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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 known 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 assessed behaviors typically revolve around the individual's role within the organization. For instance, the feedback for an executive would focus on a different set of skills or behaviors compared to that for a front-line manager. Getting feedback on skills unrelated to one's role can be frustrating and lead to misinterpretation of the results.

It's worth noting that the evaluated skills are observable behaviors that can be enhanced through personal development efforts. Unlike personality traits, which are relatively fixed, the foundation of 360 assessments lies in the improvement of actionable skills.

Anonymity plays a pivotal role in this process, and here's why: Some raters may feel apprehensive about providing honest feedback. This apprehension might stem from a fear of conflict or concerns about how their feedback could affect their own job. In such cases, raters may opt for safe, middle-of-the-road ratings, which don't benefit the person being assessed or the raters themselves.

Once the feedback is collected, the next step is to plan for development, as that's the primary goal of 360-degree feedback. It's generally advisable to use this feedback as a starting point for development planning or to determine training needs and set development objectives. Consequently, 360-degree feedback can be seen as the initial step in enhancing employee development, thereby boosting organizational productivity. 

360 degree feedback

The Benefits of 360 Degree Feedback

Now onto the why we should care piece. 360 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 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 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

Getting your team ready for the 360 feedback process is like laying the groundwork for a successful journey. It's not just a box to tick; it's a crucial step to ensure that the feedback received is not only accurate but also translates into meaningful action. Let's break it down a bit more:

  1. Setting Clear Goals: First and foremost, your communication plan should make crystal clear what the goals of the 360-degree feedback program are. Whether it's improving leadership skills, enhancing teamwork, or driving personal growth, everyone needs to know what's in the crosshairs. These goals provide the compass that guides the entire process.

  2. Navigating the Feedback Process: Imagine you're about to embark on a road trip without a map or GPS. It'd be a chaotic journey, right? The same goes for the feedback process. Your communication plan should meticulously outline the process step by step. From how feedback is collected to who's involved and what happens next, this roadmap ensures that everyone knows their way around.

  3. Clarifying Participant Responsibilities: Think of participants as the drivers of this feedback journey. They need to know what they're accountable for – from providing feedback to taking ownership of their own development. When everyone's role and responsibilities are crystal clear, it's like having a well-organized team that knows their positions on the field.

  4. Encouraging Engagement: It's not just about informing your team; it's about getting them excited and engaged. Your communication plan should inspire active participation. When people understand why the feedback matters and how it contributes to their growth and the organization's success, they're more likely to jump in with both feet.

  5. Building Trust: Last but definitely not least, your communication plan should emphasize the importance of confidentiality and anonymity. Just like we discussed earlier, this trust element is the bedrock of candid feedback. When people are confident that their input won't come back to haunt them, they're more likely to be open and honest.

In a nutshell, preparing your team for the 360-degree feedback process is like getting ready for an epic adventure. It's about having a clear destination, a well-defined route, a responsible driver, enthusiastic passengers, and the trust that you're all in it together. With the right communication plan, you're not just ensuring accurate feedback; you're setting the stage for growth, development, and success.

Development, not appraisal

Let's talk about the purpose of 360 feedback in your organization – it's a bit of a big deal, and there’s some important factors to keep in mind.

First off, make sure you're using 360-degree feedback for all the right reasons. You should mainly be using it to help people develop and grow, not to judge or evaluate them. These two goals just don't play nicely together, and here's why...

The main goal of 360-degree feedback is to give folks a well-rounded view of their strengths and areas where they can improve. You're getting input from coworkers, bosses, and others to help employees grow both personally and professionally. When it's all about development, it creates this culture of always getting better.

But if you use it for evaluation or appraisal, things can get messy. Employees might start seeing it as a high-stakes game that could mess with their pay, promotions, or job security. That can make people hesitant to give honest feedback because they worry about how it might affect their coworkers. So, the feedback you get isn't as useful for helping people improve.

"The main goal of 360-degree feedback is to give folks a well-rounded view of their strengths and areas where they can improve. "

Plus, the criteria for developmental and appraisal feedback are totally different. Developmental feedback is about helping employees build up their skills and perform better, while appraisal feedback is more about looking at past performance and often involves ranking or rating folks for rewards or punishments.

When you mix these two up, it can lead to some serious problems like demotivation, resentment, and people getting defensive. It can also harm the trust and collaboration within your organization because it turns colleagues into competitors for rewards or recognition.

So, long story short, if you're going to do 360-degree feedback, make sure it's all about growth and improvement, not appraisal or evaluation. It'll be way more beneficial for everyone involved.

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?

By formulating focused and specific assessment questions, organizations can effectively target the key areas for improvement and development. These questions should be tailored to reflect the essential competencies and behaviors that are critical for success in a particular role. This helps to ensure that the feedback gathered from the assessment process is directly relevant to the individual's job performance and contributes to their professional growth.

