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360 degree feedback has been around for some time now. You know it’s reached the level of common management practice when it gets featured in Dilbert cartoons and “The Office” episodes.
In case you haven’t gone through the process, here’s how it works. Your boss, your direct reports, and your peers give you feedback on what are your strengths and weaknesses (or “developmental needs” or “opportunities”). Therefore, you get feedback from everyone around you who knows you well — hence, you’re hearing it from 360 degrees around you.
When it’s done well, 360 programs allow all your team members to improve in key areas that might be limiting their upward career path or actually causing major conflict within a team. When it’s done poorly, 360 programs create mistrust, anger, conflict and can leave a team with lower morale than when you started the exercise.
Why 360 Programs Fail:
- The Boss doesn’t get involved or discounts the program’s importance. 360 programs that get driven by HR without much attention from the boss are not effective. Whatever the boss gives importance to gets the attention of his/her reports. The boss has to be a believer that this stuff helps the team.
- The 360 tool/questions are too vague. A lot of 360 programs consist only of personality profiles. “Are you an ESTJ or an INFP?” “Are you a red or blue color?” It’s amazing how popular personality profiles have become. Some people get to be “true believers” in them. However, if that’s the extent of your 360 questionnaire, you’re likely going to have a hard time translating your team’s profiles into specific and measureable actions. Make sure that the tool you select is going to give back actionable information.
- People offer comments that are personal in nature rather than constructive. Some people have had really bad 360 experiences. These are usually what gets depicted in Dilbert and they usually turn people off on the process going forward. This is a shame. You’ve got to ensure that everyone understands the purpose of the exercise is to be constructive, not personal. Don’t say anything to others that you wouldn’t mind being on the receiving end of (assuming it’s true).
- No plan is set following receiving the feedback. 360 data is only helpful to the extent that it gets acted upon and used. The majority of programs we see simply give the feedback and then it gets swiftly forgotten. No plan = no change in behavior.
- If there is a follow-up post-360 plan, it happens only once. If companies do follow up on the 360 results, it’s usually only once. However, behavioral change is hard and takes several reminders. You need to revisit a post-360 plan periodically. You need to do it quarterly for two years (at which time, it’s appropriate to recirculate the same 360s again to see how perceptions have changed).
- Lack of confidentiality. People who have never gone through the 360 process before are usually initially worried about how the data will be used and if it will remain confidential. You need to ensure you assure them up-front that it is a confidential process and won’t come back to haunt them at performance review time. However, in many of our clients, they ask us to play the role of “coaching” the people through the two-year quarterly follow-ups instead of internal HR people because (1) internal HR is usually busy with other stuff anyway and (2) their people seem more comfortable opening up to an external coach during a two-year follow-up period about how they’re progressing on their plan, rather than an internal HR person.
- Forgetting the strengths and only focusing on weaknesses. Some companies totally disregard the strengths that get uncovered in the 360 process. The attitude seems to be, “we’ve got to locate your weaknesses and obliterate them.” Type A execs feed on this and usually want to zero in on their weaknesses and also tend to forget about their strengths. The reality is that your strengths are what got you to where you are in your career. Work on your weaknesses but never stop relying on your strengths.
If you do the opposite of the points made above, you’re well on your way to making the experience a positive one and, more importantly, one that will actually help each person on your team and the team as a whole. When 360s are done poorly, they can be a disaster; however, when they’re done well, they can be a major part of driving accelerated growth for a team and an organization.