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

VIDEO: The Influence of Managers on Employee Engagement

Engaged Employees

Download: Employee Engagement Survey

Let’s talk about our research on the Influence of Managers on Employee Engagement.

We recently conducted the largest study of its kind to compare the level of employee engagement of managers to that of their direct reports. This study included data from 22 companies, almost 19,000 employees, and 2,300 managers.

We first measured the overall level of engagement for each individual using a set of research-based anchor questions from their annual employee survey. We then grouped managers and employees according to their level of engagement into four categories: Fully Engaged, Key Contributors, Opportunity Group, and Fully Disengaged. Then we compared the level of engagement of managers to the employees they lead. 

Employee Engagement Example Graph

For the 808 managers that were Fully Engaged, we found that 36% of their employees were also Fully Engaged, 48% were Key Contributors, 12% were in the Opportunity Group, and only 3% were Fully Disengaged. 

For the 1154 managers who were Key Contributors, the level of fully engaged employees drops to 24%. So the percentage of fully engaged employees increases 50% from a Key Contributor manager to a Fully Engaged manager.

For managers in the Opportunity Group and Fully Disengaged categories, only 14% of their employees were fully engaged.

So you can see that fully engaged managers lead more engaged employees. That finding, in of itself, is not very surprising, but what is important, is that the percentage of fully engaged employees increases 163% from Opportunity Group managers and Fully Disengaged managers to Fully Engaged managers. That’s a huge difference. 

So how do you engage managers? Here are 3 best-practice recommendations:

3 Ways to Engage Managers


Employee Engagement 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: Recognizing Leadership Derailers

Manager talking with employee.


The “Recognizing Leadership Derailers” episode covers leadership derailer, 13 common leadership derailers, and the toxic combinations that we have seen when you mix them together.

Download 360-Degree Feedback Survey Sample

What is a derailer?
• Derailers are behavior CHALLENGES that undermine our results.
• A derailer is a behavior that gets in the way of optimal results.
• A derailer is not just a weakness. We all have many weaknesses that we may not need to develop to succeed. A derailer is a weakness that requires improvement if we are to realize our potential.

Listen to more podcast episodes

Podcast on iTunes 

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.

Listen to more podcast episodes

Podcast on iTunes 

11 Ways 360-degree Feedback Can Fall Short

Measure Employee Engagement

At DecisionWise, we are strong advocates of a well-designed 360-degree feedback program.  So, you might find it strange for me to be writing on the hazards associated with 360-degree feedback. No process is perfect, and the 360-degree process can have some serious shortcomings when not handled effectively. 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.

Download 360-degree feedback survey sample.

To recap, a 360-degree solution solicits feedback and evaluative information from a variety of sources that surround the focal person (i.e., from a 360-degree perspective). Feedback is solicited from one’s supervisor, from his or her peers, from direct reports, and from a miscellaneous category that we ingeniously call “others,” which is then compiled together with the focal person’s own self assessment. Confidentiality is maintained for the larger groups in order to enhance feedback quality. Most people providing feedback in a 360-degree process (i.e., the “raters”) work from a standard set of questions or from a pre-defined instrument.

360-Degree Feedback Process Overview

When rolled out properly, a 360-degree solution will provide some of the most meaningful information a participant might ever receive regarding his or her business skills, communication skills, interpersonal abilities, emotional intelligence, etc. In fact, many of those with whom we’ve worked have gone so far as to describe the process as “career-changing.” But much of the effectiveness of multi-rater feedback is dependent upon a successful process.

Organizations find that 360-degree feedback is far more valuable than most simple performance appraisals or a once-a-year personal development chat. A participant in a 360-degree process is able to see how he or she is perceived across the totality of his or her relationships and really uncover those stubborn blind spots. 360-degree solutions also uncover patterns and themes, and they help clarify behaviors. Even more valuable, in fact, is the notion that 360s raise the “undiscussibles”—those areas that are often off-limits during casual conversations or performance discussions. 360-degree feedback provides absolutely vital information and it is a powerful tool that guides and encourages professional development.

That said, there are some shortcomings associated with many 360-degree solutions. Here is a list of some of the more common problems:

