The Why Behind 360-Degree Feedback

360 feedback, also known as multi-rater feedback, 360-degree assessments, or 360-degree surveys, have been around for over 60 years, and are enjoying increased popularity. Organizations today are using these results for a number of purposes, ranging from employee development to talent assessment (and a myriad of uses across that spectrum). Why might you want to consider this a tool in your organizational or personal tool kit? There are a number of reasons. But, before we tackle the issue of “why 360-degree feedback?” let’s first set the stage by addressing the question, “What is 360-degree feedback?” 

360-degree feedback is a unique development tool. With an individual figuratively in the center of a 360-degree circle, feedback is gathered—typically online through a 360 assessment tool or platform—from key stakeholders in that individual’s success. This allows an individual to receive influential feedback from peers, coworkers, managers, and anyone else who works closely with them.

Why 360-Degree Feedback?

The “what” behind 360 feedback is fairly simple, and there are various tools that allow us to gather that feedback. So, what about the “why?” Why use 360-degree feedback in your organization, or as an individual?

Consider this. Imagine looking in a mirror. What does the mirror help you do?

Get out of your head
  • The mirror helps you to see what you cannot see on your own.
  • You get a picture of what others will see when they encounter you.
  • You want to know if something is amiss; you can fix it or be aware of it.
  • A mirror can be used to help you view yourself from a different perspective.

Without other perspectives, we tend to invent our own reality. We think we see the world as others see it—we create a picture of what is “real”. A mirror provides us with a different perspective.

360-degree feedback is your workplace mirror. It allows you to see characteristics, attributes, and behaviors that you might not be able to perceive on your own (for more information around this concept, you may want to explore the notion of the Johari Window!). You gain a better idea of what others think of or see in you, both in terms of successes and areas for improvement. You can better identify when something is wrong, or not up to your personal standards, and rectify it. In short, by taking into account the feedback of the people you work with, and making goals to improve, you can become your best self. Does what we see in that mirror mean we need to act on it? Not necessarily. But it gives us choices that may not have been available to us without a more complete picture.

When 360-degree feedback is targeted to improve performance or to develop specific competencies essential to your organization or leadership, it provides insights that assist in development and growth. 360-degree feedback is designed to highlight strengths, as well as opportunities for development. We often find that individuals have shrugged off the value of their strengths, focusing instead on addressing areas for development. However, using an established strength to lead change in a weaker area is typically more effective than merely focusing on a weakness on its own. The saying “play to your strengths” rings true in the workplace as we strive to create a high-performing, highly efficient organization. Multi-rater feedback is an excellent way to identify not only what isn’t working, but what is working.

360 Feedback is a Tool For Change

As we become more comfortable considering the mirrors shown to us by our peers, supervisor, direct reports, and others, we gain confidence in using feedback as a tool. As confidence grows, we naturally begin to ask for feedback, rather than soliciting it solely from a tool or instrument. This information acts as a navigation tool, helping us to understand where we are, relative to where we want to (or should) be. Feedback becomes a great way to chart progress on selected goals.

Just as no one changes lanes on the freeway without checking their mirrors first (ok, we’ll just assume we are all decent drivers), we should learn to check our personal mirrors before we strive to make changes as leaders in our organizations. We must learn to value and trust the information given to us and use it to our benefit.

As we get to know ourselves better through feedback mechanisms, we start to see some powerful benefits:

  • We become more effective in our communication with others.
  • We use more efficient conflict resolution strategies.
  • We are more accountable.
  • We navigate change more efficiently.
  • We build better working relationships and create stronger teams.
  • Our Emotional Intelligence improves.

At first, feedback can be difficult to hear for many of us. In fact, when we provide coaching on 360 feedback we typically step feedback recipients through the “SARA model,” which stands for Shock, Anger, Resistance, and Acceptance. It is not always easy to have people close to us say that we are misaligned, misunderstood, or misbehaving. But who doesn’t want to know that they have spinach in their teeth after lunch, or that their clothing is not in order after a visit to the restroom? This is delicate information to give someone, and sometimes startling information to receive. However, if it is given with the intent to assist rather than harm, the feedback is valuable information that may also prevent further problems. Getting to the point where one sees 360 feedback as positive information is not always graceful, but can be used as a powerful tool for change.