Equally important is to ensure the focus is on measuring observable behaviors that can be objectively assessed, ultimately leading to actionable insights for improvement. Assessing behaviors that can be observed in the workplace allows for a more accurate and reliable evaluation of an individual's performance. This approach helps in identifying specific areas where training and development initiatives can be implemented to enhance overall job performance and productivity.

Moreover, focusing on behaviors that are under the control of the individual to change allows for actionable feedback that can be translated into practical development plans. By concentrating on aspects that individuals can directly influence and improve, organizations can create targeted and effective training programs that support the professional growth and development of their employees, ultimately leading to enhanced performance and organizational success.

In summary, focusing on behaviors that are relevant to the role, observable, and trainable will make for a more successful assessment initiative.  Questions that focus on feelings, opinions, and judgments can derail 360 feedback and should be avoided.

Confidentiality and Anonymity

Let's paint a scenario: You have a boss who constantly belittles you and even threatens your job when you dare to challenge their ideas. Then, out of the blue, you receive an invitation to take a survey about your boss's leadership skills. Now, here's the kicker – if you doubt that your responses will be kept confidential, would you feel comfortable being completely honest? Chances are, you'd hold back.

This situation perfectly illustrates why anonymity and confidentiality are absolute must-haves in the 360-degree feedback process. Raters need assurance that when they provide honest feedback, whether it's positive or negative, their livelihoods won't be on the line. On the flip side, for the individual receiving the feedback, inaccurate negative comments can steer their development efforts in the wrong direction, essentially derailing the whole process.

"Raters need assurance that when they provide honest feedback, whether it's positive or negative, their livelihoods won't be on the line."

But the importance of anonymity and confidentiality goes beyond just ensuring candid responses. It also creates a foundation of trust and psychological safety within the organization. When employees are confident that their feedback won't come back to bite them, they're more likely to actively participate and share constructive insights. This, in turn, elevates the accuracy and effectiveness of the feedback loop.

And here's the bonus: this sense of security can have a ripple effect throughout the workplace culture. It encourages open communication and a willingness to engage in feedback exchanges, which are absolute game-changers for personal and organizational growth. In a nutshell, it's a real opportunity to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable and motivated to contribute to the betterment of themselves and the organization as a whole.

Reliable and Valid

In the field of psychometrics, the concept of reliability is fundamental and refers to the overall consistency of a measurement. Sounds sophisticated, right? But it’s rather simple. When we talk about a measure being reliable, we mean that it consistently yields similar results when applied under consistent and stable conditions. This reliability ensures that the measure can be trusted to provide consistent data over time.

On the other hand, validity is another critical aspect in psychometrics, particularly in the context of a 360 assessment. Validity is whether the assessment genuinely measures what it was originally designed and intended to measure. To establish the validity of an instrument, it must be compared and evaluated in relation to another known and established measure or benchmark.

Elaborating on validity, one benchmark for validity may be the internal performance metrics within an organization. If there is a strong and consistent correlation between the results of the assessment and the internal performance measures, it suggests that the assessment instrument is valid in accurately capturing the attributes or behaviors it was meant to assess.

It's important to note that there are various types of validation methods, including face validity, content validity, and construct validity. Before settling on a specific assessment instrument, it is crucial to thoroughly examine and consider these different types of validation to ensure that the tool effectively measures what it is intended to measure. This comprehensive evaluation process helps ensure that the chosen instrument is not only reliable but also valid, ultimately leading to more accurate and valuable assessments of individuals or processes within the organization.

Norms and Centiles

When you're looking at how someone is doing in their job compared to others in similar roles, it can give you some really helpful insights into how competitive and effective they are. Instead of just looking at their raw scores when analyzing feedback data, it's often a good idea to mix in some norms and centiles.

Now, what are norms? Well, they're benchmarks that you can use to compare an individual's feedback results. These benchmarks are important because they make the feedback data easier to understand and more relevant. When you place someone's feedback in the context of a larger group of managers or leaders, you get a better overall picture.

By comparing someone's ratings to these established norms, you can get a more detailed look at their strengths and weaknesses. It helps you see where they're doing better than their peers and where they might need some improvement. This kind of analysis can point out areas where they can grow, making it easier to plan targeted development strategies.

And then there are centiles. These divide a group into percentiles, which can give you even more precise insights. It helps you see exactly where an individual stands within a larger group, making it easier to spot outstanding performance or areas that need attention.

Think of centiles as analogous to getting graded on the curve in academia. A raw score is meaningless unless you have a frame of reference – something to compare it to. Let’s say a student received a 70 on a test, and the teacher was grading on a curve. If the highest grade was an 85, and the curve was set off that number, then the 70 will be seen as higher than the actual obtained score. Now let’s translate this to an assessment. On a 7-point rating scale a “5” might be above the mid-point, but if everyone else is scoring 6s and above then your 5 simply isn’t competitive, and therefore your “grade” takes a hit. 

