The Advantages and Disadvantages of a "360" Feedback Process

Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR

Every Human Resource practitioner I talk with agrees with me on one thing: there is no such thing as a perfect feedback instrument and process. However, the "360" process, when planned and executed well, comes pretty close.

I've worked with organizations using this process for 12 years and observed some wonderful advantages to the "360" process… and some pitfalls. I'd like to share both in this article.

First, I want to clarify what I mean when I refer to the term, "360" feedback. This is a process in which an employee or manager receives feedback about his or her competencies from peers, supervisors, direct reports, and internal and external customers. It's a complete picture of the impact one has on those with whom he or she interacts on a frequent basis. Many companies use a "180" feedback process instead, which allows for feedback from peers, the supervisor, and direct reports (if applicable).

Advantages to the "360" Process

Let's face it: a supervisor can't be there to observe all the interactions, strengths, and opportunities for improvement for direct reports, especially if the span of control is wide. So why should we expect the supervisor to be the only person to provide performance feedback? We shouldn't.

A major advantage to the "360" process is that it provides an opportunity for all those people with whom a person comes into frequent contact to offer feedback. A caveat here is that the raters should be people that truly have observed an employee or manager on a frequent basis. It's not fair to ask people for input that haven't had a chance to observe someone's skills, talents, and abilities on a regular basis.

When feedback comes from many sources, it's more difficult for a person to brush aside constructive criticism and rationalize that "the boss just has it in for me". If several people suggest that a manager needs to improve verbal communication skills, chances are high that this is indeed a necessary area for improvement.

Another advantage of the "360" process is that it is designed with a customer focus in mind. The customers can be internal or external. Unfortunately, it's difficult for some employees to understand the impact their daily activities have on other individuals or departments within the company. However, if they receive direct and frequent feedback on how their behaviors affect others, employees are more likely to be attentive to deadlines and quality requirements. They learn how to make their company look good, not just themselves.

I recommend that "360" performance evaluations are coupled with competency-based job descriptions. When this occurs, an employee or manager is recruited based on core competencies for his or her position AND evaluated on those same competencies. In HR, we often hear this complaint: "My performance evaluation is not even remotely connected to my job description." There should be a direct connection, and the "360" process can assure this happens. The core competencies, by the way, should be supportive of the company's strategic objectives. In deriving these competencies, the company's leadership must ask, "what skills, knowledge, and behaviors do we need across the organization to meet the challenges of our mission and vision"?

The "360" evaluation is particularly strong when coupled with an action plan developed by the person receiving feedback and shared with those who provided the feedback. This action plan demonstrates that the feedback was heard and that, assuming suggestions are reasonable, will be put to use as soon as possible.

Pitfalls in the "360" Process

If you've tried the "360" process in your company without success, it may be for some of the following reasons.

If allowed to do so, people might be tempted to ask their friends in the company to be the ones who receive feedback instruments. This would definitely tip the scales in their favor and help ensure that no negative comments are made. The process must be carefully designed to minimize the possibility that this handpicking doesn't occur. I recommend that each person receiving feedback send the instrument to at least 10 people, and these people must be those with whom they interact on a frequent basis. Even if some of those people could possibly offer negative comments.

One significant pitfall I've observed is when companies send out "360" evaluations to raters without advance notice or information about how to use the instrument. When an organization decides to implement a "360" review process, two sets of employees and managers must be trained on how to effectively use the process: those receiving feedback and those offering feedback. Training should also include objectives of the process and the impact on the organization.

I strongly recommend that each person receiving feedback, especially for the first time in this process, has a coach to help assess the comments and ratings and to develop an action plan. The coach could be the same person who compiles the results and should be an external consultant or internal consultant from Human Resources. By the way, I also recommend that the instruments are anonymous and are sent directly to the person compiling the results. The person receiving the feedback should not see the instruments.

A Few Closing Thoughts

The "360" performance review process can be comprehensive, positive, and effective if time is devoted on the front end to design the process for maximum impact. The time is well worth taking.

Regardless of the type of performance management process your organization employs, I hope you'll give serious consideration to developing companion competency-based job descriptions and evaluations. When competencies (or behaviors) are used, employees have a more concrete understanding of exactly why they aren't meeting job requirements and what areas they need to improve upon to be successful in their work.

If you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to contact me at Lgravett@aol.com.

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