Using 360 Degree Feedback Mechanisms
You can harness their power and utility by following these seven best practices.
- By Francie Dalton
- Jul 01, 2005
IMPLEMENTING a 360-degree review process will either be a destructive and
devastating experience or a developmental epiphany for those involved, depending
entirely on how the process is structured. This article focuses on the seven
reasons why 360s fail and provides best practice solutions for each.
Let's begin with a definition of the instrument. A 360 degree feedback
mechanism is a questionnaire that captures perceptions of key internal audiences
(superiors, peers, subordinates) regarding the quality of an individual's
leadership and management characteristics and compares those perceptions to the
individual's self-view. Inaugural 360s should include senior executives and
should subsequently be limited to those who supervise others. Because a 360 is
not intended to assess one's job performance, it is not a substitute for the
performance review process.
Before undertaking a 360 degree feedback initiative, assess your level of
commitment to using the best practices described below in avoiding the
* Failure to sub out the process. Anonymity is absolutely crucial to a
successful 360 process. Hosting 360s on internal computers simply cannot provide
the necessary assurances. True or false, the perception of internally hosted
360s is that selected individuals within the organization know everyone's scores
and know who said what about whom. This erodes credibility at the highest levels
and generates distrust.
Best practice: Avoid these unnecessary distractions by choosing a
qualified consultant to host your 360. Ensure your consultant can provide online
instrumentation, has a strong background in facilitating senior executive work
sessions, and has a successful track record of executive coaching.
* Failure to customize the questionnaire. Successful executives
rightly resent being measured against generic criteria that don't reflect
organizational uniqueness. The questions that will accurately assess, for
example, one's ability to lead others in a hospital setting are quite different
from the questions that will accurately assess one's ability to lead others in a
Best practice: Your consultant should collaborate with your senior
executives to establish and define the dimensions of excellence for leadership
and management in your firm. Based on this input, the consultant designs a
well-structured questionnaire that is customized exclusively to your
organizational culture. Because those who'll be evaluated by the mechanism have
input into its construction, greater receptivity to the process is secured,
greater validity is imputed to the results, and commitment to improve is easier
* Failure to properly introduce the process. It's not enough to
explain the 360 process only to those who'll be 360ed. The rest of the
organization, from which respondents will be selected, should be briefed, as
Best practice: The CEO should conduct all-staff meetings to explain
why the process is being inaugurated and how anonymity will be protected. The
CEO should also inspire staff esteem for the courage and emotional maturity
requisite of those who'll be going through the process, asking that staff
provide constructive but honest feedback.
* Failure to allow the "first time" to be self-directed. Some
organizations require that the results of one's first 360 be shared with one's
supervisor. Attendant to this decision are implications for one's overall
performance review rating and compensation. This potentially punitive use of
one's initial 360 is anything but constructive; it's intimidating and generates
fear around the whole process.
Best practice: The first time one is 360ed, the results should be
confidential, known only to the consultant and the individual, who meet monthly
to develop and review action plans to remediate undesirable scores.
Accountability for improvement is achieved when the second 360 is administered,
and those results are shared with the supervisor. Because the perceptions of
others take time to change, the second 360 should not be done until 18 to 24
months after the first. What can be shared with the supervisor regarding the
first set of results is a Composite Report, which combines the scores of all
those 360ed without revealing the identity of individuals. Composite reports can
reveal shared characteristics of teams or departments, which can form the basis
for the targeted improvements of groups. Additionally, those 360ed can compare
their individual results to the composite results to see how their scores affect
* Failure to provide follow-up coaching. Undergoing a 360 degree
review is a fairly intense process. Indeed, the scope and depth of scrutiny
imposed by a 360 are available through no other workplace experience. Delivering
the results without providing any supportive follow-up is irresponsible and
Best practice: After delivering an individual's 360 results, the
consulting coach should immediately secure a date for a second meeting.
Assignments between meetings with the coach are typical, with the first
assignment being the prioritization of undesirable scores. Future coaching
sessions focus on facilitating the development of and monitoring the progress of
meaningful action plans targeted at improving prioritized scores.
* Failure to control respondent selection and anonymity. Because
respondent selection can significantly skew results, choosing respondent pools
shouldn't be left to either the organization or the individual being 360ed.
Additionally, respondents will be understandably concerned that their inputs not
Best practice: Three respondents in each rating population is the
minimum number required to protect anonymity. Those to be 360ed (perhaps in
collaboration with relevant internal colleagues) should identify at least five
people in each respondent population (five superiors, five peers, and five
subordinates) from which the consultant then randomly selects three. For
purposes of a 360, these need not be direct reporting relationships; instead, a
"superior" respondent can be anyone hierarchically superior to the individual to
be 360ed who works closely enough with that individual to be able to respond to
the questions. Similarly, a "subordinate" need not be a direct report of the
individual to be 360ed; they'd just have to have worked together closely enough
for the subordinate to be able to respond to the questions. (Some organizations
allow four respondents in each category, in which case those to be 360ed must
identify at least six in each respondent population, from which the consultant
then randomly selects four.) Narrative comments must be aggressively sanitized
to eliminate any chance of attribution.
* Failure to deploy a second 360. Seasoned consultants aren't
unfamiliar with CEOs' reneging on the second round of 360s. The "new initiative"
has become "old hat" and the CEO is no longer enamored; those who dislike the
process (usually those whose scores were particularly low) lobby the CEO to
abandon further efforts; and the constant pressure to distribute scarce
resources among competing priorities are all reasons that imperil the critically
important second round.
Best practice: The best way to ensure the second 360 is completed on
schedule is to include it in the initial contract, with a substantial penalty
clause for abandonment. This may sound harsh, but avoidance of the following
negative consequences provides more than adequate justification for such a step:
(1) Without supervisory review of the second 360, accountability for improvement
by those who participated in the process cannot be meaningfully imposed, so the
entire initiative won't be taken seriously; (2) Absent the second 360, those who
worked diligently to improve their scores won't have visibility into the results
of their efforts, so they'll be left with uncertainty and lack of closure; (3)
Respondents who labored to provide thoughtful input will believe their opinions
never really mattered in the first place.
In conclusion, the 360 is the only tool that provides quantitative and
qualitative evidence of the causal link between management behavior and business
outcomes. If we agree that managerial behavior significantly affects
productivity, employee attitudes, morale, retention, teamsmanship, and therefore
the quality of customer interaction and overall business results, then we must
exert the same level of scrutiny upon behavior as is traditionally imposed upon
Unless and until management is willing to exert that level of scrutiny, the
impact of management behaviors on organizational performance will not be
measurable and will therefore remain invisible, free to impede business results
This column appears in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health &
This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.