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Leadership Development

Published By:
National Post

360 degree feedback

By Michael Stern 13th February 2008

In our executive coaching practice, I am seeing new interest in an old tool: 360-degree feedback.

That's the formal process in which an organization evaluates your performance by collecting feedback from all around you: your boss, peers and subordinates.

360 feedback dates back to the U.S. Army in the Second World War, but it hit business in the 1990s - about the time companies began focusing more on soft skills such as communication and employee development. I still remember the fuss when some executives first heard about it. "What? You want to go behind my back and talk to my subordinates? The people who hate me most?" There was also this classic line: "I evaluate them. They don't evaluate me!"

But 360 feedback took off because it works. After all, if you want to know if someone is delivering results, you ask their supervisor. But if their job description requires them to actively support and develop their subordinates, chances are the boss knows only what's she overheard in the coffee room. If you want meaningful feedback on an executive's people-management style, you have to ask the people they manage.

At one point, 60% of corporations were conducting 360-degree feedback for senior executives. Many businesses have gotten away from it in recent years, because it's an expensive, time-consuming process - and processing the results is a job for specialists. But if your company is concerned about developing talent, monitoring your corporate culture, or solving individual performance problems, 360 is worth a second look.

I had one client years ago who always received blue-ribbon feedback on his ability to meet objectives. But when his company started polling subordinates as part of his evaluation, it found he could have been doing much better. His gruff, no-nonsense style alienated many staff, and his failure to listen to his employees cost the company several chances to act on customer requests and new opportunities.

You can see why 360 is so powerful - and complicated. Unlike conventional evaluations produced by one person, 360 feedback can generate a wagonful of weaknesses. Which do you address first? How do you tackle them? Most times this will not be a job for the HR director, but for an experienced consultant who knows the dynamics of your company. It's not just a question of doing it right, but also of being seen to be doing it right.

Here's how your company can ensure it gets the most out of 360-degree feedback:

  • Have a plan. Know what you're trying to accomplish. Dedicate adequate resources, not just to the research, but to the in-person evaluations and remedial follow-up, where necessary.

  • Make sure your system is founded on a confidential, objective questionnaire. This assures honesty and consistency among respondents, and ensures good and bad points are discussed.

  • The questionnaire should be put together by outside specialists - with input from your HR department. The process is too important for do-it-yourself.

  • Don't skimp on research. Use a robust sample size - say, three or four peers, and four or five subordinates - to ensure diversity of opinion and make sure that nobody's individual biases stand out. Companies often let their executives choose half of the colleagues to be interviewed - and the boss chooses the rest.

  • Presentation of the results should also be managed professionally and tactfully. Nuances matter. No one is pleased to hear they are judged to be weak in a particular area. However, the disappointment can be abridged if you explain how well they are doing in other areas, and how improving the weakness can position them for even greater success and serve as a model for others. A much more palatable message than: "Your people skills suck!"

  • Make sure the evaluated manager indicates that she accepts the assessment and will take steps to improve. This is where some of the true value lies, by opening up the lines of communication.

  • Create an action plan for working on each individual's identified weaknesses. Create rewards (and consequences) to encourage them to stick with the plan.

Do subordinates provide useful feedback? One cornerstone of our executive-search practice has always been thorough reference checking. We do our own 360 by soliciting feedback from at least two subordinates, two peers and two bosses. I've found people are usually co-operative and fair. Many are grateful for an opportunity to discuss performance issues, so they take this responsibility seriously.

But the big question is: can people change? I know executives who went through 360s and were shocked to learn their soft skills need work. To their credit, most of them have smelled the coffee and they've worked hard - through training programs, mentors or coaches - to firm up their weaknesses. If the organization supports them with the time and resources to create change, people really can alter their behaviour - without sacrificing the performance that makes them valuable in the first place.