Effective leaders develop themselves and their team members. Since the 1990s, many leaders have leveraged the development possibilities from 360-feedback surveys, or multi-rater feedback, for themselves and their team members. And like many development tools, 360 feedback has generated plenty of controversies.
A Google search for “360 feedback” reveals many articles warning readers of dilemmas like the “horrible truth of 360 feedback assessments.”1 360-feedback survey can promote disagreement, dissension, and discord—when implemented improperly. However, when used as a developmental tool rather than an evaluative appraisal, 360 feedback affords individuals greater self-awareness, deeper alignment opportunities with company goals, and insights for clearer paths to professional success.
Just like any driver behind the wheel, leaders have blind spots as they move forward in their development and direct the progress of their companies. Effective leaders, like great drivers, ensure a successful journey for themselves, their passengers, and others around them by checking their blind spots. Leaders who “check their blind spots” position themselves for success by knowing what competencies they possess, how those relate to the success of the company, and how others around them—peers, direct reports, customers, etc.—perceive their day-to-day effectiveness. In other words, a 360-feedback survey is a professional development “How’s my driving?” sticker.
360 Feedback’s Possibilities & Pitfalls
360 feedback provides leaders and team members with key data points that take them beyond their own hunches or assumptions about themselves. They can gain critical insights by how others validate their strengths, pinpoint their weaknesses, and view them overall in light of company goals. It informs, or alerts, recipients to traits and tendencies concealed from their view but ripe for refinement. 360 feedback helps recipients address what strengths and competencies they offer, how those strengths are perceived by others, and how closely linked one’s strengths are with the goals of the company.
Because of its anonymous multi-rater process, 360 surveys add a unique comprehensiveness to an individual’s development opportunities by lessening the intrusion of reviewer bias, including the type of cognitive bias casually referred to as “Halo or Horns effect” in which a reviewer allows one (healthy or unhealthy) behavior to overshadow other behaviors. 360’s anonymity empowers raters to offer unguarded feedback because they “are given a voice, which is critical because some team members won’t speak up even when given “permission.”2 This anonymity, though, can enable ineffective responses if respondents aren’t aware of the survey’s goals and expectations. Without coaching and the necessary time to complete the surveys, respondents can offer points of grievance without context or examples, expressing aimless disrespect to a leader.
Additionally, leaders who force 360 feedback surveys into the rhythms of their companies will find it difficult to hastily connect the dots between company goals and how 360 feedback can help recipients contribute to those goals. Not all 360 tools are created equal, and if leaders don’t take the time to shape a 360 around the core competencies of a certain role and the overall values of a company, they’ll encounter more dilemmas than developmental opportunities.
So how can leaders effectively implement 360 feedback as part of their companies’ goals for development and success? Here are four steps to harness the possibilities—and avoid the pitfalls—of 360 feedback.
Align to Desired Behaviors: Before a leader receives a 360-feedback review or has a team member reviewed, it’s important a leader look to empirical research to address what skills, abilities, and competencies are necessary for certain roles to help a company thrive rather than relying on the leader’s beliefs.3 It’s also important for a leader to consider which 360 tool is appropriate in light of desired outcomes. Doing so will help leaders connect the dots between what development opportunities and strengths a 360 review reveal and what direction of development will help an individual under development efficiently contribute to a company’s success.
Use as a Developmental Coaching Tool: Problems arise when 360 feedback is used as an evaluative instrument of someone’s performance rather than a development tool in a coaching context. When 360 feedback is used to evaluate performance, it becomes tied to decision-making that involves possible promotions, raises, etc. When it’s used in this manner, 360 feedback can inappropriately be viewed as a final assessment or “end all.” Instead, leaders need to understand—and help others understand—it’s “a data point on the development journey,” as one PROMARK coach commented. Leaders will see the value of 360 feedback when they allow it to be delivered by a skilled coach who can help leaders align opportunities to grow in awareness of and bolster their strengths, define steps for moving forward, and clarify what accountability and feedback loops can look like.
View It as an Instrument: Leaders who use only 360 feedback reviews to assess themselves and others are similar to conductors who direct only one musician; they’re likely to hear wonderful notes and chords, but multiple instruments are required to hear an entire song. 360-feedback reviews should be used in concert with other tools to provide leaders being reviewed with a fuller, clearer picture of their behavioral strengths and development opportunities. This provides leaders with a better baseline to create a more nuanced plan for learning, practice, progress, and success.
Clearly Communicate Expectations: Ensuring the raters and debriefer are coached and trained to offer helpful reviews is the backbone of a successful 360-feedback discussion. Effective leaders take the time to explain and clarify the value of 360 feedback as well as best practices for reviewing one another, which provides a leader with multiple ways to encourage an effective process. Clarifying expectations provides a leader with an opportunity to recast a wider company vision for a culture of development, helps prepare raters to offer effective feedback that illuminates strengths and highlights opportunities to grow expected competencies, and it helps prepare recipients to digest and reflect on feedback to develop a plan for professional development.
Leaders who hastily implement 360 surveys without the developmental mindset and effective coaching will likely encounter its numerous pitfalls. But when leaders use 360 surveys as a development opportunity to cultivate greater alignment between their strengths and the competencies required to succeed, they’ll bolster greater self-awareness and more effective development plans to move themselves—and others—toward success.
Whether you want to revisit a 360-feedback survey for yourself or your company, or you’d like to create a plan to offer 360 surveys the first time, our PROMARK coaches are here to help. Contact us today.
2 PROMARK coach
3 Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, “Getting 360 Reviews Rights,” September 7, 2012. https://hbr.org/2012/09/getting-360-degree-reviews-right