Receiving Feedback Can Be a Delicate Process

A 360-degree feedback assessment does not generally address spinach-in-the-teeth types of delicate or sensitive issues. It addresses issues that may feel delicate in the beginning, like trust, openness, dependability, vision, energy, concern for others, conflict management, problem-solving ability, expertise, or teamwork. They may feel delicate because feedback is an emotional process (and here is my blatant plug for 360 feedback coaching!). But feedback, done right, points to opportunities.  When opportunities are embraced and action is taken, additional feedback is solicited and progress is noted. As an individual, you feel the satisfaction that comes from growing, which then acts as a catalyst to stimulate further growth. As an organization, you begin to build a feedback culture. Feedback becomes more objective and informational, and less emotional and sensitive. 

Does it hurt your feelings to see a car in the lane next to you when you check the side-view mirror before changing lanes? No! The car may surprise or startle you, but you are glad you checked your mirror before you moved over. As we get more experience with feedback, we learn to use it, rather than personalize it, just as we use our side-view mirrors.

So why 360-degree feedback? Essentially, 360-degree feedback is a way of asking others to tell you what you are doing well and what you can be doing better. It is a mirror that can assist you in seeing above, below, and around you. It is a tool that can accelerate your development as a leader. This process that can mature your perspective of yourself and others. It is a way to get out of your own box. It is a refiner’s fire that may burn a little at first but will leave you with a better shine.

360-degree platform

Feedback is a Gift… or is it?

I was on a phone call in which a senior manager was not, as I call it, “owning the employee feedback” from his 360-degree feedback. His organization had just gone through a 360 assessment process which involved several hundred managers. After watching many of his direct reports go through the process over several weeks, it was now his turn.

While not dismal, many of this manager’s 360 ratings were not as strong as they could (or should) have been. After spending the first 15 minutes of the scheduled 90-minute feedback coaching call discussing the nature of feedback and reaction to feedback, I sensed there was something this manager wasn’t buying. I called him out on it.

“I get the sense you’re struggling with something here,” I said, to which the individual on the other end replied, “You’re right. You told me that this 360 degree feedback is a gift, but I’m having a hard time seeing this kind of feedback as a ‘GIFT,’” he stated, sounding somewhat defeated.

I asked him the question, “Did you ask for the feedback?” “Yes,” he replied. I continued with, “And did they give it to you?”

“You can see that they did!” was his quick response. “I believe my 360 feedback is valuable, but a gift? That’s taking it a little far, isn’t it?”

In my two decades of coaching on 360 degree feedback, I had never had anyone openly question the concept that “feedback is a gift.” It took me by surprise and got me thinking. How, exactly, is employee feedback a gift? I thought back to the many managers I had coached in the past and was reminded that, although many of them claimed to appreciate feedback, a fair portion of them may not have been able to see the “gift” that was possible in feedback.

“The gift they have provided to you is the gift of choice,” I told him. He listened curiously while I outlined this concept.

360 feedback opens up four options or choices

When we receive the gift of feedback, we are presented with— gifted— choices and options we did not have previously. We now have four new choices, which would not have been possible had the multi-rater feedback not been received:

1. Accept the feedback as valid, and act on it.

360 degree feedback, or most any kind of feedback, for that matter, can often be reinforcing (telling us we are on the right track) or redirecting (telling us we need to shift direction.) Either form of feedback can help us in our course trajectory when we pay attention to the feedback and choose to act on it. This may mean making a course correction or continuing to remain on the path we are already on. This is where the individual says, “You know, you’re right, and I need to change… and here’s how I’m going to do it.”

2. Accept the feedback as valid, and choose not to act on it.

While some employee feedback may be completely accurate, sometimes choosing not to act on it is just as critical as choosing to adjust our behavior to address the feedback. For example, recognizing that an employee may not be ready for promotion, a manager may choose to hold an employee back while she is developing the necessary skills. Yet, the employee may provide feedback to the manager, via the 360 survey, that indicates she feels she is not getting opportunities for advancement. The feedback is accurate, but for the employee’s own good, and for the good of the organization, the manager chooses not to act on that feedback. In this case, even though it was identified in the 360 survey, not acting on the feedback is the best course of action. However, the feedback still sheds light on the employee’s perspective and her overall employee experience. When this is the case, the manager may choose to let the employee know that her feedback was heard, was valid, and that there are reasons why the manager has chosen not to act on it.

