Most people recognize 360-degree feedback as a tool for individual development. While it is possible to run a 360 purely for individual development–this is the classic purpose behind most 360s–it is also common for there to be additional organizational objectives behind the assessment. There is nothing wrong with understanding and tapping into the full power of the 360-degree feedback process; however, organizations fail to be clear about their purpose, which leads to anxiety and distrust around the process.
360 programs fail to reach full effectiveness when transparency is lacking and when the administration process hints at ulterior motives behind the programs. Being transparent about the purpose of the 360, and then engineering the administration process to serve that purpose, can help build trust in the process and ultimately make the process more effective. Having debriefed and coached hundreds of people on 360-degree feedback, I have seen where poor communication and misaligned processes led to distrust in the participants.
This article outlines 4 common 360-degree feedback strategies and offers a few tips on how to maximize the effectiveness of each one.
360-Degree Feedback for Individual Development
As mentioned before, a key purpose of 360-degree feedback should be the personal development of the participant receiving the feedback. If you are using the 360 as a pure development tool, you should make this very clear for participants. Most participants are relieved to hear the program will be used solely for their own development. You ultimately communicate this in three ways:
- Use traditional written and verbal communication to say the 360 is being used purely for individual development
- Explain how confidentiality will be protected
- Administer the 360 process in a way that nobody would question that it is being used for anything other than individual development
For example, if you say to a participant that the 360 is being run purely for individual development, and you provide a copy of their report to their manager, the employee will see an ulterior motive other than their own development. Likewise, allowing them to select their own raters, giving them complete and sole control of their reports, providing them with coaching resources, and relying less on benchmark comparisons are all things you can do to communicate through the process that the 360 is being administered for the purpose of individual development.
Bottom line: If you say the 360 is being run purely for individual development, do not do anything that would cause somebody to doubt that purpose.
360-Degree Feedback for Remediation
Using 360s for remedial or disciplinary reasons is also a common use of the tool but is fraught with pitfalls. It can, however, be done in an effective way. The correct communication and process are vital here too. 360s should not be used to take the place of a difficult conversation that a manager does not want to have; they should be used to facilitate and enhance that difficult conversation.
If you are faced with providing difficult feedback to an underperformer and you think the 360 will allow you to avoid this conversation, save yourself the time and cost associated with a 360 and just give them the feedback. Give them the respect they deserve. Tell them the truth. Also, if an employee no longer offers much value to the organization, a 360 is probably not going to help the employee to the point that they will become a valuable contributor. Remedial 360s should be used for valuable members of the organization who have an isolated behavioral flaw, which has been communicated to them and is still standing in the way of their professional progress or success.
I recently worked with an individual in this very situation. She was a valuable leader in her organization. In fact, her manager told me that she is indispensable to the organization, but she has the tendency to damage relationships during stressful situations at work. Going into the process, she had already received this feedback from her manager. The feedback she received in the 360 then confirmed from several other sources that her volatility was damaging relationships. When the 360 was administered in this light, she never doubted her value to the organization. In fact, she was happy that her organization believed in her enough that they were willing to invest in her development despite her flaws.
Even in cases where you run a flawless process, using 360s for remedial purposes may cause people to become leery of 360s in general. For this reason, I would advise an organization to not use 360s only for remedial purposes. Remedial 360s are most effective when you have an existing 360 program geared toward development, and you occasionally deploy them for underperformers.
360-Degree Feedback to Evaluate Performance
Some organizations use 360-degree feedback to either augment their performance review processes or as their main evaluative system. Many performance reviews are very top-down. Managers write the reviews from their own perspectives. In some cases, performance reviews are co-created between the manager and the direct report. Adding additional perspectives through a 360 that is tied to an annual performance review can inform the annual rating and help with goal making for the next year.
As with all 360s, 360s for performance have an element of personal development. The reality is most employees will see these more as an input to the review process than a development tool. They should be run differently than a typical 360. If 360 is part of your review process, then everybody in the company will be going through a 360 at the same time. This means that a given manager in the organization will have to fill out their own 360 review, the review of each direct report, the review of each peer, and the review of their manager. The number of reviews for one person to complete can really add up. It’s best to keep these assessments relatively small. The assessment should not test on a laundry list of “nice to have” competencies. The questions on the assessment should point to specific, essential, observable behaviors related to performance. Keep in mind that scores on 360s for performance tend to be higher, as raters tend to grade easier when they believe the assessment may be tied to someone’s compensation.
Like with other uses of 360s, the purpose of performance-based 360s should be clearly communicated. Who will see the evaluation? How will it be used in performance reviews? How are individuals expected to use the feedback?
360-Degree Feedback for Organizational Development
A 360-Degree feedback program designed for organizational development means accessing larger organizational insights and benefits from the process than you can when people go through the process individually. An organization-wide 360 program can be a powerful tool in setting expectations for leaders about how they should lead and what competencies they should develop and nurture. Succession planning, development of training programs, aligning leadership behaviors with organizational values, and creating leadership consistency across the organization can all be benefits of a program designed for organizational development.
Many organizations will roll out a program like this in cohorts. Groups of managers or individual contributors in similar roles in the same department or from across the company will go through the 360 process together. The purpose of the program is communicated to them as a group. The results of each group are aggregated and analyzed. Cohorts can learn and grow together.
Whatever organizational benefits you hope to gain from your 360 program, be transparent. There is a lot to gain organizationally from a well-run 360 program, but at the core of all these organizational goals are individuals going through a feedback process. Be open with them about how you will be using the information gathered through the program. Administer the process in a way that allows people to see how their results are used.
While this article outlines four common uses of 360-degree feedback, there are potentially other purposes for 360-degree feedback in your organization. In any context, however, having a clear understanding of what you are hoping to gain from your 360 program will help you maximize its effectiveness. You can reduce much of the mystery and anxiety around 360s by having transparent communication and a thoughtful process for administering 360s that reinforces the communicated purpose.