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What is 360 Degree Feedback? Everything You Need to Know

“You can’t handle the truth!” 

Whether or not you’re a fan of “A Few Good Men” and the famous scene where Jack Nicholson delivers this line, the notion that individuals might be better off left in the dark always leaves me scratching my head. After all, in order to improve as a leader or a human being, it’s important to hear the truth from those individuals closest to you and those that have the best visibility to your behaviors and actions.

In the business world, what your colleagues and direct reports think and say about you can alter the course of your career trajectory, so why wouldn’t you want to know what’s on their minds? That’s where 360 degree feedback can help.

In this article, we will dive into all things 360 feedback so you and your organizational talent can perform at its best.

What Is 360 Degree Feedback?

Also referred to as multi-rater feedback, 360 feedback involves collecting anonymous perceptions about a person’s behavior from those around them. The feedback can come from the person’s manager, peers, direct reports, and even external stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, and board members. 

The feedback can then be used as the starting point for development planning, or to plan training and set development goals. As such, 360 assessments can be viewed as the first step to improving employee development, and thus, organizational productivity.

360 degree feedback

The Benefits of 360 Degree Feedback

Now onto the why we should care piece. 360 degree feedback has been around for decades and for good reason. It can help generate positive change within an organization by focusing on confidential career development of its leadership talent. If done properly, 360 degree feedback can provide an accurate and well-rounded view of how others perceive an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. This information can then be leveraged in the hopes of improving in the areas most critical to their job’s success.

Okay, so it should be fairly obvious how this can benefit the employee, but what about the company? How does the organization benefit from this investment? Well, at the org level, 360 feedback can renew focus on goals and objectives, encourage constructive feedback, and clarify the roles of managers, leaders and individual contributors within the organization. This facilitates an environment that encourages self-development, which can improve job satisfaction, minimizing turnover and the costs associated with replacing employees.

What Does a Successful 360 Degree Feedback Program Include?

With the basics of 360 degree feedback behind us, now what? Maximizing your investment, that’s what. We don’t just want to help you understand what 360 degree feedback is; we want you to be able to implement a program that produces results.

Use the following guidelines as your personal best practices cheat sheet:

Communication and Change Management

Preparing your population for the 360 feedback process is extremely important to ensure the feedback is accurate and acted upon. The goals of the program, the process, what the participant is accountable for — all these should be addressed in a communication plan.

Development, Not appraisal

An organization should make sure that it is doing 360 degree feedback for the right reasons. It is strongly recommended to only use 360 feedback for developmental and not appraisal purposes. The two purposes are incompatible.

All Questions Are Not Created Equal

Assessment questions should be clearly focused and specific around a particular set of skills, competencies, or behaviors that are trainable. And it’s crucial to measure behaviors that are relevant to the role and observable. Why waste everyone’s time asking a bunch of poorly worded, double-barreled questions that aren’t role-specific and under the control of the person to change?

Confidentiality and Anonymity

Imagine having a supervisor who is always demeaning and threatens to fire you when you challenge their ideas. Then you get an invitation to take a survey about your supervisor’s leadership skills. If you have little confidence your feedback will be confidential, then would you be honest? Probably not. This is one example of why anonymity and confidentiality are vital components of the 360 feedback process. Raters need to know that when they provide honest ratings — no matter how good or bad they may be — their job is not at stake. And, for the individual being rated, receiving negative feedback that is not accurate will focus development efforts on the wrong skills, effectively derailing the development process.

Reliable and Valid

In psychometrics, reliability is the overall consistency of a measure. A measure is said to have high reliability if it produces similar results under consistent conditions. Validity means the 360 assessment should measure what it was designed to measure. For an instrument to be valid, it needs to be compared to another measure.

In some cases, the other measure is internal performance within the organization. If there is consistently a high correlation between an assessment measure and the performance measures internally, then the instrument is valid. There are different types of validation, including face, content, and construct validity. Be sure to look for these before landing on an instrument.

Norms

Comparing individual results with those in a similar role is a great way to see how competitive they are. Rather than relying completely on raw scores when analyzing feedback, a combination of norms and centiles is often recommended.

Norms can be thought of as performance benchmarks to help interpret the results of the feedback more effectively. Viewing the feedback in the context of a larger population of managers or leaders is essential for a full understanding of the data.

Coaching, Mentoring, and Training

Let’s face it, having a bunch of people share what they think of you and your leadership skills is intimidating enough. But to go through the results without any interpretation guidance can be extremely overwhelming and may trigger negative emotional responses. This, in turn, can derail the entire process.

qualified coach can help defuse those emotional responses, putting the feedback in the context of their role and environment. The coach can also be a competent sounding board to help organize key priorities and brainstorm next steps to navigate the challenges the individual is facing. 

Ultimately, this leads the individual down the road of behavioral improvement. The bottom line is that 360 degree feedback without some form of coaching or training is seldom, if ever, successful.

Development or Action Plan

Accountability! Strongly consider requiring the participants to build an action plan and share it with their direct manager and/or supervisor. This is where the rubber meets the road. What knowledge has the individual being rated taken away from this process and what are they going to do with it? Without this important step, there’s no accountability, no personal commitment, no teeth.  After all, 360 degree feedback is a development tool but it's only effective if a plan is created and acted on based on the feedback received.

Reassessment

An individual’s first time through 360 feedback can provide invaluable insights into their strengths and weaknesses. But the real fun (yes, you read that correctly) comes with tracking your year-over-year progress. So, consider that first assessment a solid baseline.

However, comparing scores over time, knowing that continuous improvement requires ongoing measurement, gives the participants the knowledge to adjust their development plan on a regular basis.

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Choosing a 360 Degree Feedback Vendor

Many organizations outsource 360 degree feedback to a company that specializes in 360s. Makes sense, right? You can take advantage of the vendor’s expertise in content, technology, and processes.

Just be careful who you choose; take your time and research the vendors thoroughly. Recently, it seems as if 360 degree feedback companies are popping up overnight, with little experience in the field. As you can imagine, this oftentimes leads to less-than-effective results and leaves behind a bad impression of 360 feedback.

This is truly unfortunate since 360 degree feedback, done properly, has a real opportunity to generate positive change within an organization.

At any rate, whether you opt to partner with a one-size-fits-all company or one that focuses solely on providing 360 degree feedback services, you’ll be in good hands if you do your due diligence. We’ve touched on the bad actors, but there are a lot of really good ones out there who know this stuff inside and out and can turn your 360 leadership development programs into a success.

Lastly, it’s crucial not to choose on price alone. There’s a big difference between price and cost. Consider all the wasted time and missed opportunity costs if you choose the wrong vendor just because they offer a lower price. As the old adage goes, if you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.

What’s Next?

360 assessments, even when performed correctly, are not silver bullets. After all, your training and development initiatives are not operating in a vacuum. But if best practices are adhered to and expert advice taken, then you’re going to increase the odds of success.

Increased job satisfaction and team morale, coupled with lower turnover and improved performance, are just some of the reasons that almost every Fortune 500 deploys 360 degree feedback in some fashion. They’re a tried and tested method in helping to unlock an employee’s potential, and ultimately get one step closer to uncovering the truth – you can handle it!