3. Accept the feedback as invalid, and do nothing with it.

For many, this is the “default”—to discount the employee feedback as wrong, inaccurate, or invalid. At times, this may be the correct response. Sometimes, feedback from a 360 assessment is simply not right. Much of the time, however, dismissing the feedback as invalid is a simply an ineffective defense mechanism on the part of the manager. Managers who are not adept at reflecting on the accuracy of feedback often blow an opportunity for the potential self-improvement that comes as a result of that feedback. If a manager finds herself continually repeating this pattern, a good look in the mirror may reveal the feedback hit on some important blind spots.

4. Accept the feedback without judgement, and find out more.

When working with 360 degree feedback, we often notice that the feedback provided actually raises more questions than it answers. For example, a manager may learn that some people perceive her treatment of employees as unequal. The manager doesn’t rule this possibility out (it may be accurate), but has been very careful to include all employees in decision-making. According to the feedback, this hasn’t been working in the eyes of some. This feedback opens the door to even more feedback when a manager sincerely asks, “Can you tell me more? This has been a hot button for me, and I would like to continue working on it, if it’s still a concern.”

Employee feedback is a Gift

Any (or all) of the four responses above may be appropriate at certain points. Regardless, before dismissing the feedback, recognize the gift that has been given. There are now four choices or options that did not exist previously

While the manager on the other end of the phone would likely be working through the employee feedback for the foreseeable future (it was still an emotional process), he realized that he had truly been given a gift—a gift of choice he did not previously have.

360-degree platform

Podcast: Getting the Most Out of Your 360 Experience

In this podcast episode, Dan Deka walks through the ins and out of the 360 survey experience, from both the standpoint of the participant and the manager. You’ll learn about the best practices for administering surveys, the process for selecting raters, recommendations for debrief support, and customizing the survey to best match the values of your organization. We’ll leave better prepared to successfully launch a 360-degree feedback survey.

VIDEO: The Impact of 360-Degree Feedback Coaching

Business meeting

Download: 360-Degree Feedback Survey

Watch this short video and learn more about our research on the impact 360-degree feedback coachingBy coaching, we mean sitting down with someone to debrief their 360-degree feedback results and helping them to create an action plan. For the purpose of this study, we collected feedback from 244 leaders from a Fortune 500 company with locations around the world. 

Leadership Coaching Meeting

These leaders had recently received 360-degree feedback and were provided coaching by internal HR professionals. We wanted to understand the effectiveness of the process. We asked questions about the process, the survey, and the coaching experience and here is what we found:

 94% of those that received coaching and set goals felt the 360 process was effective.

Conversely, only 34% of those who reported that they did not receive sufficient coaching felt the 360 process was effective.

Register: 360-Degree Feedback Coaching Training

This means that if you don’t provide any coaching support on your 360 feedback process, 66% of your participants will not feel that the process is effective. That is a huge waste of time and money.

So, how do you provide an excellent coaching experience? Here are three simple steps:

  1. Schedule 90 minutes to meet individually with each participant.
  2. Help the individual interpret the results by providing context for the scores and overall themes.
  3. Guide them in creating an action plan that addresses 2-3 development opportunities.

If you’d like to learn more and become certified as a 360-degree feedback coach, contact DecisionWise about our coaching training programs.

360-Degree Feedback Survey Download

Podcast: 11 Ways 360-degree Feedbacks Fall Short

Matthew Wride discusses 11 things to watch out for when looking to do 360-degree feedback surveys. He talks about how no process is perfect, and the 360-degree process can have some serious shortcomings when not handled effectively.

Download your 360-degree feedback survey right here.

Multi-rater feedback (or 360-degree feedback) can be a powerful tool in your employee development arsenal. If not properly implemented, it can also have some serious drawbacks. However, when those shortcomings are studied and managed, the benefits and results of a 360-degree feedback program are heightened and improved.

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Podcast on iTunes