When discussing the pros and cons of 360-degree assessments, reactions tend to be polarizing. Some talent leaders are passionate advocates of the process, and they use 360-degree assessments each year for hundreds or thousands of their organization’s leaders. In other instances, 360s have been branded as useless. Or worse, they have outright been banned by higher-ups.

So, where does the truth lie? Are 360s like health supplements — they work for some but not for many? Or do 360-degree assessments have the power to help most leaders improve and grow? The answer, in many respects, depends less on the instrument itself and more on the process that is followed in capturing and delivering the feedback.

Overview and History

360-degree feedback, which has been in use since 1940, grew out of the use of a training method called “T-groups.” In this setting, participants met with their peers who were encouraged to share feedback about the participant in an open session that was facilitated by a moderator. Over the years, improvements were made to this method, and now the process is handled through software that gathers feedback through individual assessments that are completed by a group of raters that surround the participant.

Confidentiality has been introduced into the process by combining, where possible, feedback into constituent groups so that no one rater is singled out, except in the case of supervisors. Each rater’s perspectives are then combined into a comprehensive report that allows a participant to:

  • Review gaps where leader see themselves as performing better or worse than others perceive them.
  • Realize those “aha” moments in which the leader discovers they are doing something that needs immediate attention but was previously unknown to them (red flags).
  • Better understand the employee experience the leader is creating for others.
  • Learn about competencies/skills in which the leader shines or where they need additional improvement.

It’s All About the Process

So far, so good, right? A 360 seems like it has the potential to produce important, if not vital, feedback for leaders. So, why the vitriol? Because 360s expose our shortcomings, 360-degree feedback needs to be delivered in a way that inspires, and it needs to contain a mix of reinforcing and redirecting feedback so a leader can clearly visualize both their gaps and strengths.

Furthermore, most 360 participants find themselves navigating the SARA model. The SARA model describes the longitudinal, emotional journey a participant experiences as they interact with their 360-degree feedback. First, a leader may react with Shock that then moves into Anger. For those that have a negative view of the 360 process, their journey often stops here. Yet, the real benefits of a 360-degree assessment can only be obtained by plowing through next phase, Resistance, to finally arrive at Acceptance.

When talent leaders ensure that participants are guided and coached so they can fully accept and process their feedback, participant reviews are almost universally positive.

Why 360 Assessments Matter to Organizations and Leaders

For the organization, 360s are important for two reasons. First, they help measure the micro employee experience. The heart of a solid employee experience is the ever-important experience that happens at the team level, driven by the one-on-one relationships between leader and employees. Employees join organizations, but they often quit managers. 360-degree assessments are an effective, proven strategy to understand what’s happening at this micro level within an organization.

Second, 360 feedback yields a type of data that is different than what can be obtained via organizational-wide surveys. Organizational surveys solicit employees’ perceptions, attitudes and beliefs. Organizational surveys are vital in understanding sentiment. Yet, they cannot measure quantity. They cannot help us know the level of certain activities or behaviors that are happening within an organization’s various teams. A 360 assessment is unique in that it attempts to measure the extent to which positive or negative behaviors exist. This additional data perspective is key in fine tuning an organization’s people analytics programs.

In the context of leaders, they can experience many, if not all, of the following benefits:

  • Increased self-awareness: Self-awareness means understanding one’s personality, working style, leadership and management approaches, including strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, motivations, thoughts and emotions — all of which have a dramatic and significant impact on a leader’s overall effectiveness.
  • Behavior clarification: The act of evaluating and measuring a leader’s behaviors helps convey to the leader what behaviors and skills are important to the organization. Also, 360 feedback is a positive disruptor that forces individuals to examine how others experience them in the workplace. Ambiguity is the enemy of accountability and accomplishment.
  • Focusing on the “the how”: In addition to measuring “what” gets done, 360 feedback helps organizations, leaders and employees consider how things get accomplished. 360-feedback assessments measure skill and style. Both elements are necessary when establishing a leadership culture that is both sustainable and nourishing. By focusing on both the outcome and the process, leaders and employees are giving themselves the best chance of creating successful team cultures.
  • Facilitating constructive conversations: Eye-opening conversations are often the first step in moving from stagnation to improvement.
  • Improved working relationships: Feedback is something that can be one-sided or altogether missing. By introducing the reciprocal exchange of feedback into a relationship, an implicit message is sent that a leader cares about their co-workers and direct reports, and they value their opinions and perceptions.
  • Employee engagement: Establishing a culture of feedback is essential to helping employees feel heard. Asking leaders and employees to engage in the feedback process reinforces organizational and leadership values of fairness, respect, inclusion, belonging and psychological safety.

Conclusion

Transformational change most often takes place when beliefs align with expectations. 360-degree feedback facilitates the alignment process by helping leaders see what is happening against the backdrop of what they are trying to accomplish. For this reason, and the others highlighted above, nearly one-third of all companies and more than 85% of Fortune 500 companies use some type of 360-degree feedback in their leadership development programs. These organizations know that 360 assessments are a valid and effective management tool, but only when carefully managed and overseen by competent talent professionals.

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