What Makes 360 Degree Feedback Work?

The use of 360 degree feedback surveys has grown and is continuing to grow at a very fast rate. The idea of surveying employees isn’t new, but the notion of having multiple employees rate a specific “target” employee to provide as much unbiased input about that person’s performance is a relatively young concept.

But why does 360 degree feedback work and what can it do for an organization? Before answering the question of why 360 degree feedback works and what it can do for an organization, it probably makes sense to describe and define what it really is.

The term 360 degree implies a circle of raters surrounding the “target” employee providing anonymous feedback. A department manager, for example, likely has peer managers, subordinates, and superiors. Using a traditional definition of 360 degree feedback, some or all of the people “surrounding” the employee will be invited to complete a rating and comment survey form on critical competency areas for the employee.

But any employee level can be selected for receiving feedback. Even when an employee has no subordinates, peers and superiors can certainly provide sufficient feedback in most cases to help the employee better understand his or her strengths and weaknesses.

And it is not out of the realm of reason to include people outside the organization such as vendors or customers to participate in the feedback. While this is not all that common, the feedback from familiar “outsiders” can be beneficial to the process.

The raters selected should have direct experience working with the “target” employee on an ongoing basis. Certainly the biases of the individuals completing the feedback will enter into the process. This is why it is important to get enough people involved to smooth out some of the inherent bias involved in a survey scenario.

In a 360 degree feedback survey, the ultimate objective is to gain a clear understanding of how others within the organization view the performance of the “target” employee relative to specific competencies or performance factors such as those related to accountability or cooperation. The raters provide a rating (generally on a 1 to 5 scale) based on their perception of the employee’s performance for each of the competencies listed on the feedback form. And there is usually room for overall comments at the end of the survey form. Of course, all of this is done anonymously and the employee will see the average ratings for each competency as well as a compilation of the comments offered. The results are then used in the creation of a development plan for the employee that will focus on strengthening areas that may be in need of attention.

Now that we have identified the basis process involved, the real question of what makes 360 degree feedback work and how the organization will benefit remains. There are several critical factors that will help ensure successful implementation of 360 degree feedback in your organization:

-Cultural integration. 360 degree feedback must become a part of the organization’s culture. This is accomplished by very clearly communicating what it is, why it is being done, and what the intended uses of the results are. But it doesn’t end there. To truly achieve integration into the culture, there must be consistency in using the tool and development plans that address deficiencies must be put into place and then completed. Keep in mind that the objective is to provide feedback that will help the employee become more aware of his or her behavior and performance levels and then enhance performance.

-Accountability for participation. Since having enough diversity in raters is important, it is critical that the raters understand that when they are invited to provide feedback by a certain date, they must not ignore the request. Expectations must be made very clear to all employees about the importance of 360 degree feedback and the need for timely completion of the surveys.
Relevance of the competencies. Developing the survey form is not complicated. But it is important to make certain that what should be measured is actually measured when selecting competencies to include in the survey. Making the survey forms specific to each position is one way to help ensure that job-specific competencies are being evaluated.

-Simplicity. If the process is too complex, acceptance will be hard to gain. Using an automated solution is usually best since they usually include automated notifications and carry out all of the calculations and compilation of results. Manual processes can be cumbersome and time consuming and can put a damper on long-term integration into the organization.

-Positive results. Like most activities, 360 degree feedback cannot be perceived as nothing more than an exercise. It must be perceived as a viable and useful tool that helps employees get better at their jobs. If nothing happens after the feedback is obtained, employees will begin to perceive it as just another useless exercise. Make certain that the feedback is used to create sound development plans that are then implemented. Over time, incremental improvement will occur and employees will see real benefit in participating in the process.

These are just some of the factors that will help your organization implement a successful 360 degree feedback process. As with other programs, commitment and attention to detail will help cement it as a viable and beneficial tool.

On-demand, web-based solutions such as Reviewsnap (www.reviewsnap.com) offer excellent automated 360 degree feedback tools. They offer a free trial and “live” demos so that you can see how the system might benefit your organization.