Getting 360 Degree Reviews Right

We've all watched countless late-night infomercials regarding a new product or self-help program. As it ends, the person on the TV screen testifies that this new vitamin or exercise process has "changed my life." We assume we're not alone in our skepticism about how life transforming this new product really was. Indeed, as we mature, it seems that fewer and fewer things actually make a long-term difference in our lives.

But there is one thing we've personally seen that profoundly and consistently changes lives — what's generally referred to as the 360-degree feedback process. In the course of completing tens of thousands of these reviews as part of our strength-based leadership programs, we had an up-close view of many people who were teetering on the edge of job termination, and have seen them blossom into extremely valuable contributors. It's been one of the really gratifying parts of our work.

Maybe that's why our blood comes to a slow boil when we see a popular columnist arguing that 360-degree feedback programs fail. Of course a careful reading of the article describes an entirely flawed implementation of a 360 process, and we grudgingly concur that this does happen. Sometimes the senior executives don't support the program, and in the worst cases they don't participate themselves. Perhaps reports go to participants with little or no explanation of how to read them and without follow-up from the manager or HR. Or perhaps the 360 isn't used to guide and inform people's progress within an overall system of development. Yes, we sigh, there are too many 360 implementations that are pathetic wastes of time, resources, and — worst of all — opportunity.

That's why we take heart when we see organizations do 360s well. What do they do that makes the difference?

  • They begin by measuring the right skills, relying on empirical research to determine which leadership competencies really make a difference to the performance of their firm, rather than on some senior executive's beliefs about what makes a good manager.
  • They take the time to properly explain, both to participants and to the people giving feedback about those participants, why they've going through the exercise and how the data will be used for the participant's development.
  • They make certain, and make it known, that there will be no breaches of confidentiality.
  • They create a survey that requires just 15 to 20 minutes to complete, to avoid the survey fatigue that tortuously long instruments cause.
  • They focus primarily on discovering strengths rather than use the process to uncover deficiencies. Yes, the process sometimes identifies major weaknesses that need to be taken seriously, but in our experience, these have been in the minority of cases.
  • They tailor the results to each individual and to his or her position. Everyone doesn't need to be good at the same things.
  • They present each person's results in a way that enables them to digest them constructively and use the data to create a personal plan of development.They make the feedback report itself simple to read, presenting data in a graphical format that is easy to absorb.
  • They design a final report to help participants see how they compare to those in the top quartile and in the top 10%.This elevates everyone's aspirations. No one leaves feeling complacent about being slightly above average.
  • They include a mini-employee survey that shows managers the impact of their behavior on their subordinates.

The effectiveness of any measure is based on how well that metric can predict an outcome. Will the number of leads generated by a marketing campaign predict sales? Will the number of hurricanes in the Gulf predict the price of gas? Will the number of times a new product is mentioned in social media predict the success of that product? What we know from our years of research correlating leaders' 360 ratings to important organizational outcomes is that they are very predictive. While no one person's opinion is in itself necessarily predictive, the aggregate average of several raters really does provide a very accurate gauge of the skills of a leader. Our research shows that individuals rated through this process as highly effective leaders preside over operations in which turnover is lower — and employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and sales are higher.

That said, there is one 360 rater who is highly unreliable and rarely predictive at all. As all our data and our long experience have shown us time and time again, that person is you. That is, your own perception of yourself is rarely accurate or predictive. For a GPS system to get an accurate picture of your location, it requires four different satellites. For leaders to get an accurate picture of their own effectiveness, they need feedback from their manager, peers, direct reports, and others in the organization.

Certainly, 360-degree feedback can be done well or poorly. But we are heartened when we see the process done well, because we know that virtually every time that happens, someone's life will indeed be transformed in a positive way. In a very real sense, it can be one of the rare activities that truly does influence careers and change lives.

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