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What you need to know about 360 degree feedback

Annual performance appraisals are dead. Learn how 360 degree feedback can work for your organization as an employee evaluation tool that actually works.

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The lone wolf review

Imagine. You’re in the mood for Ethiopian food and search Yelp for restaurant reviews. But then you notice something odd. Every Ethiopian restaurant has only one review.

Wait. That can’t be.

You search through all 6 listings for Ethiopian restaurants in your area, and they all have ONE review. So you read the reviews, one by one, and you find something even stranger—they’re all reviewed by the same person!

You begin to wonder. Who is this person? Are they some kind of connoisseur, or just bored with a deep love for Ethiopian food?

With so many question marks, which Ethiopian restaurant do you choose?

Can you imagine this scenario when you’re looking at books on Amazon or when considering a laptop purchase from Best Buy?

Can you imagine a world where every product had only ONE reviewer? How would that alter your buying decisions?

Are you more likely to trust one person’s perspective on something when it comes to books, food, or when shopping for a backpack? Or would you feel more comfortable with three, four, even twelve people’s combined perspective on the same thing?

How would you evaluate something slightly more significant than a book or backpack, like your job or workplace?

Hey, dinosaurs! The annual performance review is dead

Here’s why it’s dead:

It’s ANNUAL. It happens once a year.

Annual performance reviews in today’s economy are way too slow, and frankly, I’m surprised they’re still around. By the time your entire team “pivots” (as my SaaSy cousins tend to say) to a more efficient model, your business will be a parking lot.

But a review that’s ‘annual’ isn’t the only reason to rethink your feedback program.

In 2015, Deloitte produced a report called Global Human Capital Trends 2015: Leading in the new world of work that involved surveys and interviews with more than 3,300 business and HR leaders from 106 countries. They point out that “today’s job market is highly dynamic and transparent. High-potential young employees want regular feedback and career progression advice, not just “once and done” reviews.”

An annual review by ONE person is akin to your favorite Ethiopian restaurant getting ONE review on Yelp. One person’s perspective is just not enough data to make sound decisions. This is true of your boss, too. Unless you’re working directly with them, they probably don’t have an accurate view of you. Even then, people have many biases.

Perhaps that’s why court cases are tried by twelve jurors, and not one. There’s just too much bias, not enough data, and not a holistic view when it’s just one person.

In September of 2015, Accenture, a company that employs over 330,000 people, decided to drop the annual performance review.

We’re done with the famous annual performance review, where once a year ‘I’m going to share with you what I think about you.’ That doesn’t make any sense.
Pierre Nanterme, CEO Accenture

GE, Microsoft, Adobe, and Accenture have started dumping or have already gotten rid of formal annual reviews. The annual performance review is dead simply because it’s too slow and limiting.

The world isn’t really on an annual cycle anymore for anything.
Susan Peters , Head of Human Resources at GE

Why the shift? Because the workplace experience has undergone a radical transformation.

The experience economy

Back in 1998, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review titled Welcome to the Experience Economy.

In that article, they sketch out the emergence of a new way of doing business—creating experiences, in addition to delivering products and services.

Here’s why this matters. Most people are impacted by this gradual shift to an “experience economy” culture—including employees. The new employee wants an experience when they punch in-and-out of work. They’re looking for meaning and want something worthy of their time and effort.

I dare say, they want transformation.

So give it to them. In order to be their best, employees have to go through the trials of training and ongoing development. Don’t skimp.

Forward-thinking companies, such as Google, have converted the workplace from hell into a destination workplace.

But it’s more than ping-pong tables and half-day Fridays. In 2016, workers want to perform well, grow as professionals, and feel useful.

And what does every worker need to perform at their very best? Feedback (and a plan).

360 degree feedback: What is it?

360 degree feedback is exactly what it says. You get feedback from all around you, including from:

  • Managers/Supervisors

  • Subordinates, if you have them

  • Peers/Colleagues

  • Support staff

  • Customers/Clients

This kind of performance appraisal is not new. A ‘beta’ version of 360 degree feedback has been around as early as the 3rd century A.D., during the Wei Dynasty. The “imperial rater” was brought in to evaluate the performance of official family members. Didn’t go over too well.

In Using 360-Degree Feedback in Organizations, authors Fleenor and Prince point out that the German military during World War II recognized the value of gaining performance insights from multiple perspectives. 360° eventually became popular in human resource culture in the 80s—90s.

It’s been around long enough to motivate some people to kick-off an entire industry of “imperial rater” consultants.