  1. 360-degree feedback can be demoralizing when presented without context. We often have distorted pictures of our performance (ok, not you, but everyone else). Sometimes this is an exaggeration of our good qualities, or even an over-emphasis on our potential derailers. A 360 is more likely to bring these to the surface in a less biased fashion. Because of potential misinterpretation, we recommend that all 360-degree feedback be presented to a participant through a debrief that is conducted by a trained coach or manager.
  2. We find that many people attempt to guess at “who said what.” While 360s are geared towards confidentiality, there are times when it may be possible to pick out particular raters, particularly when it comes to written comments. For example, we find that use of language or situations that are common for a particular rater might allow the participant to quickly guess at the identity of the rater. When this is the case, confidentiality cannot be maintained for all raters, and thus feedback may be less than candid.
  3. There are many times that, particularly with off-the-shelf surveys, a 360-degree solution is too broad in what it measures. For example, the instrument talks about customers, and attempts to measure customer interaction, when the participant has little to no direct customer contact. For this reason, we encourage clients to take the time to customize their 360-degree questions before launching them.
  4. Participants and coaches may focus too much on isolated feedback that distracts them from seeing larger themes or behavioral patterns, which are far more important to the participant’s long-term success and development. A participant may become so focused on one comment or piece of quantitative feedback that he or she misses the big picture.
  5. Some organizations do not place enough emphasis on the quality of information that is obtained through 360-degree feedback, or they downplay the solution’s value. A participant will sense this lack of commitment and never really dig in and find those nuggets that might transform his or her career. Never drop off a report with a pithy comment such as, “It looks like you are doing great.” If that’s happening in your organization, then your missing the point and wasting your time and money.
  6. 360-degree feedback is a snapshot in time; it’s not a movie. Thus, feedback might be impacted (positively or negatively) by extraordinary factors that otherwise normally do not exist. In addition, because 360-degree feedback is static, it cannot show changes across time, nor can it account for variability based on longitudinal dynamics. One factor that we need to consider is what we refer to as “recency.” This is the tendency to provide feedback based solely on the most recent experience with the individual.
  7. If a 360-degree solution is used for administrative action (i.e., promotion, succession planning, hiring, firing, or compensation), it could be gamed by the participants. You may also get some “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” going on.
  8. 360-degree solutions require commitment from the organization and those participating, since it can take a lot of time to complete the surveys and to do so with care and consistency. As mentioned previously, when the support isn’t there, neither is the quality of the survey process.
  9. Sometimes the rating scale is not universally applied. We are often asked for “norms” or “benchmarks”—comparisons against other individuals or organizations. However, benchmarks may be skewed or ineffective as it is comparing apples to oranges in many cases. For example, does it make sense to compare the CEO of a tech firm to a new teacher in an elementary/primary school? Probably not. Similarly, organizations often use different rating scales, or have different standards of performance. What may be “good” performance in one organization may be considered only “fair” performance in another.
  10. There is no guarantee that the rating scale (i.e., “good” versus “fair”) is universally applied among the raters for a particular participant, which leads to skewed gaps. Hence, it is important to spend time explaining the 360-degree process before implementing it within your organization. We recommend that you take the time to “launch” the process by giving people an introduction and an explanation of what will happen and what is expected of them.
  11. Without follow-up coaching, a 360-dgree solution does not generally, in and of itself, create accountability or proper action planning. This is why effective 360-degree solutions typically include a coaching component for a period of time following the feedback in order to create awareness, action, and accountability.

As can be seen from the list above, the deficiencies can be real, and do exist in many organizations. Yet, multi-rater feedback can be a powerful tool when used correctly. I would emphasize that none of these weaknesses are fatal, nor would they justify not using 360-degree feedback within your organization. The benefits of a well-run 360-degree program vastly outweigh any negatives. And, with some consideration and planning, most of the foregoing shortcomings can be turned into positives, such as using coaches to debrief reports and to guide your participants’ action plans.

So, go for it! Take advantage of an impactful instrument. But do it in the right way. Otherwise, you may be doing more harm than good.

360-Degree Feedback Survey Download

4 Keys to Make the Most of Your 360-degree Feedback

Receiving your results from a 360-degree feedback survey can be a bit nerve-wracking. It can feel like being on the business end of a firing squad: You sit there with a blindfold on wondering what people will shoot at you.DecisionWise 360-degree feedbackWill they aim for your head or your heart? How will you know who says what? And how can you defend yourself against this anonymous army of sharpshooters?

As a leadership coach I conduct debriefs with clients on their 360-degree feedback. I find that the 90 minutes I spend with them explaining how to make sense of their report really turns the lights on for them and they invariably find great value in the feedback, be it reinforcing or redirecting. There are very few cheap shots and never a need to defend themselves. Instead, they find ways to embrace the data and move forward with it.
In the debrief we try to answer two overarching questions:

  1. What do the numbers and comments really mean? What do people hope you’ll hear through their scores and comments?
  1. What does it mean to you, the recipient? That is, what should you do about it—if anything?

