

Feedback is also valuable to coaches. Useful questions for opening the door include, "How are these sessions working for you?" and "Is there anything you'd like us to do differently?" By modeling openness, you help the client see the value of feedback.

Sometimes, what looks like feedback turns out to be information about the coachee. This is how a coach described such a situation:

"While working with one client, the coach often felt that she was angry with him. He asked how she was feeling in the moment, but she said she didn't know (as people often don't)."

So he asked if the coachee would like to know what he was experiencing. She said "Yes", and he told her, in a gentle, compassionate, and curious way that he felt she was angry with him.

He told her what the clues were (sighs, rolling of eyes) and she was shocked. What emerged, in fact, was that she was extremely frustrated with herself and her 'imperfection'.

This alone was important information, but even more powerful was her recognition that her frustration with herself was leading to behaviors that others might interpret as anger toward them.

Since this client is someone of whom staff are generally afraid, the discussion resulted in her recognizing changes she could make immediately that would pay off at the office.

Feedback phrases

When you offer personal feedback to your coachee it is crucial to be both kind and direct. Here are some examples

  • Can I offer you some feedback?
  • I noticed that you set yourself a goal, but what you are actually doing is different. Have you noticed this, and what does it mean to you?
  • You've climbed a mountain that originally you seemed to think was insurmountable. Yet it seemed like it actually turned out to be pretty easy for you.
  • You've said you're going to do that before on a few occasions. Yet you haven't done it. I expect there is a very good reason for this which we haven't discussed, so I wonder if you would like to talk about that?
  • Do we need to revisit your goals for coaching?
  • Does this happen in other settings?
  • Have you ever received feedback about this before?
  • Although that was a pretty intimidating task you undertook, you pulled it off successfully. I've been noticing that when you put your mind to something, you can do it.
  • I'm getting the impression that you're uncomfortable being here. Would you be willing to talk to me about that?

Why 360-degree feedback shines

There are many kinds of assessment instruments available, but most of them share the flaw that they ask the coachee to describe herself from her own limited perspective. That, of course, does not convey the whole picture. In fact, it is human nature that when we are asked to reveal ourselves, we run all our responses through a filter.

Basically, what emerges from the filter is whatever the coachee believes is relevant and safe to say. So when we ask her to complete a questionnaire, she is likely to alternate between answers that accurately describe her behavior and beliefs, and answers that she perceives to be 'correct' or 'acceptable', or that describe how she would like to see herself. As a result, both coach and coachee find themselves working with only part of the information they need to generate change.

Here, the 360-degree feedback survey shines, providing information with wide horizons. In this context it is important that the coachee also complete the survey, so that she has a standard to compare with the responses of others.

Disclosure: 360 is our business

Our enthusiasm for 360-degree feedback can be explained in part by the fact that we developed one of the first 360 instruments available on the Internet.

It all began because we found 360-degree feedback to be a highly motivating aid to navigation for our coaching clients.

But because we hated the paperwork, we invented an automated, Web-based tool.

Now Panoramic Feedback is used by coaches, consultants, and organizations around the world. It all started with the desire for excellence in coaching.

Objectivity

For leaders in particular, accurate feedback is exactly what they don't often get. People tell them what they think they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. That's politics. But because multi-source feedback comes anonymously, it provides executives with exactly what they need: the straight goods.

It allows them to assess their effectiveness through the eyes of those who know them best -- their colleagues and reports. And as an adjunct to a carefully designed coaching program, it can provide powerful motivation for self-development.

A vice president asked Susan, one of his directors, to meet with a coach. The reason: although much of Susan's technical work was excellent, her people skills were not at the same level.

Up to that point, Susan had remained utterly unaware of any significant problems. She agreed to see a coach more to please her supervisor than because she saw the process as creating real value. "I know I'm not a perfect boss," she told the coach in an early visit, "but I communicate pretty well with my people and I think they like working for me."

In theory, she said, she was more than willing to make changes. But to be utterly frank, she was baffled and skeptical about the concerns her supervisor was expressing.

The coach recommended 360-degree feedback as a research tool to provide them with more information. So with the agreement of her vice president, Susan asked several staff members and colleagues to complete a survey.

Within days, a paperless questionnaire about her leadership was available to them, via a special Internet site. They found it quick and easy to fill out, and some chose to complete it after hours from the privacy of their home computers.

As well as answering questions that evaluated Susan's competencies, they were generous with unstructured narrative comments. (As you would expect, computer- based feedback systems provide many more of these valuable comments than the old hand-written forms.)

It took only a week to get all the replies in, and Susan saw the results the next day.

She was stunned to read the anonymous comments of those who knew her work style best. They described her as technically brilliant and inventive. They also said she was frequently uncaring, self-involved, and hurtful.

A set of charts based on the organization's Core Competencies reinforced those perceptions. Responders rated Susan high on capability, intelligence, and strategic planning, but low on communication, team-building and self-knowledge.

