Understanding participant experiences is key to an effective 360 process. In 20+ years of honing best practices, we’ve developed a nuanced understanding of how participant experiences affect 360 data, and vice versa. To give you the benefit of our experience, we’d like to take you on a 360 degree tour of 360 degree feedback. We’ll describe the experience from the perspective of each 360 participant: the feedback recipient, the direct report, the peer, and the boss. As we rotate the view, you’ll get a sense of what’s important to each player. Balancing these priorities is both the challenge and the key to success in implementing an effective, transformative 360 degree feedback process.
The Direct Report
Direct report feedback is uniquely valuable: only someone’s direct reports can reveal their management skills. The primary challenge in getting accurate, useful data from direct reports is fear. We’ll use Paul, our fictional direct report, as an example.
Paul is afraid that his comments or negative ratings can be traced back to him; and that his pay, performance reviews, or working relationship with his boss will suffer as a result. Paul may decline to participate in the 360 survey OR may give false high ratings as a participant because he doesn’t want negative feedback to come back and bite him. Even one person giving false ratings (high or low), or no ratings at all, can result in a problematic skewing of the data.
So how do we ensure sound data from direct reports? It is critical to proactively address anonymity and accuracy in early communications. The comfort and participation level of direct reports is determined by how they receive information about the 360 project and from whom they receive it.
Paul might receive 360-related communications from his manager, from his manager’s superior, or from Human Resources. There are three key elements that management will want to relay to Paul:
- the purpose and goals of the 360
- how the process preserves his anonymity
- how the feedback will help his manager (and therefore Paul’s experience and the organization as a whole)
For maximum effect, Paul should hear something from each of them. Getting each one’s perspective will create a sense that management has a unified purpose in doing the 360, repetition about anonymity solidifies Paul’s expectations, and moreover, each manager can build trust through communication.
When Paul’s manager, Diego, approaches him, he can demonstrate that he is invested in transparency and in his own development; this boosts Paul’s confidence that Diego’s leadership is grounded in rational behavior rather than whims of ego. When upper management and HR approach Paul, they can demonstrate the transparency and development orientation of the workplace.
The HR manager is the best person to cover Paul’s technical questions. As the HR leader, you can explain the concept of minimum numbers of raters, or give him tips on how to write his comments so that they don’t identify him. To the extent that HR is a neutral party in the organization, you can represent the 360 as neutral as well—even better if the survey is being administered by a third party organization (most 360 surveys are administered by third parties).i
HR also provides Paul with rater training, which is conducted after Paul is well briefed on the 360, and the survey itself is approaching. Rater training—no matter what the level of the rater—is the single most important factor for getting accurate data from your 360 feedback process. Even if your organization does yearly 360s, it’s prudent to make sure people refresh themselves on the best practices. For example, it’s easy to forget how important it is to give meaningful ratings—without reminders, people often just rate right down the middle of the scale, the survey equivalent of slowly clapping a performer off the stage. Being well-versed in best rating practices will help Paul as he completes the 360 survey.
Over eighty percent of 360 feedback surveys are completed electronically, so Paul will likely get an email from HR or from a third party vendor (that’s us!) telling him that the survey is ready, and by when he should complete it. If Paul has been well-briefed on the 360, it’s likely that he will take the survey with no further reminders.ii Typically he will only have to invest 5-30 minutes of his time, depending on where he falls on the spectrum between reflective and decisive.
As with any exercise that involves dispassionate judgment, Paul will need to weigh his feelings about his boss Diego (which might change from day to day) against what he rationally knows about Diego’s behavior. The best surveys, of course, are written in such a way that it’s easier for Paul to rate Diego according to his rational perspective, rather than his feelings. Even so, Paul will encounter some difficult items—usually because they involve judgments Paul is concerned about making.
Take the classic case: Diego, the manager, is conflict-tolerant and Paul, the direct report, is conflict-avoidant. Even if Paul has been reassured that his rating won’t be tied to his name, he might fear general retribution if he rates Diego low on how he handles conflicts. Every effort must be made on the part of management and HR to encourage accurate ratings—and instill trust that those ratings won’t be misused.
After the survey is over, it’s not uncommon for direct report raters to not hear another word about it until the next survey cycle. This is a missed opportunity. Follow-up on a 360 survey builds a direct report’s trust in the 360 process, management, and HR. If, for example, Paul doesn’t see any trace of the 360 after it’s over, it’s natural for him to react with skepticism next time, if not bitterness. At a minimum, Diego should give Paul a sincere thanks for the feedback. Perhaps the best follow-up includes Diego sharing some of the things he learned from the 360 and what he plans to change as a result. Even more powerful is when Paul is able to observe evidence of Diego shifting his behavior, or when Diego references his 360 as he makes his own development transparent to Paul and other employees. After all, when was the last time your boss said, “I know this area is not my strong point, and as you can see, I’m working on it”?
Using 360 ratings to improve working relationships can be a radical act—with radical results. But to create the conditions for radical results, a 360 must honor the direct report’s perspective. Those conditions are created through communication, support, and most importantly, tangible assurance of anonymity.
i Current Practices in 360 Degree Feedback, 5th Edition 3D Group, 2016
ii Reminders are often necessary for at least a few people. At 3D Group, we monitor our response rates and send reminders accordingly.