“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 mind? I certainly would, and that’s where 360 degree feedback can help.

What is 360 degree feedback?

So, what is 360 degree feedback and why should you care? Good questions, and ones we’ll strive to answer in the following paragraphs. First off, don’t feel bad if you’re not familiar with the concept since 360 feedback is not a term commonly used outside of the business world. In short, 360 degree feedback, also referred to as multi-rater feedback, involves collecting 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 action planning, or to plan training and set development goals.

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.

Blueprint for a successful 360 degree feedback program

With the basics of 360 degree feedback behind us, now what? Maximizing your investment, that’s what. Consider the following 360 program components your personal best practices cheat sheet. Follow these guidelines and 360 bliss is within reach.

  • Communication and Change Management

    Preparing your population for a 360 is extremely important to ensuring the feedback is accurate and is 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 feedback for the right reasons. It is strongly recommended to only use 360s for developmental and not appraisal purposes. The two purposes are incompatible.

  • All questions are not created equal

    Survey 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 others can see (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 his/her 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, if you need your job. This is one example of why anonymity and confidentiality is a vital component of the 360 process. Raters need to know providing honest ratings, no matter how good or bad they may be, will not threaten their job. And, for the individual being rated, receiving 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 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 consistent 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 upon 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 results of the feedback more effectively. Viewing the feedback in context of a larger population of managers or leaders is essential for a full understanding of the data.

  • Coaching, Mentoring, and Training

    Will somebody please throw me a lifeline! 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. A qualified coach can help defuse those emotional responses, putting the feedback in 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 leading them down the road of behavioral improvement. The bottom line is 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/ 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.

  • Reassessment

    An individual’s first 360 can provide invaluable insights into their strengths and blind spots. 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. 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.

Choosing a 360 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 degree feedback. This is truly unfortunate since 360 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 initiative into a success.

One last thing, please don’t 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. Bad data in, bad data out. Important decisions and training around the wrong areas. You’ve heard the old adage, if you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.

Let’s wrap this up

Look, a 360, even done properly, is not a silver bullet. 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. And many organizations can attest to how powerful a well-executed 360 can be. 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 360s 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!