I recently finalized a project in which I supported a client in setting up a 360° degree feedback process, including selecting a software vendor to implement the process. After considering the services provided by multiple vendors, I’ve discovered some key points worth sharing.
You can’t just pick a provider at random and assume that they will cover all the basics. Here are a few tips you should consider when looking at providers. First, reports should be easy to read and to understand. Some reports are so complex that participants need a coach just to understand the results. Next, there is no need to overpay just for an established name. Many new providers offer solid solutions for reasonable prices. While you won’t get the best quality by scraping the bottom of the barrel for the lowest-priced offers on the market, there are several excellent mid-range providers. What struck me most was that I found only one provider offering a new approach, really rethinking 360° feedback.
It’s time to rethink 360° Feedback
Many companies strive to use 360° feedback for purely developmental objectives to support the growth processes of their participants. However, the process is not always effective. While many would argue from their personal experience that feedback can be extremely valuable, the benefits of 360° haven’t been systematically proven. There are two challenges to making it more effective.
Stress is not helpful to learning
Within the 360° process, feedback is quantified, anonymized, and made look like objective facts instead of subjective opinions. Given the way it is reported and structured, readers naturally look for low ratings and for gaps in perception between self and others.
Even a four out of five can easily feel like a disappointment. Many participants grumble over a “met expectation” or “average” rating by peers, because it is reported as just a 3 out of a 5-point scale.
The need to assess individuals quantitatively on a fixed set of competencies often leaves raters and participants with mixed feelings, either questioning if the sum of all assessments of behavioral anchors truly represents the unique value this person brings to the corporation or adapting the ratings to make sure they fit the overall impression the rater wants to give.
The assumption that there is one set of competencies essential for all individual contributors is questionable. For people in leadership roles, researchers have identified basic traits that make leaders successful, even if some experts disagree on details. For individual contributors, this is much harder. Of course, competencies like innovation, creativity, or strategic thinking sound good, but it is important to determine the degree to which they are essential to the job of the person being given feedback.
It is even questionable whether everybody should try to display a very balanced set of competencies. Team work is more successful when different people bring specific perspectives and strengths to a group.
Organizational processes do not aim to make everyone happy all the time. In an evaluation setting in which you aim to compare results, this tradeoff is necessary. But does the feeling of being judged or not being fully valued contribute to the objective of helping participants learn? Unfortunately not.
When humans feel threatened in their social status (which happens often within feedback processes), they tend to focus on self-defense and denial and not on learning. Increasing stress and pressure is diametrically opposed to any personal developmental objective in the feedback processes.
The new approach
Only one of the providers I encountered developed an approach that addressed these challenges. The approach to 360° Feedback offered by Culture Amp is incredibly simple. Reviewers just pick three strengths and three opportunities for change. This way each participant receives a balanced review of strengths and opportunities. The reviewers can pick those areas of improvement that they believe are most important for a specific person in a specific role. This approach is accompanied by a few focused questions. For leaders, an additional set of competencies is reviewed, but on a “do more” or “do less” scale. For 360° Feedback with exclusively developmental objectives, I found this approach the most innovative and convincing. It’s not surprising that it is widely used in Silicon Valley and San Francisco companies.
Even with an innovative tool, it’s not a good idea to believe that growth is going to happen just based on feedback alone. Sometimes it does, but often it is essential to establish a support and accountability process to follow up on the feedback.