Everything you need to know about 360 degree feedback

360 degree feedback is an invaluable tool for improving employee performance and organisational success. This post guides you through everything you need to know about 360 degree feedback providing the essential advice and tips you need to ensure your 360 degree feedback process has maximum impact.

What is 360 degree feedback?

360 degree feedback (also known as multi-source or multi rater feedback assessment) is a way for individuals to understand their personal strengths and weaknesses, using the feedback of others who work with them the most.

Whilst traditional feedback at work comes from managers and supervisors, 360 degree feedback also takes into account reviews from direct reports, colleagues, managers, customers and other external sources who interact with the employee.

All of these stakeholders or ‘raters’ provide input that can be used to evaluate performance and offer real-time feedback on skills, behaviours and relationships in the organisation.

What 360 degree feedback is not

360 feedback is not:

  • a way to measure performance objectives.
  • a way to determine whether an employee is meeting basic job requirements.
  • an assessment of basic technical or job-specific skills.

Although you will see 360 degree feedback also referred to as 360 appraisal or 360 degree assessment, our recommendation is that it should only be used as a developmental tool, 360 should not be used as a performance management tool.

Where 360 degree feedback is linked into any kind of performance rating or reward mechanism it opens itself up to lots of manipulation. After all, how can anyone adopt an open mind towards their development needs if the end result could impact their financial or career prospects.

What are the benefits of 360 degree feedback?

In our view, there are several benefits of 360 degree feedback that make it the most effective method for promoting behaviour change.

The benefits of 360 degree feedback to the organisation

360 degree feedback can be scaled to suit the needs of the organisation. It is as straightforward to implement it for thousands of people as it is for one person.

360 degree feedback can be targetted at the needs of specific groups. You could use different 360 degree feedback questionnaires for senior leaders versus first line supervisors etc.

360 degree feedback is an effective way to drive culture change across the organisation. How leaders behave defines the culture of your business – every thing they say and do, and how they say and do it, sets the tone for how things should be done. Everyone else in the organisation looks to your leaders and they model the way they do things. If you want to change your culture then you need to change the way your leaders behave. Where you are clear on your organisation’s values and culture you can design your 360 feedback process to provide feedback on those specific things. Where all of your leaders go through the process together you will see a shift in the way managers do things.

360 feedback can build a culture of feedback. Managers in most organisations tend to be pretty poor at giving feedback, but 360 provides a structured mechanism for this to happen more consistently and more constructively. In addition, developing the skills to facilitate 360 degree feedback can be invaluable for any employee.

360 degree feedback is measurable. As 360 is a data-based process, using 360 degree feedback before and after other development interventions means that shifts in behaviour across the organisation can be measured. Even repeating the process on its own without any other learning intervention provides enough motivation for managers to implement learning actions – after all, what gets measured gets done!

360 degree feedback is quick to administer. From initial design to delivering feedback to individual recipients could be done within three to four weeks. This is far quicker than designing and rolling out a training course.

360 degree feedback is highly cost-effective. Not only is the admin cost likely to be significantly lower than the per person cost of a training course, but the return on investment is much higher.

The benefits of 360 degree feedback to the individual

As a leadership development tool, 360 degree feedback has several key benefits for managers.

360 degree feedback enhances self-awareness. This is perhaps the biggest benefit of using 360 degree feedback. With 360 degree feedback, people are able to compare their self-ratings to the ratings from others and it is when presented with this evidence that people will develop a far greater understanding of how others see them in reality.

360 degree feedback is more likely to result in tangible behaviour change. When faced with 360 degree feedback people are much more likely to accept it as being ‘real’ and not just down to the potentially skewed view of one person. A well designed 360 feedback process combined with well facilitated feedback is much more likely to result in people doing things differently in practice than they are as a result of attending things like traditional training courses.

360 degree feedback is highly individualised. The nature of 360 degree feedback means that the outcome is totally focussed on the individual’s learning needs. Even where the same 360 feedback model is used for a number of people, what they take from the feedback will be totally unique to them. The feedback discussion process is much more private and focussed on the individual than a training course. A good 360 degree feedback discussion will actually be more like a coaching session. This means that the individual receiving the feedback is much more likely to buy in to the feedback and do something with it as a result.

What are the downsides of 360 degree feedback?

Unfortunately, we do meet senior leaders who are reluctant to implement 360 degree feedback as ‘they have previously had a bad experience with it’. This is usually down to the way it was implemented rather than the idea of 360 feedback itself.

