The 360-degree feedback mechanism (also called “multi-rater”) has been in use for decades, thus long enough that it’s been subjected to a battery of academic studies highlighting its benefits and pitfalls. The research has identified both.
First, consider the limitations of the traditional supervisor-only evaluation, particularly for employees who work in teams or who have subordinates of their own. In this environment, direct supervisors:
- Often find it hard to give critical feedback to employees they have become close to over the years,
- Might have biases that unduly influence their assessments, for better or worse, and
- Have a limited perspective to grasp how the employee is perceived by others (for example, colleagues and subordinates) whose performance the employee may influence.
Using a 360-degree feedback system can indeed help you overcome those impediments, but first you need to decide whether to use it to aid employee development, or as a performance assessment method — or both.
A Cautious Start
It might be more prudent at the outset to use a 360-degree system in conjunction with an ongoing development process, simply to pinpoint possible areas where that employee might benefit from additional training. Why? That allows you to gain confidence in your ability to evaluate the feedback you get from the 360-degree process, in terms of validity.
With some experience you should be able to weed out feedback that amounts to unfair potshots from disgruntled subordinates or colleagues. Also, the employee in question is more likely to warm up to the 360-degreee process if he or she knows that, in effect, you are giving it a trial run.
If your organization is large enough you might consider starting off with a 360-degree-feedback performance-rating pilot project in one department or division, before launching it company-wide.
It may seem counterintuitive, but 360-degree programs aren’t always anonymous. One school of thought holds that it’s better for all feedback providers to identify themselves in order to:
- Maintain accountability, thereby encouraging constructive and detailed input, avoid toxic comments and even conspiracies to damage an employee’s reputation,
- Encourage a workforce culture of openness, and
- Make it possible for the object of the feedback to engage directly with that employee to resolve an issue when that person has a specific complaint or concern.
Still, most 360-degree programs are based on anonymity. That allows those providing the feedback to give more than bland or favorable comments out of fear of negative repercussions. Anonymous or not, a side benefit to a well-managed 360-degree program is those giving the feedback get the message that their opinions do matter.
Advocates of these systems encourage employers not to launch a 360-degree program until they’ve first identified a specific purpose for it. That way they can also establish a basis or benchmark for evaluating the success of the program. An example of a valid purpose might be to change an organization that has developed a rigid hierarchy into one with a culture that emphasizes continuous feedback and improvement.
Keep in mind that when you’re identifying a purpose, this type of system shouldn’t be viewed as a way to address poor employee job performance. Employees might become more self aware through the process, but this feedback isn’t a substitute for direct communication between a supervisor and the employee.
Here are some pointers for implementing an effective 360-degree program:
- Tell feedback providers how their input will be used, to assure them their time will be well spent,
- Train feedback providers on the importance of being objective and avoiding invalid observations that might arise from their own prejudices,
- Only ask feedback providers to comment on aspects of the subject employee’s performance that they are in a position to observe,
- Make sure the performance criteria are job-related and not personal in nature,
- Include both quantitative and qualitative performance questions,
- Even with anonymous feedback systems, some accountability is needed; incorporate a mechanism that would enable someone other than the subject of the evaluation, for example, a senior human resource executive, to address any abuse of the system,
- Ensure adequate participation to assure maximum statistical validity to feedback results,
- Have a system in place to help the subject of the feedback to process and act on the input he or she receives, and
- Build in (and follow) a process to periodically evaluate the overall statistical validity and goal achievement of the program.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that a 360-degree feedback system will accomplish whatever goals you set for it. This method of review was pioneered in the 1950s and rose to popularity in the 1990s. Its longevity alone suggests it might be worth a try.