For a manager, giving an employee tough feedback can truly be a case of “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” Managers harbor doubts about whether their feedback is completely balanced. They wonder how they can help employees move beyond denial to acceptance and accountability for adopting new behaviors and developing new skills. The 360-degree or full-circle assessment from peers, direct reports, subordinates and supervisors can address these concerns. This kind of assessment has proven pivotal in many careers.
But 360-degree assessments can also be an all-around waste of time. Many well-intentioned assessment programs have fallen short of their potential because of poor design and execution. In my experience, 360s can be a catalyst for changing behaviors if three conditions are met. First, the survey needs to be tailored to the employee—a one-size-fits-all approach does not apply. Second, the survey recipient has to have ears that want to hear. This also requires a supportive organizational climate in which everyone is seen as a work-in-progress. The employee must be able to control the 360 process rather than the other way around. Finally, feedback recipients need significant follow-up support to fuel and guide their development over time.
Tailor the Survey. A review of an employee’s leadership ability is not much use if this person is struggling with interpersonal issues. Take the case of an IT executive in financial services who participated in a companywide 360-degree program. The results were of little benefit to her since the questions focused on cultural fit and basic management competencies—areas in which she scored very high, in general. Given that she was relatively new to the executive ranks, she would have benefited much more from an assessment that measured the broader aspects of executive effectiveness, with specific attention paid to IT.
Another dimension of survey relevance is how the data is captured and shared. Research indicates that “ratings by themselves don’t yield the detailed, qualitative comments and insights that can help a colleague improve performance,” and “without specific comments, recipients are left with no information to act on and with little sense of what might help them get better at their jobs” (from Maury A. Peiperl’s Harvard Business Review article “Getting 360-Degree Feedback Right”).
Ready the Ears. Benefiting from a 360-degree assessment is all about being psychologically ready to hear and act on the results. Although the prospect of a 360 is scary for many, they don’t resist because the prospect of overhearing what others are saying is too tantalizing. But don’t confuse willingness to participate with readiness to change. Consider the executive who was given feedback that he used his political and relationship skills to sidestep responsibility. This person took no action. The feedback fell on deaf ears because he hadn’t asked for it and didn’t believe he needed it.
You can create a climate in which 360 feedback is positively received by openly sharing your own strengths and development opportunities, by ensuring that frequent on-the-spot coaching is the norm, and by giving participants control over certain aspects of the 360-degree assessment process (such as timing, survey selection, participants, confidentiality and action plans).
Begin at the End. Someone once said that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it. When a person receives 360-degree feedback, the assessment process is only about 10 percent complete. The heavy lifting of modifying behavior still lies ahead. To appreciate the amount of support necessary to break old habits and adopt new ones, ask yourself whether your latest physical fitness assessment was all you needed to become new and improved and lean and mean. Many of us have discovered that only through the use of a personal trainer are we able to focus on our goals for the time it takes to realize results.
At the office, you can support the change process by providing a coach or mentor—inside or outside the organization—for a minimum of two hours a week for three to six months. If the ears are ready to hear, a coach will help fuel behavior change by reinforcing the elements of accountability, intellectual honesty, time management, skill-building and encouragement.
As an executive coach, I don’t recommend 360s across the board. There are plenty of other ways to gain insights about people’s strengths and development opportunities. The valuable instrument of full-circle assessments is too often trivialized, so it has the same impact as the 30-question magazine quiz that is taken for distraction and amusement but is never taken seriously.