The process of giving and receiving feedback has become an integral part of performance management. The primary motivation of this is to help employees at all levels of the organizational hierarchy get an external perspective on their strengths and weaknesses, and guide them towards becoming more effective in their roles.
A 360-degree feedback process takes this to its logical extreme, by requiring employees peers, direct reports, managers and other key stakeholders they interact with, to provide anonymous feedback across a broad range of parameters related to workplace behaviors and skills. Often, this is combined with a self-assessment by the employee herself. In theory, this can be a powerful part of the performance management toolkit. In practice, being aware and respectful of the do’s and don'ts around it makes all the difference between success and failure:
- The goal of 30-degree feedback is not to measure employee performance. Thus, objective performance metrics like sales quotas, features delivered, etc. are not the parameters that should be covered in a 360-degree feedback survey. They are more suitable for performance evaluations done one-on-one with managers and don’t lend themselves well to crowdsourced opinions due to a lack of transparency. In some instances, 360-degree feedback can be one part of a performance evaluation process, but that is not its primary motivation.
- 360-degree feedback is presented as a cohort rather than individually – that is, individual responses are combined with other responses in the same category (e.g. peer, reportee). This serves a dual purpose. First, it ensures that anonymity is preserved, a cardinal rule of this process. Second, it helps in averaging our anomalies and personal biases to the extent possible within the rater category. This is especially relevant for executives at the top of the hierarchy, where it gives a statistically accurate picture of their leadership as perceived by the organization below them.
- Workplace behaviors and soft-skills like leadership, teamwork and resilience are what 360-degree feedback should try to measure. These are parameters that are hard to quantify or measure objectively, hence getting an all-round view that is aggregated through anonymized surveys is one of the better options available to organizations. They can help managers get a sense of how they are perceived by their reportees, peers and their own managers, and calibrate their behaviors accordingly. For employees, they can provide guidelines for improvement in their current roles, and also soft skills they should focus on for advancing into managerial positions.
- The most difficult part of a 360-degree feedback process that companies struggle to get right is the trade-off between anonymity and effectiveness. Anonymous feedback has the downside of devolving into personal grudges and agendas, which is equivalent to handicapping the process at its source. The feedback survey/questionnaire should be structured in such a way as to glean high-level information on an assessee’s overall behaviors and skills on the job – things like their receptiveness to different opinions, response to adversity, etc. It should not become a forum to highlight specific and personal grudges.
- Finally, the consumer of the 360-degree feedback is going to be the employee who is being assessed, so the tabulation and presentation of results are key. It should segment results both by skill sets and the rater group, in a way that is actionable for the assessee. The employee should be able to interpret the results of the feedback clearly in the context of their day-to-day work and recognize concrete areas of improvement.
A 360-degree feedback process should not be used indiscriminately as a hammer, as it relates to employee performance management. Rather, using it skillfully like a scalpel to extract nuggets of insight into soft-skills that are otherwise hard to measure, can deliver significant benefits to organizations who make it a part of their overall performance management process.