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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.