360⁰ feedback: development, appraisal or performance assessment?

Change Management, HR Management, Talent Management | 0 comments

It is only recently, in my new company, that I realised how often I have been involved with the introduction of 360⁰ feedback.

From the first time, more than 25 years ago, with a short paper version, a handful of questions and very little expertise. Supporting leadership development in a new organisation.

Through reorganisations, introduction of new competences, new values, new leadership models, and yet more new organisations.

And in teambuilding exercises and independent assessments.

The technology and professionalism has improved of course. Such that by the time I left Shell, 360⁰ feedback was available to all at any time, at the touch of a button.

Every step along the way has strengthened my belief in what can be, under the right conditions, a powerful tool.

And I am often reminded of a Robert Burns’ misquote that I heard linked to 360⁰ feedback a long time ago:

‘Oh what a great gift we would have, if we could only see ourselves as others see us’

Which is what 360⁰ feedback can do. Anonymous input from multiple sources – leaders, supervisors, team members, peers, subordinates, customers – leading to a collective wisdom, rather than having just a single person, your boss, giving their thoughts.

For a long time I strongly believed that it should only be used for developmental purposes.

Unsurprisingly given that was the starting point when gaining popularity in the mid-80s and when Jack Welch was an early adopter.

Having worked for some time with recruitment assessment centres, based on training of assessors in a common understanding of the marking hierarchy, the fact that everyone in a 360⁰ feedback sees different aspects and then interprets the scale themselves, seemed to me to nullify its use even in appraisal.

Added to my own personal experience that I found the free-format written responses to be even more helpful than the numerical scores, this seemed to support my belief that 360⁰ was powerful, but only for developmental purposes.

And it works really well, highlighting personal strengths but also areas ripe for development.

But my views have slowly changed. In line with the development of 360⁰ feedback itself and research results which support its wider use and dispel many common myths.

So given the moves anyway where bosses and subordinates asked for performance input from customers for example, why not structure this performance feedback via 360⁰, adding to its credibility and validity? Does it lose its developmental impact? Well not really, especially in companies where performance is not only measured against what you have done but also how you do it. And 360⁰ does not change the importance of the supervisor. It is a supplement and the boss is still the boss.

And the other concerns? Select your friends? Research shows that with anonymity people are candid irrespective of friendship. The same is true for popularity bias. Research does not support this. And what about possible favouritism (or otherwise) in the single person/boss situation anyway?

What if different people interpret and use the scales differently, one of my early worries? It turns out that the reliability of 360⁰ derives from the fact that multiple people respond independently to the scale, especially where there is a strong shared organisational culture.

Of course there needs to be some checks and balances, more than that first single sheet of paper a quarter of a century ago. Especially if you move further to a direct link to pay (rather than an indirect link via performance appraisal). But these are now well-documented and, if you really have a seriously professional organisation, these are built into the process.

OK, I have seen it misused in one of the large companies for which I consulted, with managers giving each other maximum scores and hence the chance of maximum bonuses. But that could have been addressed with the now standard 360⁰ feedback checks, which were surprisingly absent.

Some of my learnings over 25 years of 360⁰, which I would offer if you are considering using it even for purely developmental purposes, and especially when moving from development to appraisal and even pay, are:

  • It still surprises me how in even well-developed companies many people are not good at giving or receiving performance feedback. And even if they are, behavioural feedback from a 360⁰ exercise is different from other feedback
  • Invest in training or forget about a successful introduction of 360⁰. People need to understand how to receive, understand and use behaviour feedback constructively. And they need to understand how to give behaviour feedback and how behavior feedback differs from other feedback
  • Anonymity must be guaranteed for respondents (and narrative comments may jeopardise this)
  • Response rates are highly associated with perceived fairness. People tend not to respond if they do not believe the process to be fair and accurate
  • Development feedback should be confidential to the employee, who then controls who sees their results. A supervisor should not automatically get developmental feedback
  • Only the person receiving the feedback can determine what is really important (and will do something about it)
  • 360⁰ feedback is an ideal tool to communicate new values, new competences, new expectations & a change vision. And to measure against them
  • Although 360⁰ feedback can help to communicate and change culture, it will not work miracles on its own. The organisational environment and culture must be ready and able to support such a tool. A highly hierarchical organization is a difficult candidate for the introduction of 360⁰ feedback! A top-down, command and control culture will not foster employee support and participation in development and certainly not performance feedback. Organisations where empowerment, teamwork and continual performance improvement are part of the culture are better candidates for the introduction of 360⁰
  • If you are launching  360⁰ for the first time it is very helpful to have a proper communication plan. The ‘why’, the purpose, who has been involved in the design, what is being asked, who gets asked to fill it in, how anonymity will be ensured, fairness, accuracy, who gets the results, how the information will be used. As much information as possible!
  • Leadership support and the use of 360⁰ themselves obviously accelerates its acceptance
  • Standardised off-the-shelf 360⁰ feedback with generic behaviours may be easier (if expensive) but runs the risk of not aligning with the organisational vision or values or changes it is making. Which can lead to poor buy-in (and relevance). They should also not be used for anything but developmental purposes. Customised 360⁰ feedback is preferable because it will be organisation specific and will be appropriate for both development and performance assessment
  • And beware of automatic computer-generated development recommendations. It can only ever be generic and not specific; different people may get the same recommendations. And it does not support employee’s being responsible for their own development
  • Surprisingly small issues can jeopardise 360⁰ projects. I have seen a project derail because of who gets to see reports
  • Administration of the 360⁰ process is much more time consuming than everyone thinks
  • Keep the questionnaire as short and relevant as possible, using the language of the organisation. After about 15 minutes people will stop filling it in properly. And some people may be asked to provide feedback for many people, which is another reason for designing not too long an instrument!

In conclusion, I believe 360⁰ feedback has a dramatic effect on employees, managers, teams and organisations. It works simply because we all prefer to get feedback from more people than just our supervisor.

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