Guidelines For 360-Degree Feedback

By Timothy Bentley


For half a century, 360-degree feedback has contributed to the development of fine leaders. Unhappily, it has sometimes been imposed on unready organizations, deployed in a risky manner, and earned a mixed reception.

The guidelines below will help you avoid these pitfalls, devise an effective process, and select a good instrument.

360-Degree Feedback and Leadership

360-degree feedback is powerful because it help leaders align themselves with the requisite competencies for this age: continuous learning, genuine team-playing, and self- knowledge.

Seeing themselves as others see them, leaders spot gaps in their self-perception and ways of improving productivity. Often isolated by their positions or personalities, they discover truths that no one tells them in person.

The results include improvements in how they interact with their people and resulting increases in morale and productivity.

Finding the Right Instrument

Early users of 360 tools found them clunky to set up, demanding reams of paper to be shipped and compiled at a distant facility. Questionnaires were frequently inflexible, and results sometimes delayed by the thankless task of hand-scoring, with the potential for errors.

By the time the results arrived, some of the enthusiasm for the process had evaporated.

Automated disk-based programs showed greater promise, but many people were uncomfortable knowing their input was being passed from desk to desk, ultimately to be stored in the HR department.

It took a new generation of Internet-based tools to erase those drawbacks. The first in Canada was Panoramic Feedback, launched in 1998, and now in use from Hong Kong to London, across the United States and Canada.

Because today's 360s require minimal technical skills, the project organizer can set up a survey quickly from a desktop computer. Responders reply via the Internet from work or home -- a big advantage for those with little privacy at the office.

Immediately after the last reply has been entered, the organizer can print out a detailed, full-color report. (Until that point, it's a near-paperless process.) That means as little as a week between the initial preparation of the survey and compiling the final reports.

Users say that they appreciate the simplicity of set-up and the ease of customizing questionnaires on the Internet. They also like the fast turn-around that provides an immediate return on investment.

Responders find the surveys delightfully easy -- just push some buttons and type in comments. They appreciate data being stored securely off-premises.

Subjects react positively to the clear, attractive presentation of reports. Colorful charts and unstructured comments make information accessible in two learning modes. And an accompanying action planning workbook can guide them in making changes.

But as comprehensive as any Internet instrument may be, its contribution to the development of your leaders is only as good as the preparation of the organization and its people. Here's a checklist.

Development Strategy

360-degree feedback should be integrated into the strategy for leadership development, not deployed in isolation. Consider these factors.

  • Are opinion-leaders convinced of the business benefits of leadership development and the cost of not making changes?
  • Is there a commitment to being a learning organization?
  • Are supports in place, such as coaching, mentoring, training?

Cultural Readiness

Before you start, make sure fertile ground is prepared for feedback.

  • Does the culture currently support honest informal feedback?
  • Are employees likely to believe when you say it's safe to be frank?
  • Are executives aware that, because feedback encourages openness, it may reveal unexpected requirements for change in culture or procedures?
  • Will senior executives lead the way by volunteering for 360?

Well-designed Plan

A 360 process designed with care encourages buy-in and commitment.

  • Have the competency list developed by a representative group.
  • Be clear about who will have access to reports.
  • Specify whether 360 will be used strictly for self-development, or will affect performance reviews or pay.
  • Provide brief training opportunities for responders, subjects, and supervisors.
  • Assure responders of their safety and anonymity.
  • Plan to evaluate the project for fine-tuning and marketing

Provider Selection

Each provider has a different structure. Check for

  • Technical requirements: Internet access is essential, but are paper questionnaires available for employees not on-line?
  • Support: Is the user's manual comprehensive, online help easily available, tech support free? Is a workbook provided for subjects?
  • Customization: Can you design your own survey?
  • Simplicity: Is setup straightforward? Are sample competency lists provided?
  • Speed: Can you set up surveys at once, generating reports within a week or two?

Presenting Reports

Receiving their reports is a time of high anxiety for people being assessed. Reading them in isolation can de-motivate and discourage, so make sure good supports are available.

  • Hand over reports in person, whether individually or in groups (with plenty of space for privacy).
  • Reports are crammed with useful info. Provide graduated help in comprehension.
  • Help individuals focus on compliments, not just critiques.
  • Provide help in action-planning; a workbook is the minimum, a coach plus workbook is best.

360-degree feedback is widely used to enhance the quality of leadership. But like any tool, it must be operated by steady hands.

When carefully implemented, it gives leaders a welcome boost, improving morale, contributing to productivity, increasing the organization's competitive advantage.

Timothy Bentley is Chief Operating Officer of Panoramic Feedback