Every Human Resources practitioner I talk with agrees with me on one point: there is no such thing as a perfect generic feedback instrument and process. However, a customized 360, or multi-rater process, when planned and executed well, can provide excellent feedback for recipients and foster a motivating environment for employees.
I've worked with organizations using this process for 24 years and observed some positive advantages to the 360 process, as well as some pitfalls. HR can guide the process to ensure that the advantages are leveraged and pitfalls minimized.
First, I want to clarify what I mean when I refer to the term 360 feedback. This is a process in which a person receives feedback about his or her competencies from peers, supervisors, direct reports, and internal and external customers. It's a complete picture of the impact one has on those with whom he or she interacts on a frequent basis. Many companies use a "180" feedback process instead, which allows for feedback from peers, the supervisor, and sometimes direct reports (if applicable).
Advantages to the 360 Process
Let's face it: a supervisor can't be there to observe all the interactions, strengths, and opportunities for improvement for direct reports, especially if the span of control is wide. So why should we expect the supervisor to be the only person to provide performance feedback? We shouldn't.
A major advantage to the 360 process is that it provides an opportunity for all those people with whom a person comes into frequent contact to offer feedback. A caveat here is that the raters should be people that truly have observed an employee or manager on a frequent basis. It's not fair to ask people for input that haven't had a chance to observe someone's skills, talents, and abilities on a regular basis. It's also not balanced feedback if the recipient selectively chooses people that will only provide superficial and positive comments.
When feedback comes from many sources, it's more difficult for a person to brush aside constructive criticism and rationalize that "the boss just has it in for me." If several people suggest that a manager needs to improve verbal communication skills, for example, chances are high that this is indeed a necessary area for improvement.
Another advantage of the 360 process is that it is designed with a customer focus in mind. The customers can be internal or external. Unfortunately, it's difficult for some employees to understand the impact their daily activities have on other individuals or departments within the company. However, if they receive direct and frequent feedback on how their actions affect others, people are more likely to be attentive to deadlines and quality requirements. They learn how to make their organization look good, not just themselves.
I recommend that 360 performance evaluations are coupled with competency-based job descriptions. When this occurs, an employee or manager is recruited based on core competencies for his or her position and evaluated on those same competencies. When coaching leaders, I often hear this complaint: "My performance evaluation is not even remotely connected to my job description." There should be a direct connection, and the 360 process can have a strong impact here. The core competencies should of course be supportive of the company's strategic objectives. In deriving these competencies, the company's leadership must ask, "What skills, knowledge, and behaviors do we need across the organization to meet the challenges of our mission and vision?"
The 360 evaluation is particularly strong when coupled with an action plan developed by the person receiving feedback and shared with those who provided the feedback. This action plan demonstrates that the feedback was heard and that, assuming suggestions are reasonable, will be put to use as soon as possible.
Pitfalls in the 360 Process
If you've tried the 360 process in your organization without success, it may be for some of the following reasons:
If allowed to do so, employees may be tempted to ask only their friends in the company to be the ones who receive feedback instruments. This would definitely tip the scales in the employees' favor and help ensure that no negative comments are made. The process must be carefully designed to minimize the possibility that this "handpicking" doesn't occur. I recommend that each person receiving feedback send the instrument to at least 10 people, and these people must be those with whom they interact on a frequent basis—even if some of those people could possibly offer negative comments.
One significant pitfall I've observed is when companies send out 360 evaluations to raters without advance notice or information about how to use the instrument. When an organization decides to implement a 360 review process, two sets of participants must be educated on how to effectively use the process: those receiving feedback and those offering feedback. Communication should also include objectives of the process and the expected impact on the organization.
I strongly recommend that each person receiving feedback, especially for the first time in this process, has a coach to help assess the comments and ratings and to develop an action plan. The coach can be the same person who compiles the results the key is that he or she is viewed as an objective person. By the way, I also recommend that the instruments are anonymous and are sent directly to the person compiling the results. The person receiving the feedback should not see the actual completed instruments.
A Few Closing Thoughts
The 360 performance review process can be comprehensive, positive, and effective if time is devoted on the front end to design the process for maximum impact. The time is well worth taking.
Regardless of the type of performance management process your organization employs, I hope you'll give serious consideration to developing companion competency-based job descriptions and evaluations. When competencies (or behaviors) are used, employees have a more concrete understanding of exactly why they aren't meeting job requirements and what areas they need to improve upon to be successful in their work.
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Dr. Linda Gravett, after 16 years as a human resource management practitioner, founded Gravett and Associates in 1991. Gravett and Associates offers a full range of human resource management consulting and training services, including human resource audits, development of performance management systems, establishing human resource metrics, helping organizations leverage a diverse workforce, and executive coaching. Linda can be reached at Linda@gravett.com.
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