In short, using norms and centiles in feedback analysis is a smart move for organizations that want to really understand how their employees are doing. It gives you a more complete view, which can lead to better decisions about talent development and strategic planning. And ultimately, it helps the organization succeed as a whole.

Coaching, Mentoring, and Training

Let’s face it, the prospect of receiving feedback from a multitude of individuals regarding your leadership skills can be quite daunting. It's a situation that oftentimes triggers feelings of intimidation. However, the real challenge arises when you're handed this feedback without any form of guidance or interpretation. The overwhelming nature of this raw data can easily set off a cascade of negative emotions, ultimately derailing the entire feedback process.

Imagine sifting through a trove of comments, ratings, and opinions, all bearing varying degrees of critique and praise. Without a compass to navigate this sea of information, it's easy to become lost and overwhelmed. The result? Feelings of self-doubt, defensiveness, or even resentment may surface, hindering any genuine potential for growth.

Enter the role of a qualified coach. A skilled coach serves as a valuable ally, helping individuals navigate the emotional turbulence that often accompanies 360-degree feedback. They act as a stabilizing force, grounding the feedback within the context of the individual's specific role and the environment in which they operate.

The coach's role extends far beyond just being an emotional buffer, though. They function as a competent sounding board, providing a safe and constructive space for individuals to process their feedback. In doing so, they help identify the critical priorities that need attention and guide the individual in brainstorming effective strategies and next steps.

"360-degree feedback, without the supportive role of coaching or training, rarely achieves its intended success."

Picture this as a collaborative journey toward improvement. With the coach's guidance, individuals can transform the raw feedback data into a roadmap for behavioral enhancement. This transformation is essential because, in the end, 360 feedback isn't merely about collecting opinions; it's about using those insights to catalyze personal and professional growth.

The bottom line is crystal clear: 360-degree feedback, without the supportive role of coaching or training, rarely achieves its intended success. The presence of a qualified coach is not just a luxury but a necessity. They serve as the bridge between feedback and growth, helping individuals harness the power of constructive criticism and transform it into meaningful progress. In the realm of leadership development, the partnership between feedback and coaching is the key to unlocking true potential.

Development or Action Plan

Accountability! When it comes to the 360-degree feedback process, it's strongly recommended to incorporate a structured accountability component. One effective approach is to make it a requirement for participants to create a concrete action plan and then share it with their direct manager or supervisor. This step marks the crucial point where intentions evolve into tangible actions.

When individuals receive feedback through the 360-degree assessment, it's vital to think about the knowledge and insights they gain from the process. The feedback itself offers valuable insights into strengths and areas that need improvement, but the real value emerges when individuals decide how to apply this newfound knowledge to their professional growth. Throwing the results in a drawer is not the answer is not an effective use of the results and ultimately renders the feedback process useless.

Creating an action plan is where individuals take ownership of their development journey. It prompts them to reflect on the feedback, set specific goals, and outline actionable steps to address their developmental needs. This process not only solidifies their commitment to personal and professional growth but also instills a sense of responsibility.

By sharing this action plan with their direct manager or supervisor, individuals promote transparency and open communication within the organization. It allows for alignment between personal development goals and the organization's objectives. Managers can offer support, guidance, and resources, which in turn, facilitates the individual's progress toward their goals.

Without this critical step of accountability, the 360-degree feedback process may lack effectiveness and fall short of its potential impact. In essence, the feedback collected is just data unless it's translated into actionable steps for improvement. 360-degree feedback is a valuable development tool, but its true power lies in the creation and proactive execution of a well-thought-out plan based on the feedback received. This transformation turns feedback into a catalyst for growth, empowering individuals to continuously enhance their professional capabilities.


Embarking on the journey of 360-degree feedback for the first time offers individuals a treasure trove of insights into their professional strengths and areas for improvement. This initial assessment serves as a firm foundation, a point of reference against which one can measure their growth.

Yet, the true value emerges when individuals begin to compare their feedback scores and observations over time. Recognizing that genuine and sustainable improvement demands consistent monitoring, this ongoing measurement becomes a source of empowerment. It equips participants with the knowledge and data necessary to adapt and refine their development plans on a regular basis.

By treating that first assessment as a solid baseline, individuals gain a clear understanding of where they stand at the outset of their development journey. As they accumulate subsequent assessments, they can identify trends, patterns, and changes in their feedback data. These insights enable them to make informed decisions about the areas they should focus on for growth and the strategies they should employ to enhance their skills and performance.

Year-over-year progress tracking not only enhances self-awareness but also fosters a sense of ownership over one's professional development. It transforms the process from a one-time event into a continuous cycle of improvement. It empowers individuals to proactively adjust their development plans in response to their evolving needs and objectives.

In essence, the journey of 360-degree feedback is a dynamic and ongoing process, with each assessment building upon the last. It is this iterative approach that truly makes it an invaluable tool for personal and professional growth. So, while that first assessment provides a valuable snapshot of where you started, the real adventure lies in the exciting journey of self-improvement that unfolds year after year.

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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 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!