360 Feedback: 7 Pitfalls of a Highly Effective Program

“Our parent company had us go through 360 degree feedback,” one of the local vice-presidents explained. “I got my results in a group meeting, read them over, and put them away.” The other members of the Executive Team nodded in agreement. None of them had gotten anything constructive out of the experience. The parent company did not get the results it hoped for, and it damaged its own credibility at the local level.

360 degree feedback is increasingly popular in business today. “360 degrees” means that participants get feedback from the full circle of those around them. For example, an executive might get rated on how well he displays certain leadership behaviors. Raters could include his boss, his peers, his own direct reports, himself, and possibly customers and vendors. The results give the participant the chance to compare his own view of himself with that of others. It gives us the chance to see ourselves as others see us.

The growing popularity of 360 degree feedback arises from its potential power to transform the effectiveness of individuals and entire corporate cultures. Well known companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Merrill Lynch have reported great success using 360 degree feedback. Because America loves to jump on bandwagons, many companies have jumped on 360 degree feedback. Unfortunately, many of them did not look hard enough at the process before leaping, and have come away disillusioned. If you have been thinking about 360 feedback for your company, this column can help you avoid some problems in using what can be one of the most effective, powerful tools available to create constructive change in your company.

Pitfall #1 - doing 360 because it’s “in”: A specific business reason must exist before investing time and money in 360 degree feedback. One company I know is interested in growing the interpersonal skills of its youngest managers, some of whom will become the company leaders of the future. That’s a good reason. 360 degree feedback can give these individuals important insights into their behavior and identify areas to develop to prepare for future leadership roles.

Pitfall #2 - combining performance review and development: Some companies have used 360 degree feedback as a way of conducting performance reviews. The temptation is understandable. However, research and experience suggest that 360 degree feedback is usually best reserved for development, not evaluation. First, raters give different responses, normally more positive, when they know that the feedback will affect someone’s job or raise. Second, most participants are more able to hear constructive but challenging feedback when it does not instantly affect their livelihood.

Pitfall #3 - forced 360's: Some companies require all executives, managers and supervisors to participate. There are probably times that this can be justified. The downside is that people learn best when they have volunteered. If 360 degree feedback is a part of a developmental process, voluntary participants will get more out of it than they will if they are forced to participate. I recently offered a voluntary developmental process to 21 front line supervisors. The company and I predicted that several would opt out. Happily, we were proven wrong. All of them opted to participate. We believe the freedom to opt out helped many opt in. (While they had freedom to opt out of the developmental process, they would still be held accountable for the leadership skills the company believes to be important.)

Pitfall #4 - poor rater privacy and preparation: Raters do not rate their bosses honestly without anonymity. To achieve this, at least three direct reports must rate their boss. Five is better. The greater the number, the more accurate the ratings are likely to be. (The rating that comes from the participant’s boss needs to be so indicated.) Also, raters need a bit of training about the purpose and mechanics of 360 degree feedback to do their job right.

Pitfall #5 - overlooking the participant’s need for privacy: Participants get more out of the process when they, not the company, own the information, i.e., the information is the participant’s to share or not share with his superior and others. The fact that they have the freedom not to share the results makes the results easier to accept. In practice, the vast majority do choose to share the results with their boss when it comes time to discuss their developmental plan.

Pitfall #6 - inadequate support for comprehending results: Many companies drop the ball here. They do not foresee the anxiety participants are almost certain to feel as they begin to examine their feedback. Anxiety interferes with accurately understanding what can be powerful information. Effective delivery comes in two steps. First, conduct a group feedback session for all participants. Here they are each given their written results and taught how to understand them. Second, each participant gets an individual meeting with a trained facilitator to be sure that the results are accurately understood at a personal level. Without this step, the dangers are that the participant will either defensively dismiss the feedback or take it too seriously. Neither is a useful outcome. The facilitator needs to be skilled at helping people figure out how to use negative feedback constructively.

Pitfall # 7 - no follow-up: 360 degree feedback needs to be done within the context of a developmental process. The facilitator can help the participant create a developmental plan using the feedback. Successfully changing old habits is tricky. Having someone help you figure out how to do so can make the difference. The plan should identify what behaviors will change, how the participant and company will benefit from the change, how change will be measured, and how the change will be brought about. Then the participant reviews the developmental plan with his boss for approval. This allows the company to be sure that development of key employees is consistent with the company’s strategic plan.

360 degree feedback can create exciting changes for all involved. Hopefully the information in this column can get you started in considering the potential benefits for your company while avoiding some of the pitfalls.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc. He can be reached at 774-1927, or by e-mail at dana.ackley@eqleader.net.

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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