What is 360 degree feedback?
Usually, the idea is that you get views on your performance and contribution at work from your seniors, your peers and your juniors. Hence, a 360 degree, all-round view. This can be done in a variety of ways, but in most organisations with a 360 degree feedback process in place, it will be managed through a computer-based platform of some sort and as a feedback recipient, you ask selected individuals to participate. For feedback providers, you are asked a series of questions about the performance of the feedback recipient and you may need to rate them and/or provide free form comments.
Does 360 degree feedback work?
When it comes to 360 degree feedback in the workplace, most people believe that…well…that it works. That it’s actually bringing benefit to people because it’s helping them shine a light on areas that they could improve, that they could build on. It gives them helpful information over time so that they can track progress.
But we’ve all come across stories of 360 degree feedback causing problems. Perhaps mistrust around how the 360 degree information is being used. Or tales of a leadership team falling out because of the way that a 360 degree feedback process was so badly handled. So in today’s episode, I want to explore the evidence for 360 degree feedback and the evidence against.
Then I want to give you some top tips on how to get the best from 360 degree feedback when you’re the feedback recipient and also how to get the best from your feedback process as an organisation. So let’s start with the evidence. First – the good.
The good – positive evidence about 360 degree feedback
Smither and his colleagues (2005) ran a meta-analysis (that’s a study of lots of different studies) of 26 longitudinal studies of multi-rater feedback. Their findings showed significant performance improvements overall for feedback recipients. They also found that improvement is most likely to occur when the feedback is that the recipient needs to change, that recipients have a positive feedback orientation, that they perceive a need to change their behaviour, that they believe change is feasible, and that they actually take action that lead to skill and performance improvement.
I mean, I know that’s kind of obvious, but it’s important stuff – doing 360 degree feedback per se may not change anything. You’ve got to have the right attitude and do something with it!
At around the same time, a study by London Business School found that 360-degree feedback improved both individual and team performance, and that these improvements led to positive business outcomes such as increased sales revenue, reduced costs, and improved customer satisfaction (Waldman et al, 2004).
So this is pretty good. Overall, this research is telling us that there is a positive link between the use of 360-degree feedback and improved business performance. However, it’s worth noting that the specific outcomes may depend on factors like how well the feedback is implemented, the culture of the organisation, and how well-prepared it is to introduce a 360 degree feedback process, as well as finally the goals of the feedback process (whether the feedback is being used largely for development, or more for performance assessment).
But/and…I haven’t yet given you the full picture. Let’s move on to some of the evidence against 360 degree feedback working.
The bad – negative evidence about 360 degree feedback
It’s an old study but Kluger and DeNisi (1996) found in their meta-analysis of over 3,000 studies on performance feedback that although feedback interventions generally helped, actually one third of all studies showed performance declines. The authors speculated that performance feedback sometimes led to performance declines because people ended up feeling hurt, disengaged or emotionally upset.
A more recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2016 found that the use of 360-degree feedback was associated with increased stress and burnout among employees, particularly when the feedback was used for performance evaluation rather than development purposes (Gomez-Mejia et al, 2016).
So it’s not all positive – sometimes, 360 degree feedback doesn’t work as intended. Looking more closely at the research, negative outcomes like these are often the result of poor implementation, misunderstanding or flat out misuse of the feedback process.
A word about strengths-based 360 degree feedback
Let’s talk about strengths for a minute. There aren’t so many strengths-based 360 degree feedback processes or tools that I’m aware of out there. I know that we have one – Strengthscope360 – which has been around since 2008…as far as I know making it the world’s first strengths-based online 360 tool (despite what some other organisations may claim). And there are a couple of others out there too. But why choose a strengths-based 360 tool over a more traditional skill or competency-based tool?
In my experience, traditional 360 degree feedback can be quite difficult to take on board. In general, feedback providers are being asked to give ratings and supporting evidence of where they’ve seen shortfalls in performance in areas of expected skill and competence associated with a job role.