The ug-lee side of 360 degree feedback

There are three main reasons why 360 degree feedback can backfire:

  1. Bad culture fit

  2. Lack of buy-in & commitment

  3. Not actionable

Ask yourself these questions before blowing your cash on 360° feedback:

Is this right for us?

  • Is talent development really baked into our organization or just given lip service? How do you know?

  • How often do performance evaluations occur? What do people think of them now?

  • How does the leadership team feel about receiving feedback from staff?

  • Are we really interested in developing our staff or trying the latest tool to get better results out of people?

Are we committed?

  • Does a culture of trust permeate your organization? Would your staff welcome more feedback? How do you know?

  • Are you really using it to help staff development or are you using it to evaluate performance and tie it to their annual raise?

  • Put another way, could your implementation of 360 degree feedback be seen as a form of punishment or reward?

  • Who will coach staff through their individual development plans and beyond?

  • Do you plan to follow this all the way through? Are you truly committed to bringing out the best from your talent?

How will we approach our 360 degree process?

  • Will you train in-house coaches to facilitate the process? Are they trusted by staff? How do you know?

  • Are you measuring relevant competencies for someone’s specified role? Or are you giving everyone a generalized 360° evaluation tool?

  • Have you tied staff development to your strategic initiatives? How will you measure their effectiveness?

  • How much time will pass before you can feasibly help your team create their individual development plans and coach them through the process?

  • Is your team benefiting from this entire process? How do you know?

Feedback is NOT a dirty word

Can you imagine a doctor asking a patient, How am I doing?

I know. That’s what the patient usually asks the doc.

How does it feel as leader, CEO, manager, or supervisor to ask that question to your subordinates, your colleagues, and your boss (if you’re not at the top of the food chain)?

If you’re going to have your team go through with this process, well then you’re gonna have to suck it up, too. How about that for an exercise in empathy? Leaders lead by example, right? Right.

Here’s something to keep in mind. Receiving feedback from others ABOUT YOU can be one of the most difficult exercises to go through.

Receiving feedback is a SKILL, and most people aren’t born with it. Remember that before you start dishing it out to your team.

Final thoughts

Implementing a 360 degree feedback program in your organization is no small feat and requires the touch of a seasoned consultant.

I reached out to John Keyser, founder and principal of Common Sense Leadership, a coaching firm based in Washington, D.C. John helps corporate executives develop skills to become great leaders. Here’s his take on 360 degree feedback:

I am personally experienced, currently working on seven assessments of very senior execs, and have completed about 65 in the past five years.

I am a huge supporter of 360 leadership assessments. For mine, I learned that I was viewed as conflict avoidant, and 360 helped me learn how I could manage that. I also learned that others thought I played favorites, and what I might do to eliminate that perception.

7 steps to successful 360 degree feedback

  1. Have a genuine willingness to get feedback. Realize that you can always improve, that striving for continuous improvement is a path to success. You must have the confidence and humility to receive feedback from colleagues. This might be your manager, peers, and direct reports. Ask others to be thoughtful and honest in sharing their perceptions of your strengths and areas of potential improvement.

  2. Appreciate the professional development opportunity and be grateful.

  3. Understand that making yourself vulnerable is attractive and builds trust and deeper relationships.

  4. The assessment must be anonymous. The coach who facilitates will prepare a summary report with the themes and advice, without including who said what. Accept that you don’t need to know. Explain that to the colleagues you ask to participate, assuring them that you really want to learn, and that you won’t get defensive or angry.

  5. The assessment belongs to you and won’t be shared with your manager or HR unless you decide to. 360 degree is NOT to be used for decision-making or compensation. It belongs to you and is for your professional development.

  6. Ongoing coaching is almost always helpful to maximize results. Areas of potential improvement are usually long-term habits which cannot easily be changed. Examples are poor listening skills, jumping to conclusions, wanting to be in control, some insecurity which can prevent trusting others, and poor communication skills.

  7. Understanding the tone behind a 360 degree assessment. The perceptions of others is reality. Work to make improvements and you will be a respected role model for others.

Remember, the person receiving the assessment must want to learn how she is being perceived by others. It’s important to spend time upfront to assure that the person is ready and will not become angry, defensive and/or want to try to figure out who said what. If not ready, the assessment is a waste of time.

Co-worker feedback is powerful. A 360 degree leadership assessment done properly can change a team’s culture, the spirit of its people, and lead to improved teamwork and collaboration.

If you want to implement some of these ideas into your organization, here’s a handy 360 degree feedback template.

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