I was in a discussion with a senior person at a large legal firm, who mentioned that they had used 360 feedback assessments throughout the organisation, in an attempt to improve leadership, management and overall organisational effectiveness.
I immediately raised two of my key problems with 360s:
- In a highly charged political environment (as many law firms are), who is going to give accurate or appropriate feedback? Juniors will be looking at those negative ratings and know that when the results get back to their senior, that the senior will go on the lookout for those who had ‘betrayed’ them, will find out and will eventually dispense punishment and seek retribution.
- 360s only tell you what you are already looking for. 360s are usually a list of predetermined attributes or behaviours – all totally subjective, of course – that someone in HR or an HR company has decided are the necessary traits of good supervision and management. Rarely do they adequately address the real drivers of success and even more rarely are they based upon behaviours and traits that have been identified over time to be critical to success within that organisation.
This senior leader nodded in absolute agreement. The 360s really had not been effective for these reasons and more. Despite the use of 360s and other processes, only a small amount of change had occurred at the firm.
Nothing much may change at your organisation through the use of 360s. Worse, with an indiscriminate use, much damage can occur.
360 feedback has now become a standard response to staff development – “Let’s do 360s!” – without adequate consideration of the dangers and specific potential rewards.
In addition to the above, what are some potential drawbacks of using 360s?
- The political climate can heat up, not cool down. I was working with an organisation where I saw the senior leadership turn around and berate staff and begin to hunt down “perpetrators” once negative feedback came their way.
- A ‘rating’ of your performance in an area you thought was a strength – based merely on a subordinate’s subjective opinion – can be demoralising. I’ve seen leaders whine and cry because they received negative feedback.
- All of the indicators required for true performance improvement can be lacking from the tool.
- Without appropriate support or follow-up, the whole exercise can raise and dash expectations in one fell swoop. How often have you seen people who are difficult change because they received negative ratings on a survey? This kind of outcome breeds greater cynicism amongst staff and turns the 360s into the annual “Let’s just get HR off our back with 4s and 5s (I’ll find a better job somewhere else rather than put up with this place).”
- What are you really going to do with that senior partner who turns out in the first place to be absolutely horrible according to the feedback? And why didn’t you know that in the first place?
- What about groups that merely “have it in” for someone who’s actually made positive changes or doesn’t cave in to the crowd? This can be a tremendous problem in entrenched bureaucracies and where cliques abound.
- Many who may have legitimate feedback may not give it for concern of how the information may be used. Despite the promise of anonymity, a deputy may not want to give copious (and spot-on) feedback about their senior, knowing that they will be immediately identifiable and that this may cause unnecessary friction or other potential problems – especially when the senior is the one giving the references when other firms come calling.
- How many more do I need to mention?
Does that mean that there is no place for the 360? Of course there is. For individuals who are positive and open to the feedback it can be an enlightening experience. They can also provide tremendous data (intelligence) when investigating organisations, positions and individuals. But in general 360s should be a measured part of one’s overall assessment and should be very sparingly used in troubled environments.
The reality is, asking for frank, holistic feedback from others is actually very courageous. If you want people whom you trust to tell you what you’re like, ask them; face-to-face if possible. For high quality feedback, you can also use a third party who knows how to inquire with people and clues to look for in seeking feedback. To do it solo, there must be these minimum conditions:
- There must be a mutually trusting relationship.
- There must absolutely be no negative repercussions towards the person making any negative comments/ratings or points.
- There should be allowance to inquire further and clarify, but the person giving their feedback must be allowed to have their say without interruption.
- There must not be condemnation or blame reflected back towards the person providing the feedback.
The best way for you to personally gain feedback is not with an holistic, “here’s everything you can possibly ‘have a go at me for’” assessment, but to simply be open to others coming to you when they have a specific problem, accommodating that and reasonably discussing it and to ask – specifically – for feedback related to a specific event, incident, period or quality.
In other posts I will discuss other assessment methods – reliable self-ratings, third party feedback processes, observations, true outcomes and other qualitative methods. In the meantime, be careful with those 360s.
What experiences have you had – either positive or negative – with 360s?