360⁰ feedback is a process used to provide an individual with information about themselves in the form of anonymous feedback from people who work with them directly, their peers, co-workers, direct reports and bosses. It has become a popular tool for developing mid to high level managers and executives, particularly in cases where the manager is strong in some ways but there are concerns about his or her management and leadership capabilities. It is often used as a starting point for coaching.
Feelings and perceptions about this process run the gamut, from devotees who have experienced the benefits, and detractors who believe it to be destructive not only to the individual but to the culture of the organization in which it is used. Why the vastly different perceptions and which is closer to the truth? And how should an organization decide whether it is right for them? Here are three questions to consider
Who is receiving the feedback, why and how will it be used?
Everyone says they want more feedback but few people really enjoy receiving it and most feel uncomfortable delivering it. Maybe that is why so many people in organizations are relatively clueless about how others experience them. When a manager’s ability to lead others effectively is jeopardized by this lack of awareness, 360 ⁰ feedback can be helpful. It should be offered as part of a program of development and always be accompanied by coaching on how to interpret and make use of it. It should never take the place of other frequent and skillfully delivered informal feedback.
How does it align with or supplement the organization culture?
One of the most compelling objections to using a 360 approach is that it inappropriately replaces regular face to face feedback, clearly the most effective form. Healthy organizational cultures support frequent direct informal feedback. But there are many situations in which carefully gathered anonymous feedback proves incredibly valuable. To illustrate, after a CEO ‘inherited’ an executive whom she thought was an incompetent prima dona, a 360 feedback process resulted in the executive being shown to be admired by those who had worked with her the longest, changing the CEO’s perception and the executive’s career. Another executive learned about how his conflict avoidance was negatively impacting his department, leading to his openness to examine and modify this tendency. In both of these instances, the insights would never have come to light in the powerful way that they did because they had come from multiple trusted sources.
How will the process be conducted and by whom?
360 processes have been around long enough now that they have evolved into a variety of formats. Some survey instruments for collecting the feedback have become standardized and are conducted online. This is in stark contrast to a process that customizes the survey to match an organization’s values and management philosophy and administers the information gathering in person or by phone. The best begin with a face to face meeting with the person receiving feedback to orient them to the process, set goals and select respondents. The interviews, data analysis and summary are carried out by consultants who are qualified in organizational effectiveness and management/leadership development, and are familiar with the organization.
In Conclusion, 360 degree feedback does not take the place of skilful frequent face to face feedback. But when done thoughtfully and professionally, it can be a very useful tool as a part of a program of management and leadership development.