360 degree feedback can cause anxiety. This applies both to the people receiving the feedback and those being asked to provide the feedback. Feedback raters may fear retribution if their feedback is perceived to be negative. Feedback recipients can worry that their capability might be called into question and their future career prospects impacted.

360 degree feedback can add administrative burden. As 360 feedback requires people to complete an online questionnaire about each feedback recipient it is possible that some feedback raters might be required to complete multiple questionnaires. Apart from the potential to cause confusion over whose questionnaire they are completing, it can take up a lot of time to complete the questionnaires.

360 degree feedback can lead to conflicting feedback. Without proper structure, 360-degree feedback can result in the feedback being watered down. For example, if too many raters are invited to take part some raters may be positive in their ratings and others may be negative making it difficult to identify the tru picture. This can be exacerbated where lots of open or free text questions are used.

How can 360 degree feedback be used in practice?

360 degree feedback can be used in several ways:

360 degree feedback can be used to support individual development

360 degree feedback can be deployed at any time, there is no need to wait for the next available course. 360 degree feedback is highly individualised making it much more focussed and relevant to the individual receiving the feedback. The feedback tends to be much more impactful and usually results in an action plan that is based on the individual’s own development needs. 

360 degree feedback can be used to support leadership development

‘Training’ is great for raising people’s awareness of best practice, but it is less effective when it comes to shifting behaviour. 360 degree feedback can complement new thinking by helping people understand how they stack up. In our view, 360 degree feedback is the most (cost) effective way to support managers with their development.

360 degree feedback can be used to support training needs analysis

When used on a specific cohort of people, 360 degree feedback is a great way to understand the group’s overall strengths and development needs enabling you to target your development budget more effectively. 

How people do things is often as important as what they know. 360 degree feedback is a great way to identify behavioural strengths (and development needs) of the people you consider to be your high talent. 

360 degree feedback can be used to support talent management

How people do things is often as important as what they know. 360 degree feedback is a great way to identify behavioural strengths (and development needs) of the people you consider to be your high talent.

What to consider when designing your 360 degree feedback process?

Be clear on the purpose of the process

360 feedback can cause anxiety, especially when people have never been through it before, so it is vital to be clear on the purpose of the process so it can be positioned appropriately. When we hear people say they have previously ‘had a bad experience of 360’ this is often to do with the purpose of the process being unclear.

Some companies use it as part of their appraisal process, but we think the downsides of that outweigh the benefits (read our thoughts on that here). This is why we prefer not to refer to 360 degree feedback as 360 appraisal.

Similarly, we have had some companies ask us to run 360 degree feedback for someone who they have performance concerns with. They want to use the feedback as a way to ‘get through to them’ with a view to making the person understand the nature of the feedback. This is possible, but we would advise against it as it often feels like the process has been manipulated in order to ‘get at someone’. If people feel that change is being forced upon them, or they are being coerced, then it simply will not happen. They are likely to resist every part of the process and it is doomed to fail. They will not be in the right frame of mind to explore how they can do things differently. Instead they will spend all of their effort denying, defending or deflecting the feedback. 

We advise that 360 degree feedback be used as a developmental process that is designed to identify strengths and areas for development.

You may be using 360 for one of several reasons:

  • to reinforce newly defined organisational values or a new leadership framework.
  • to support leadership development programmes.
  • to support your talent management processes.
  • to offer it is an additional development tool that is available to anyone who feels they wouuld benefit from it.
  • to support coaching.
  • to identify development needs.

Whatever the reason for using 360, it will help shape the process if you are clear on the purpose. It goes without saying that this purpose should then be communicated to everyone involved.

Be clear on what to measure and how to measure it

Defining an effective 360 degree feedback questionnaire takes a fair bit of thought. Whilst you could grab a bunch of questions off the internet, our view is that it is more effective to spend a bit of time tailoring the questions to ensure they will support the purpose you have defined for the process, as well as being relevant to your organisation.

You should start by defining the broad subject areas or themes you want to measure in your 360 questionnaire. There are potentially dozens of themes you might want to consider so the ones you choose should be appropriate to the purpose of your 360 degree feedback process.

Once you have defined your themes you should define specific questions within each theme. There are two main types of questions to consider – qualitative (free text) questions and quantitative (rating scale) questions. The bulk of your 360 feedback questionnaire should be composed of quantitative questions supported by a maximum of three free text questions.

Decide how to choose your 360 raters

There are two things to consider – how to choose 360 degree feedback raters, and how many raters to ask to give feedback.

How to choose 360 degree feedback raters?

The quality of the output from your 360 feedback process is most effected by the questions you include in the process and the people you ask to answer those questions, your raters.

