Do You See What I See? Self-Score Inflation in 360 Degree Feedback

360-degree feedback provides a unique opportunity for one to review his/her self-perceptions against the perceptions of others. Bosses, direct reports, peers, and others provide individuals with feedback about their performance and behaviors. The individuals also rate themselves against the same criteria as part of the 360 self evaluation, and the results are typically compared side-by-side in a 360-degree feedback report.

But what happens when self-perceptions do not necessarily match the perceptions of others? 

Self Score Inflation in 360 Degree Feedback

It may not be surprising to find that self-perceptions are often somewhat, if not completely, different from the perceptions of other raters. In fact, our DecisionWise research of over 10,000 360-degree feedback recipients indicates that more than two-thirds of the time, 78%, to be exact, participants rate themselves higher than others rate them! In other words, most of those with whom we work (not us, of course) have an inflated view of their own performance and behaviors.

Part of this discrepancy can be explained through statistics. Let’s look at Heidi, for example. Heidi is a manager with eight years of leadership experience in her current organization.  When she takes her 360 feedback assessment, she rates herself a “7” out of “7” on questions related to “Project Management.” Because she is the only rater in the “self” category, the score she would receive on her 360-degree feedback report would be, of course, a “7.” However, in order to receive a “7” on that same competency from all 8 of Heidi’s direct reports, all 8 of them would have to rate her project management skills and behaviors as a perfect “7.” Highly unlikely.

A second reason for this self-rating inflation is due to point of view. Heidi is the only person who sees every aspect of what she does. Her supervisor may not know that she provides excellent direction to team members, as Heidi’s boss isn’t in a position to observe it every day. Similarly, Heidi’s direct reports are not in a position to know that although Heidi is an excellent project manager, her boss continues to throw unnecessary wrenches in Heidi’s well-thought-out plans. She receives a lower score from each group (and is left questioning when reviewing her feedback).

While the statement “Perception is reality” comes to mind in these scenarios, it’s also important to understand additional insights along these lines. Our research also shows a very clear correlation between on-the-job performance and the way people rate themselves in a performance review relative to those who also provided them ratings. If Heidi’s “self” scores (the way she rated her own behaviors in her 360 assessment) are close to the scores provided by others, there is a strong likelihood that her on-the-job performance will be stronger than her counterparts.

Why? Again, there are likely several reasons, but two stand out as most common.

  1. First, those whose self assessment scores most closely match those provided by their other raters tend to have formed relationships in which honest feedback is regularly exchanged, and communication is strong. Because of this, when 360 feedback time rolls around each year, there are few surprises. Heidi has a pretty good idea of how she is perceived, and tends to score herself accordingly. Additionally, because this strong communication exists with others, Heidi is a generally more effective leader
  2. Second, one of the basic tenets of Emotional Intelligence is the concept of self-awareness. Due to a consistent feedback process, those leaders who are self-aware, particularly when it comes to how their behavior impacts others, tend to be better leaders. Consequently, those individuals whose 360 feedback self-ratings most closely match those of his/her raters show a greater sense of self-awareness and are better leaders.

I am puzzled when individuals choose not to rate themselves in a 360-degree feedback process. I’m equally perplexed when I hear that an organization has chosen not to require an individual to rate him/herself when that individual is participating in a 360 (or performance appraisal, for that matter). One of the reasons gaps in perception in employee performance (differences between scores) on 360-degree feedback are so valuable is that they give us another point of data that helps us understand our own behaviors, and how these are viewed by others.

So do higher self-scores indicate that someone is a bad leader? Not necessarily. But these individuals should further explore these results during follow-up meetings with the boss and others to gain more insight and alignment on their perceived performance.

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