I’ll share my secrets with you: The four keys to unlocking the meaning—and value—of your 360-degree feedback report.
360-degree Feedback KeyKey 1: How well do the raters know you?
I begin by reviewing the demographic summary and asking my 360 friend to explain how well each of the raters knows his/her work. I ask, “How long have you worked with each, and how often and closely do you work with each?” This gives us some insight into how well-formed the opinions are and what perspective the raters are coming from. This is our first clue into what the ratings may mean.
When someone doesn’t know you as well in an area or on a specific item they’ll likely do one of two things: 1) answer “Don’t Know,” or 2) give you a safe score, typically 4 or five (on a seven-point scale). So, if you have a lot of 6s and 7s, a 5 looks like a bad score, but it may just be the result of low visibility into your performance on that particular item or area. The rater or group of raters didn’t have enough data points to give you a top-of-the-scale score and so chose to play it safe. This tends to happen most with peer groups because peers don’t usually work together regularly or they may even work at different locations.
360-degree Feedback KeyKey 2: The Tin Question and the Golden Question
One question I never ask when looking at 360-degree feedback reports is: Who’s right? That is, when the scores between rater groups differ (which is both natural and frequent), who’s score should we believe? For example, if I rate myself a 7 (top of the scale) on a behavior and my boss rates me a 5, am I just full of myself, or is my boss missing something? Is my boss’ score the one I should believe and not my own because, well … he’s the boss? What about if others rate me 7s as well—does majority rule?

These are natural questions to ask, but they aren’t even relevant because 360-degree feedback is subjective. It’s not about right and wrong, but perceptions of performance. That’s not to say the scores are given willy-nilly or pulled out of thin air; what it means is that people have different perspectives on your work—different expectations of you and differing data points of interactions with you. No one has an exclusive on what is true about you, just his or her opinion of your performance. And while that’s not absolute, it is important to understand. Others’ perceptions of your performance influence your credibility with them, their trust in you, and the strength of your working relationship.
Instead, the “golden” question—the one to always ask—is, “Why did you get that score from that person or group?” This question produces great food for thought. For instance:

  • Why does your manager think this is a strength, but others don’t (or vice versa)?
  • Why does this group rate you the highest of all rater groups?
  • What type of interactions and work do you do with that group that is different from the kind of work you do with others, hence the different scores?

Considering the data in this way yields insights into what people mean by their scores.
360-degree Feedback KeyKey 3: Pick the One or Two Most Important Action Items—Only
Once the meaning of the data is more or less clear, you can now answer the second question: What should you work on?
A 360-degree feedback survey contains much more information than you can practically address, so it’s best to select one or two high-leverage areas to focus on. In doing this there’s an almost universal assumption that needs to be examined, and often discarded: “I should work on my lowest scores, obviously.” Not so fast.

The practical value of a 360-degree survey is to give you input into how others perceive you are doing on a vast array of performance competencies. But you have to provide the key ingredient into making the data meaningful: importance. You ultimately decide what the numbers mean by determining the relative importance of each competency area to the work you’re doing.

For example, I often see people scoring in the 5.0 to 5.5 range (solid scores) in the category of Innovation and Creativity. When these scores are the lowest, they look like the obvious place to focus on improving. But when I ask them how important innovation and creativity are for their work, they often say they’re not important—and sometimes not even allowed! So why would you work on improving an area that isn’t important? Obviously, because you want to waste time and energy.

Sarcasm aside, this little exercise reveals that a score of 5.0 in an area of low importance probably makes that score perfectly acceptable. We then look at other scores in areas of importance that would be beneficial to raise. When you combine the importance factor with what others are saying, you have good input into what you’re doing well (so you don’t have to worry about improving those areas), and what would make the biggest difference if you did improve it.

Once you sift through the entire 360-degree report, you may be tempted to pick several items to improve. Don’t. Instead, prioritize your list of possibilities and focus your efforts on #1 and #2. The reality is that you’re going to have to find the time and energy to work on improving these areas in the midst of your already-busy life—so be practical. If you really do have three or four (or five) areas you want to improve, start by focusing on one or two at a time and make a plan to address the other priorities at a later date.
360-degree Feedback KeyKey 4: Give Yourself a Head Start on Improvement
Another common tendency is to basically ignore your best scores in favor of obsessing over your lowest scores. But while your highest scores typically indicate areas you don’t need to improve, they shouldn’t just be set aside. Instead, ask yourself how you can leverage those strengths to help you get better at the one or two things you’re going to work on. This gives you a head start on your improvement efforts and engages competencies you’ve already developed. I find that this is an approach most people hadn’t considered, but makes perfect sense once they think about it.
For example, if you have strengths in business acumen and are trying to develop your delegation skill, then use your knowledge about what matters to the business when you delegate tasks. There are several ways to do this.

  • Match skill sets to impact: Delegate high-impact tasks to a direct report who is highly competent. Give lower-impact tasks as development opportunities for less experienced employees.
  • Clearly explain the importance of the task so your direct report will give it proper attention. Your high business acumen gives you insights about the task’s importance that others may not see.
  • As you check in with your direct report in status meetings, you’ll be able to ask informed questions about how things are going, and provide expert coaching as needed.

Make the most of your results
On the face of them, 360-degree feedback scores can be at best confusing or mysterious, and at worst misleading or upsetting. That’s why it’s essential to have a way to think through the avalanche of numbers and shape them into input you can use. I’ve found these four keys to be both enlightening and empowering in explaining and taking action on 360-degree survey reports.

360-degree feedback survey