Strengths-based 360s don’t do that. They’re person-centred. With Strengthscope360, your Top 7 strengths (those qualities which you enjoy using and which energise you) are presented to your raters and they are asked to say whether they see each strength and how skilfully they think you’re using it. Which means rather than reading through a list of where you’re falling short, or people’s judgements of whether or not you’re reaching an expected level of competence, you’re actually given information as to whether people feel you could or should make your strengths more visible and/or whether you could use them more effectively. So it becomes more likely that people will accept and do something with that type of feedback because it’s about those aspects of their behaviour that they enjoy using the most.
But enough about strengths-based 360 degree feedback. I want to give you some top tips for getting the most from 360 feedback as a feedback recipient and as an organisation implementing a 360 degree feedback process.
Getting the most from a 360 degree feedback process as a feedback recipient
To get the most from a 360 degree feedback process as a feedback recipient, I have 3 top tips…
- Choose your feedback providers wisely – ideally, you’ll choose people who work pretty closely with you and who have a good view of you day to day. Also, picking people who can give you a balanced perspective, i.e. some positive and some constructive feedback, will be most helpful from a development point of view.
- Don’t always expect improvement – there’s a risk that you may expect the feedback you get to always be ‘improving’ over time. But honestly, whenever you gather 360 degree feedback, it’s at a particular point in time and that point in time can be affected by all sorts of factors. So give up the idea that your feedback should only ever be on an upward trajectory. Your role will change, the challenges you face will change, your raters will change. Feedback of all flavours is always all helpful, just take it for what it is, at that point in time.
- Take it seriously but don’t take it personally – my advice on feedback is not to push it away or find reasons why people may have said things that you can explain away. Take it seriously, read it carefully and reflect on what you’ve understood. Talk to other people about it, if it helps to have a sounding board. And then, choose what you’re going to do by way of development.
Getting the most from a 360 degree feedback process as an organisation
Moving on to getting the most from a 360 degree feedback process as an organisation, here’s 3 more top tips…
- Use a tool that’s fit for purpose – pick a tool that’s right for you and your organisation. One that’s tailorable if that’s what you need, that is pitched at the right level for your organisation’s level of feedback-readiness. Pick a strengths-based 360 degree feedback tool if you feel that’s more likely to open people up to receiving feedback and doing something meaningful with it.
- Use 360-degree feedback for development and not for performance evaluation – one of the main research findings for when 360 degree feedback doesn’t work out, is when it is used in a high stakes context, i.e. to make decisions about potential, pay or promotion. This is not a good idea. It opens the process up to bias, misuse and distrust and can lead to negative outcomes, according to the research.
- Provide support to feedback recipients – crucially…and sadly this is underdone in most organisations…feedback recipients should be given the opportunity to talk to someone about their feedback in a psychologically safe forum, where they can explore what it means and what they want to do about it. That could be with their line manager and ideally it will be in most organisations but if this is to be a safe space for people, the line managers need to be trained on how to do it well.
In conclusion – 360 degree feedback can be beneficial but you have to do the work to get there
From the research we’ve explored and from the experience that we’ve had in many organisations using 360 degree feedback, it’s certainly true that the approach can have significant individual and business benefits. But it needs to be carefully introduced, professionally managed and ideally evaluated for the business benefits its bringing. I hope you’ve found today’s episode helpful. Till next time, stay strong.
Gomez-Mejia, L. R., Balkin, D. B., & Cardy, R. L. (2016). Managing human resources. Pearson Education.
Kluger, A.N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 254-284
Smither, J. W., London, M., & Reilly, R. R. (2005). Does performance improve following multisource feedback? A theoretical model, meta-analysis, and review. Personnel Psychology, 58(1), 33-66.
Waldman, D. A., Atwater, L. E., & Antonioni, D. (2004). Has 360-degree feedback gone amok? Academy of Management Perspectives, 18(3), 1-7.