360 Degree Feedback: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

What is 360 Degree Feedback?

360 Degree Feedback is best given in person but most organizations keep it confidential and in writing.
Yuri_Arcurs / Getty Images

Want to make people happy? Anxious? Care to create an uproar in your organization? Want to stir up all of the dormant fear hidden just below the surface in your organization? I know--you think I’m talking about laying off half your staff, right?

Wrong. I'm talking about organizations that do a poor job of introducing and implementing 360 degree or multi-rater feedback. Indeed, I’m also talking about organizations that do a good job of introducing 360 degree feedback.

Nothing raises hackles as fiercely as a change in performance feedback methods, especially when they affect compensation decisions.

What Is 360 Degree Feedback?

360 degree feedback is a method and a tool that provides each employee the opportunity to receive performance feedback from his or her supervisor and four to eight peers, reporting staff members, coworkers and customers. Most 360 degree feedback tools are also responded to by each individual in a self-assessment.

360 degree feedback allows each individual to understand how his effectiveness as an employee, coworker or staff member is viewed by others. The most effective 360 degree feedback processes provide feedback that is based on behaviors that other employees can see.

The feedback provides insight about the skills and behaviors desired in the organization to accomplish the mission, vision, and goals and live the values. The feedback is firmly planted in behaviors needed to exceed customer expectations.

People who are chosen as raters, usually selections shared by the organization and employee, generally interact routinely with the person receiving feedback.

The purpose of the 360 degree feedback is to assist each individual to understand his strengths and weaknesses, and to contribute insights into aspects of his work needing professional development.

Debates of all kinds are raging in the world of organizations about how to:

  • Select the feedback tool and process
  • Choose the raters
  • Use the feedback
  • Review the feedback
  • Manage and integrate the process into a larger performance management system

360 degree feedback is a positive addition to your performance management system when implemented with care and training to enable people to better serve customers and develop their own careers. However, if you approach it haphazardly because everyone else is doing it, 360 feedback will create a disaster requiring months and possibly years to recover.

Now that you know what 360 degree feedback is, learn about the good side of 360 degree feedback.

Pros of 360 Degree Feedback

360 degree feedback has many positive aspects and many proponents. The 1999 State of the Industry Report, from the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), reviewed the training practices of more than 750 firms. Fifty-five firms, described by ASTD as leading edge in their training approaches, rely heavily on employee feedback, including 360 degree feedback and peer review, for individual development plans and annual performance reviews.

According to ASTD, 75 percent of these companies provided individual development plans, and 33 percent  provided 360 degree feedback for most of their employees in 1998, compared to 50 percent and 10 percent  in 1997.

Organizations that are happy with the 360 degree component of their performance management systems identify these positive features of the process that manifest in a well-managed, well-integrated 360 degree feedback processes.

  • Improved Feedback From More Sources: This method provides well-rounded feedback from peers, reporting staff, coworkers and supervisors and can be a definite improvement over feedback from a single individual. 360 feedback can also save managers’ time in that they can spend less energy providing feedback as more people participate in the process. Coworker perception is important and the process helps people understand how other employees view their work.
  • Team Development: This feedback approach helps team members learn to work more effectively together. (Teams know more about how team members are performing than their supervisor.) Multi-rater feedback makes team members more accountable to each other as they share the knowledge that they will provide input on each members’ performance. A well-planned process can improve communication and team development.
  • Personal and Organizational Performance Development: 360 degree feedback is one of the best methods for understanding personal and organizational developmental needs.
  • Responsibility for Career Development: For many reasons, organizations are no longer responsible for developing the careers of their employees, if they ever were. Multi-rater feedback can provide excellent information to an individual about what she needs to do to enhance her career.

    Additionally, many employees feel 360 degree feedback is more accurate, more reflective of their performance, and more validating than feedback from a supervisor alone. This makes the information more useful for both career and personal development.
  • Reduced Discrimination Risk: When feedback comes from a number of individuals in various job functions, discrimination because of race, age or gender is reduced. The "horns and halo" effect, in which a supervisor rates performance based on her most recent interactions with the employee, is also minimized.
  • Improved Customer Service: Each person receives valuable feedback about the quality of his product or services, especially in feedback processes that involve the internal or external customer. This feedback should enable the individual to improve the quality, reliability, promptness,and comprehensiveness of these products and services.
  • Training Needs Assessment: 360 degree feedback provides comprehensive information about organization training needs and thus allows planning for classes, cross-functional responsibilities and cross-training.

A 360 degree feedback system does have a good side. However, 360 degree feedback also has a bad side - even an ugly side.

Downside to 360 Degree Feedback

For every positive point I just made about 360 degree feedback systems, detractors can offer the down side. The down side is important because it gives you a road map of what to avoid when you implement a 360 feedback process.

The following are potential problems with 360 degree feedback processes and a recommended solution for each.

  • Exceptional Expectations for the Process: 360 degree feedback is not the same as a performance management system. It is merely a part of the feedback and development that a performance management system offers within an organization.

    Additionally, proponents may lead participants to expect too much from this feedback system in their efforts to obtain organizational support for implementation. Make sure the 360 feedback is integrated into a complete performance management system.
  • Design Process Downfalls: Often, a 360 degree feedback process arrives as a recommendation from the HR department or is shepherded in by an executive who learned about the process at a seminar or in a book. Just as an organization implements any planned change, the implementation of 360 degree feedback should follow effective change management guidelines. A cross-section of the people who will have to live with and utilize the process should explore and develop the process for your organization.
  • Failure to Connect the Process: For a 360 feedback process to work, it must be connected with the overall strategic aims of your organization. If you have identified competencies or have comprehensive job descriptions, give people feedback on their performance of the expected competencies and job duties.

    The system will fail if it is an add-on rather than a supporter of your organization’s fundamental direction and requirements. It must function as a measure of your accomplishment of your organization’s big and long-term picture.
  • Insufficient Information: Since 360 degree feedback processes are currently usually anonymous, people receiving feedback have no recourse if they want to further understand the feedback. They have no one to ask for clarification about unclear comments or for more information about particular ratings and their basis.

    Thus, developing 360 process coaches is important. Supervisors, HR staff people, interested managers and others are taught to assist people to understand their feedback and trained to help people develop action plans based upon the feedback.
  • Focus on Negatives and Weaknesses: At least one book, First Break All the Rules: What The World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, advises that great managers focus on employee strengths, not weaknesses. The authors said, "People don't change that much. Don't waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough."
  • Rater Inexperience and Ineffectiveness: In addition to the insufficient training organizations provide both people receiving feedback and people providing feedback, there are numerous ways raters go wrong. They may inflate ratings to make an employee look good. They may deflate ratings to make an individual look bad. They may informally band together to make the system artificially inflate everyone’s performance. Checks and balances must exist to prevent these pitfalls.
  • Paperwork/Computer Data Entry Overload: Need I say more? Traditional evaluations required two people and one form. Multi-rater feedback ups the sheer number of people participating in the process and the subsequent time invested.

There are negatives with the 360 degree feedback processes, but with any performance feedback process, it can can increase positive, powerful problem solving and provide you with a profoundly supportive, organization-affirming method for promoting employee growth and development.

However, in the worst case, it saps morale, destroys motivation, and enables disenfranchised employees to go for the jugular or plot revenge scenarios who rated their performance less than perfect.

Which scenario will your organization choose? It’s all in the details. Think profoundly before you move forward, learn from the mistakes of others and assess your organization’s readiness. Apply effective change management strategies to planning and implementation. Do the right things right and you will add a powerful tool to your performance management and enhancement toolkit.