My beef with 360 feedback

Feedback. Done right, it’s a powerful tool for growth and development.  Other people can see things you don’t or might have different insight. Taken the right way, people can really reach new heights in their skills and ultimately, their careers.  It can also be tough.  It can be misconstrued; people can take things the wrong way.  It’s also impacted by other forces, like someone’s mood that day, or organizational politics.

We aren’t all good at it. I know I personally strive to tone down my tendency to sugar coat my message, as this can get in the way of being helpful. I also strive to take constructive feedback without feeling defensive or hurt personally. We all have something we are working on, and there are plenty of systems out there that try to make our task easier.

The concept of 360˚ feedback is one that I believe can be truly valuable for someone’s development. The idea of seeking feedback from multiple sources, who work with you in different ways and have different perspectives on your performance, sounds healthy and constructive. As an example, I’ve received feedback about my writing and speaking from many sources besides my manager that have truly helped me grow in these areas. So, what’s my beef?  I have very rarely seen 360˚ feedback that does this effectively.

I think the characteristic of 360˚ feedback systems that most undermines development and reaching true feedback is anonymity. I understand the intention behind creating a safe mechanism for saying what you really think, but, honestly, I think that’s the easy way out and it undermines the receiver’s ability to really use the information.  To me, feedback should be a two way conversation, a dialogue not only about one person’s performance, but a mutual ownership of the working relationship and how you can work together to be more effective.

I guess my opinion is a weird blend of scepticism and idealism.  I’m sceptical of anonymous feedback, perhaps because I’ve never received anything truly valuable for my development in that fashion.  However, I believe that people can work towards having real dialogue about performance, regardless of their working relationship.

What I’m really curious to hear about is what others have done to create an environment in which people feel safe providing true feedback or about your organization’s amazing (or not) 360 degree feedback systems.

Krysty Wideen is a learning and organizational development consultant with The Refinery Leadership Partners, based in Vancouver. Failing to leave her day job at work, she often finds herself relating every day, commonplace observations and activities to insights about leadership, business, human resources, and anything, really. Now she has a place to share her observations and insights.


6 Responses

  1. I am with you on your beef about anonymous 360 feedback systems. It sound great in theory, but in practice, I don’t believe it adds much value to the performance management process (and that is after implementing and administering 360 processes in two organizations). In fact, if you dig into the research, you will find that there is very little evidence that 360 feedback systems positively affect organizational outcomes or employee performance.

    And doesn’t a feedback process which requires secrecy risk damaging healthy working relationships, especially between employees and their supervisors?
    Those real dialogues about performance that you mentioned, need to take place in a culture of trust and openness. How we get there is the on-going struggle…

  2. In my experience with designing and implementing 360 reviews in two companies, anonymity (or the form, the questions, the competencies, the amount of time you get to complete reviews, etc. etc. for that matter) has nothing to do with the value of 360 feedback. The only factor that impacts this is each Reviewer’s commitment to providing quality feedback. I used to get so many gripes about a person’s review not providing good information and I always thought that if we all just concentrated on applying the few simple rules around giving good, constructive, valuable feedback, then we’d all get just that on our own reviews. I can honestly say that once the organization “got it”, the value of the reviews increased exponentially. Learning how to give good feedback is a skill and at first, people are on the steep part of the learning curve. Through experience, examples, and a commitment to constantly trying to get better, we all move up that curve to a place where we’re pretty good at it. If we expect this improvement and hold ourselves accountable first and foremost, everyone benefits.

  3. Thank you Amber and Cindy for your comments! I have to say I agree with your additions to the discussion.

    In response to your point, Amber, I think that when people don’t take for granted that the 360 process will just figure itself out and they actively engage people in the feedback process, helping them give feedback effectively, this will increase the value of any process.

    And thank you, Cindy, for bringing in the point that it can be not only pointless, but actually detrimental to relationships when this process is not done right. It can damage relationships and prevent people from having the face-to-face discussions they need.

  4. I want to share some excellent points that were made on my facebook profile when I posted the link to this blog (paraphrased):

    1. It can be frustrating when you are asked to fill in 360 feedback reports for many people at the same time. This can often lead to reports that don’t have a lot of substance because we simply don’t have time.

    2. People may be asked to provide feedback to someone they don’t really work with a lot, in the hopes of getting a different perspective – but how much of a perspective do you really have when you rarely work with someone?

    3. For example, in the university system, you have to fill in reviews for your professors at the end of the semester. Most people either are ambivalent and fill in everything as “fine” or they are angry about their mark and fill in everything as if the professor was horrible. The lack of accountability discounts the credibility of the data.

    4. Related to the above post, it can be especially troublesome when something like this is used as a basis for firing someone (which people have seen happen).

    I haven’t really heard any stories of great 360 feedback. Can anyone help our discussion?

  5. I’m so sad to hear that most people’s experiences with 360 Reviews have been disappointing. I’ve had the good fortune to work with 360 processes in two companies that I would say were very successful. By no means were they perfect nor without challenges but at the end of the day I believe the process added value and more importantly, the employees believed it did. And while it wasn’t perfect, most people acknowledged that it was still better than the alternatives. It really took a great commitment from the organization and employees alike to make it what it was and it was.

  6. I’m glad to hear you had a good experience, Amber!

    How was this commitment to making it work encouraged?

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