Why traditional leadership 360 programs fail

Leadership 360-degree surveys (where the leader gets feedback on their effectiveness from a range of different co-workers and stakeholders) are increasingly popular tools used by organisations to help leaders build self-awareness and improve their performance.

In theory, they should be an excellent way to develop leaders as they provide opportunity to build self-awareness, overcome ‘blind spots’ and provide a strong diagnostic check to guide the leader’s development. However, the reality is very different; the vast majority of these kinds of tools create little value for leaders, are often seen as a waste of time by those involved and in some cases, actually undermine the confidence and morale of the company’s leaders. Many of the problems stem from the following four shortcomings:

They assume leaders need to be well-rounded

Peter Drucker, the father of management, stated that if you get the assumptions wrong, then everything that flows from them is wrong. And that’s exactly the mistake companies have made as they assume that all leaders should be doing exactly the same thing using the same strengths to achieve peak performance. Research shows that this is flawed thinking and that effective leaders typically have a unique set of strengths that they use in very different ways to achieve their results. Of course, there are some common behavioural patterns or habits that leaders can learn and develop such as setting a clear vision, however, we shouldn’t expect them to be equally good at everything, in the same way that we should expect a midfielder in football to also be a great goal-keeper.

Leadership 360-degree surveys are cumbersome to complete and prone to rater error

Many 360’s take a long time to complete and if you happen to be the unlucky senior manager who is providing input on half a dozen or so direct reports, you could be looking at up to 4-5 hours just to complete the online questionnaires. This not only wastes valuable leadership time, but also impacts the overall accuracy of the results, as raters often get bored and don’t use the full range of rating options provided, they simply rate in the middle because it’s easy and faster that way.

Narrow definition of effectiveness

Effective leadership is much more than a set of standardized behaviours, yet the vast majority of 360 surveys measure only leadership behaviours or competencies. They don’t provide insight into the values, strengths and drives underpinning the behaviour, nor do they measure the outcomes of the behaviour. In this regard, they offer the leader an incomplete picture of their performance and how to strengthen this.

Leadership 360-degree surveys focus on weaknesses

Most 360 surveys are aimed at identifying gaps and flaws in behaviour. Of course, strengths and successes are included, but the design of the questionnaire and debrief process focuses on the problems and weaker areas. This heightens the likelihood that the person going through the process will be more guarded and defensive which undermines the chance that the feedback will be accepted and acted upon.

We have explored solutions to overcome these problems for years, as unlike some management gurus and writers like Marcus Buckingham (The Fatal Flaw with 360 Surveys), we do see significant value in inviting feedback from multiple stakeholders as part of a leaders’ development planning process. This research has culminated in us designing an innovative strengths-based 360 profiler called StrengthscopeLeader™, which addresses the challenges outlined above. It accepts the natural ‘spikiness’ of leaders in terms of their strengths and weaker areas, is straightforward to complete, and measures the leaders underlying strengths and the outcomes they achieve, as well as four critical areas of behaviour based on decades of research into effective leadership. We are not suggesting that this profiler will resolve all the problems associated with 360 surveys, however, our clients tell us that this is a refreshingly different way of approaching these valuable leadership surveys.

James Brook, Joint Managing Director, Strengths Partnership