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360 Degree Feedback: The good, the bad, and the ugly

12 August 2012 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Lionel Wijesiri
Want to make your team members really unhappy? Care to create uproar in your organization that rivals in ferocity any change you’ve ever introduced in your history? Want to stir up all of the dormant fireballs hidden just below the surface in your organization?
I am not talking about terminating the services of half your staff. I am talking about what happens when an organization does a poor job of introducing and implementing 360 degree feedback. Nothing raises hackles as fiercely as a change in performance feedback methods, especially when they affect compensation decisions.

What really is 360-degree Feedback?
It is an evaluation method that incorporates feedback from the worker, his/her peers, superiors, subordinates, and outside customers. Results of these confidential surveys are tabulated and shared with the worker, usually by a manager. Interpretation of the results, trends and themes are discussed as part of the feedback.

The primary reason to use this full circle of confidential reviews is to provide the worker with information about his/her performance from multiple perspectives. From this feedback, the worker is able to set goals for self-development which will advance their career and benefit the organization.
With 360-degree feedback, the worker is central to the evaluation process and the ultimate goal is to improve individual performance within the organization. Under ideal circumstances, 360-degree feedback is used as an assessment for personal development rather than evaluation. Unfortunately, not all circumstances are ideal.

That said, I may add that the implementing 360-degree feedback has many possible pitfalls, and a misstep can result in the initiative doing more harm than good. It is not unusual to meet an executive who is strongly resistant to implementing 360- degree feedback in an organization, typically due to prior experience where the tool was poorly executed.

Best practices
There are few accepted fundamentals to be adhered to, when a 360-degree feedback programme is implemented:

Ensure that the organization is ready
It is essential that the organization is ready for implementing 360-degree feedback. Here are two signs that the organization may not be ready:

Environment that is low in trust
If 360-feedback is implemented in an organization that is experiencing extreme levels of communication breakdown, conflict and interpersonal tension, reviewers can become vindictive, and people under review may have a hard time believing the feedback is well intended.

Abilities of managers
In some organizational cultures, many managers have trouble holding frank feedback & coaching conversations with employees. Since part of a good process is that anyone receiving 360-degree feedback should discuss it with his/her manager, it follows that managers should have a level of skill in the interpretation, delivery and associated coaching skills in order to make the process work. This can often be addressed through training.

Make the purpose clear
 It is essential to communicate the purpose thoroughly with all stakeholders. (For example, Leadership development and Succession planning) The purpose might affect the number of people, and this needs to be communicated proactively. Most important of all, there should be no surprises.
As with traditional performance appraisals, communicate to team members that the results of the programme will never be directly tied to salary. While the 360 can serve as one input, salary should be based on other factors such as the job market, risk to lose, track record and future potential.



Start at the top
It goes without saying that for any manager that does not buy-in to the notion of 360-feedback, any initiative is likely to fail in his/her team. If the CEO does not role model the behaviours of soliciting feedback and involving others in his/her development, nor will others. In summary, the person at the top must be committed and must be treated the same way as everyone else on the process.
If implementing 360-feedback in large organizations in stages, the first stage should always be executive, followed by middle-management and so on.

Select the right tool
There are a myriad of 360-degree feedback tools out there. Not all will be right for your organization. Broadly speaking, there are only two approaches that work, these being standard and custom-designed tools. Both can be implemented to collect feedback confidentially, using online methods.
Note that paper or e-mail based methods of collecting 360-feeback are inherently not anonymous and rely on the manager to collate the information. As a result of these problems, in addition to the time burden placed on the manager, paper or e-mail based 360-feedback surveys are not advised.

Failure
There are many reasons for the unsuccessful implementation of a 360-degree feedback process.

Mistake 1: Not involving key stakeholders
It’s important to involve key stakeholders in the design and implementation of a 360-degree process. They need to be aware of important decisions and the rationale behind them. They should provide input to such decisions and assist with the implementation.
Many performance improvement consultants have battle scars from the change efforts that got throttled because certain key players weren’t included. Those key people either withheld their support or actively sabotaged the effort. Despite the idealism of most performance improvement consultants and others involved in organizational change, there are usually winners and losers. That’s particularly true of 360-degree feedback interventions. Feedback has the power to enhance or diminish people’s reputations. The more that accountability and information-sharing are built into the process, the more important it is for stakeholders to participate.

Solution - First, identify the key stakeholders. Get them involved and keep them informed. Stakeholders can be senior managers, the intended recipients of 360-degree feedback, their immediate supervisors or managers, and the potential providers of the feedback –such as staff, peers, team members, and customers. All parties should know the strategic competencies to be measured, the methods for gathering and summarizing the feedback, and how the feedback will be integrated with existing development or evaluation systems. That involvement is critical to ensure people’s support and commitment to a fair, objective, and constructive feedback process. A particularly good way to get people involved is to have them help select the survey instrument or help generate specific questions that will measure the targeted competencies

Mistake 2: Having insufficient communication
Complete communication is especially important with 360-degree feedback. Given that some feedback can seem threatening, it’s important that its purpose be communicated clearly. To avoid potential misunderstanding or feelings of betrayal, it’s also essential to communicate clearly about confidentiality issues.
The logistics can be complex. Unattended little details can lead to major mishaps. Without making clear who needs to be rating who in what time frame and sorting out the mechanics of processing and issuing feedback, a theoretically smooth process can degenerate into a big, jumbled mess.
Solution - Communicate! Be sure that all stakeholders and other interested parties have thoroughly discussed their concerns before implementation and that, at minimum, they understand the rationale underlying major decisions. Typically, there are judgment calls or unexpected questions that crop up. It helps for people to have come to a consensus about the overall approach before they have to make on-the-spot decisions.

Mistake 3: Compromising confidentiality
360-degree feedback is based on the idea that people can feel safe providing anonymous feedback. It can be a death knell if confidentiality or anonymity is compromised or if there’s the perception that it has been compromised.

Solution - At the outset, nail down which data is confidential and which is Anonymous. Communicate those decisions clearly. People need to know exactly what will be reported to whom, if they’re to speak freely. Be rigorous in enforcing confidentiality agreements. Even though feedback recipients may argue (sometimes with merit) that they can benefit from more information, safe guarding the feedback providers’ confidentiality is a greater concern.
(The writer is a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience. He can be contacted at lionwije@live.com)
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