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.Will 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:
- What do the numbers and comments really mean? What do people hope you’ll hear through their scores and comments?
- 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.
Key 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.
Key 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.
Key 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.
Key 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.