As you might expect, this unexpected information initially shocked her. But Susan was an effective and confident executive, and resilience was one of the qualities which made her a success. She moved quickly from self-pity to a passionate commitment to improve her leadership abilities.

Thanks to 360-degree feedback, she really did get it. Within a few weeks, it was clear to everyone in the department that Susan was showing herself more appreciative and communicative. Productivity increased as people spent less time nursing hurt feelings and recovering from bruising encounters. These changes did wonders for her credibility and had a positive impact on that of the management team as a whole.

Introduction to 360-degree feedback instruments

A 360-degree feedback instrument is essentially a questionnaire to which typically eight or more people respond.

The questionnaire asks whether, in the view of each responder, the behavior of the person being assessed corresponds with the core competencies required for her job. Typically those core competencies provide the headings that guide the responder through the questionnaire.

On average, there are five to ten headings, and under each of them several behavior descriptions. The total number of behavior descriptions is usually 25-35, in order to keep the survey to a manageable length.

Responders are asked to note to what extent they agree that the person being assessed behaves in the ways described, marking their responses on a scale. Some systems allow you to choose the length of scale you prefer.

Example: A ten-point scale

Strongly
Disagree

Disagree

Agree

Strongly
Agree

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10


Example: Core competencies from a 360 survey

BUSINESS SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE
PROFESSIONAL AND TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE
DEPARTMENTAL REQUIREMENTS
ENTREPRENEURSHIP
DECISION MAKING
CUSTOMER ORIENTATION
TEAMWORK AND LEADERSHIP
COMMUNICATION
DEVELOPMENT POTENTIAL
INTEGRITY

Example: Behavior descriptions from a 360 survey

Core competency: BUSINESS SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE. Behavior descriptions:

  • Understands the business requirements and financial policies of the Organization
  • Formulates strategic goals and objectives
  • Is pro-active, responding to opportunities, solving problems, planning for action
  • Makes wise tactical decisions and sticks with them
  • Puts in extra effort as required to attain objectives

Unstructured Comments enrich the feedback

In a 360-degree feedback survey, there is usually space for unstructured comments from the responder. Comment boxes may follow each set of behavior descriptions and appear at the end of the questionnaire as well. These spontaneous comments are generally a rich source of insight.

Once everyone has responded, results are compiled and presented (with great care and in a carefully anonymous way) to the coachee in report form. A good 360 service can provide reports immediately, allowing maximum impact.

Exploring the report directly will usually require at least two coaching sessions. But throughout the remainder of the coaching engagement, the survey will provide a deep well of material from which the coach and coachee may draw.

Designing and developing the 360-degree feedback process

You can design a 360 survey that uses paper responses, but many coaches find the process of collating the responses time-demanding, and subject to errors and confusion.

Because the majority of coaches are Internet-savvy, they tend not to be shy about using automated systems. But as comprehensive as any 360 instrument may be, its contribution to development is only as good as the preparation of the organization and its people, and that's your job. Here's a checklist.

Development Strategy

Wherever possible, 360-degree feedback should be integrated into the organization's strategy for leadership development, not deployed in isolation. Otherwise the coachee may find herself more isolated. Consider these factors.

  • Are opinion-leaders convinced of the business benefits of leadership development and the cost of not making changes?
  • Is there a commitment to being a learning organization?
  • Are supports in place, such as coaching, mentoring, training?

Cultural Readiness

Before you start a 360-degree feedback program, make sure fertile ground is prepared for feedback.

  • Does the culture currently support honest feedback provided in an informal way?
  • Are employees likely to believe you, when you say it's safe to be frank?
  • Are leaders aware that 360 feedback may result in initial instability, by revealing unexpected requirements for change in culture or procedures?
  • Multi-source feedback encourages openness and raises expectations, leading people to believe the organization values continuous learning and honesty.

Encouraging buy-in and commitment

  • If possible, have the competency list developed by a representative group.
  • Be clear about who will and will not have access to reports.
  • Help the coachee select the most valuable responders.
  • Provide a brief training opportunity for responders, assuring them of their safety and anonymity, suggesting how to provide feedback so it can be 'heard' by the coachee.
  • Design the survey around observable behaviors and performance rather than values or opinions. Because it focuses on specific observable behavior, it assists subjects to buy-in to the process.

Presenting Reports

Receiving their reports is a time of high vulnerability for people being assessed. Reading the results in isolation can de-motivate and discourage, even if most people say the coachee is doing a terrific job. So make sure good supports are available.

  • Hand over the reports to the coachee in person.
  • Reports are crammed with information, so provide graduated help in comprehension.
  • Help the coachee focus on compliments, not just critiques.
  • Provide assistance and encouragement in action-planning; some systems provide workbooks for recipients of feedback.

Esther Kohn-Bentley is Chief Executive Officer and Timothy Bentley is Chief Operating Officer of Panoramic Feedback.


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