The challenges of 360 degree feedback
360 degree feedback is a standard practice of the leadership development and coaching industry. It is commonly used, and organisations will spend considerable sums of money developing competency frameworks for their organisations, defining behaviours for those competencies, and assigning different behaviours to different hierarchical levels. They will then subsequently build a 360 degree feedback instrument based upon this framework. I have been involved in helping organisations go through this process.
There are numerous issues that are brought up in these processes, such as:
- Whether the feedback is used for performance appraisal (including setting bonuses etc) or whether it is solely for developmental purposes.
- Whether someone centrally chooses who gives you feedback, or you are able to have the choice yourself – if centrally how do they know who actually works closely with you, and if you choose will you just choose those who will be nice to you, especially if your bonus depends on it?
- How the people giving you feedback are briefed and prepared, so that they can be honest, and thoughtful in their responses.
- How the people receiving feedback are briefed and prepared so that they don’t try and figure out who said what, and go on a campaign of vengeance in the organisation.
However there is a more fundamental question about the practice of 360 degree feedback, as opposed to its intent, which I feel is important to ask. The intent of 360 degree feedback is to obtain a wide range of feedback from peers, those who report to you, and those whom you report to. I support this wholeheartedly, as people will often act differently to others in different hierarchical levels, and this range of feedback is important.
The practice of 360 degree feedback is worth looking at however. The competency frameworks mentioned above are generally transformed into questionnaires which those giving you feedback fill out anonymously. Often this happens online, and in some cases where those giving you feedback are chosen centrally you don’t even know who has contributed to the process. This may then be a process you go through on a yearly basis.
Is this a bad thing? Probably not, overall, as at least you are getting feedback and in a lot of organisations this doesn’t happen at all. However it is flawed.
This kind of process provides a useful way out of having difficult feedback conversations on an ongoing basis. These conversations are avoided like the plague in many organisations and so institutionalising an anonymous feedback process lets me off the hook – I don’t need to have a grown up, adult conversation with you about how your recent behaviour has impacted on me and my project; I can wait until the next 360 degree feedback round. And if your bonus depends on it, and I’m upset and vindictive, then we can generate an unhealthy revenge culture through feedback scores.
You may doubt that people will store feedback up like this, but I’ve seen it a number of times done with vindictiveness. More usually, good intentions prevail and the desire to give the feedback, clouded by questions about the person’s political nature or how they may react, mean that it’s safer to give such feedback anonymously through this system.
This prevents the development of a culture in which people learn to have difficult conversations with each other. Pretty much everyone I have worked with, especially those more senior, say they don’t get enough feedback and want more. Most of them also have lots of reasons why the people they need to give feedback to won’t be able to hear it, and how it may not be a good idea to speak to them directly. So we all want others to be straight and honest with us, and we all avoid it and give feedback through systems such as these.
Wouldn’t it be nice to work in a culture where people will come and be honest with you about stuff, rather than sitting on it and giving us low scores in an anonymous instrument? Wouldn’t it be nice not to spend time worrying about what people think of you, because you already know?
At its best 360 degree feedback is a step on this direction. It is done to enable people to become accustomed to receiving feedback, and it is the starting point of a dialogue with those who gave the feedback. This then becomes the first step in people learning to give and receive feedback openly with each other on an ongoing basis. At its worst it’s a crutch that actively prevents people from being open and honest with each other.
Rather than investing so much in the design and development of these systems, organisations could consider investing in the development of a culture that encourages open and honest feedback, and in the development of leaders and managers who have this capability.
This is not to say that this is easy – there will be people who will take it personally and be vindictive or political – but if the organisation holds its nerve and continues along this path there are significant benefits in terms of efficiency and performance. Just imagine if in your organisation all the time and effort that goes into political game playing, conflicts and enmity, and time wasted through people not being honest about whether or not that was a good idea; just imagine if all that time and effort were suddenly available for moving forward the organisation. Sounds good doesn’t it?
You may say that I’m an idealist now. Well I have seen and worked in organisations where this is the case. It’s not an easy place to work in – you can’t hide behind social veils of politeness and cordiality, and you need to face up to the impacts of your behaviour. However they’re probably the most productive organisations I’ve seen, and worked with, and organisations or teams who have made this shift have also made a dramatic impact on their results. It’s a much better investment than the yearly production of reams of 360 degree feedback reports.