We advise against the individual who is to receive the feedback from choosing all of their raters as, for obvious reasons, most people will choose people they feel will give them the most positive feedback!

Having said that, dictating who should be invited to provide feedback can result in resentment and resistance to the process.

A good middle ground is to mandate that the feedback recipient’s manager and all their direct reports to give feedback, but then involve the recipient in defining who else it might be useful to invite. The recipient can then choose colleagues or other stakeholders they feel would be appropriate.

How many people should we ask to give feedback?

This is about balancing the quality of feedback with being inclusive. Inviting too many people to give feedback can actually dilute the quality of the feedback, but not inviting some people can appear to exclude them from the process. This is why we recommend asking all direct reports to give feedback as it can appear divisive to only invite some and not others.

A good number of people to ask is around 8. Once you go beyond 8 the nature of the feedback rarely changes. Some people will also not complete the questionnaire so asking fewer than 8 risks the recipient not actually receiving enough feedback. Of course, there are always variations to this depending on the number of direct reports etc. 

Above all, we strongly recommend that only people who work closely with the feedback recipient are chosen. Where people do not work closely then they find it difficult to answer the questions in the 360 degree feedback questionnaire, which causes frustration on their part. 

What to consider when administering the 360 degree feedback process?

Once you have designed your 360 degree feedback process you are ready to start administering it.

Define a communication plan

People can feel surprised or confused if they receive emails asking them to take part in a 360 degree feedback process if they are unaware of what it is or what it means for them. They are also likely to delete or ignore the request!

As such it will help to communicate to everyone taking part in the 360 feedback process. This includes the feedback recipients and all of their raters. It might even be worth communicating to the recipients’ manager, other HR/OD colleagues and more senior managers. This will avoid the potential for any “I wasn’t informed about this” type of feedback, which can significantly undermine the process.

In addition to other communications, we recommend putting together a 360 degree feedback FAQ document to cover all of the little questions you will get from everyone involved.

Define timescales

The the final question to think about before sending out invitations for people to take part in the 360 feedback process is how long you should give people to complete the process. Nowadays everyone is busy so deciding how long to leave the 360 degree feedback questionnaire open for needs consideration.

There are a few things to consider. The time of year can have an impact. For example, during holiday periods you might decide to give people more time. Depending on your business there may be times of the year where more time would be required, e.g., around Christmas in the retail or hospitality industries. Also, some raters may be asked to complete 360 degree feedback questionnaire for multiple people so they will appreciate having a bit longer to complete them.

One thing we do find is that giving people too much time can actually cause as many issues as not giving people enough time. We actually find that the shorter the deadline, the quicker people tend to complete the 360 degree feedback questionnaire!

As such, we normally agree with our clients that giving people two weeks to complete their 360 degree feedback questionnaires tends to be a good balance.

How to manage delivering the 360 degree feedback

Receiving the feedback is the most critical part of the 360 degree feedback process. No matter how good your 360 questionnaire and process are, if the feedback is handled badly it can be very damaging.

There are two things to consider:

The feedback report

Everything you need to know about 360 degree feedback

The feedback report is a useful document as it provides the focal point for the feedback discussion and it serves as something to refer to following the feedback discussion.

An effective 360 degree feedback report will usually include detail around:

  • Overall competency scores
  • Competency scores split by rater category
  • Top 5 and bottom 5 question scores
  • Question scores split by rater category
  • Free text comments

The feedback discussion

THE most important thing to think about when implementing 360 degree feedback is how to manage an effective 360 degree feedback discussion.

Some organisations don’t actually arrange a feedback discussion with the feedback recipient, they just send them their report. Our advice is to always facilitate the 360 degree feedback through a discussion. Without a facilitated discussion the feedback report will have a lot less impact and it will tend to end up being filed away!

Things to consider when planning for the feedback discussion include when to reveal the 360 feedback report, who should facilitate the feedback discussion and how to then manage the 360 feedback discussion.

The start point is the feedback discussion. A well managed feedback discussion will help people identify the specific things they should continue doing, but also the things they need to start doing, stop doing or do differently.

Skilled feedback facilitators will guide people through their 360 feedback results to ensure a thorough understanding. Once the feedback messages have been understood the feedback facilitator will adopt a coaching style to encourage the individual to define specific learning actions based on their 360 feedback results.

How to maximise the return on investment from your 360 degree feedback process

The ultimate aim of 360 degree feedback is to encourage behaviour change – what we say and do, and how we say and do it. Changes in behaviour are the only true measures of how effective the 360 degree feedback process is.

Action planning

When the process is managed properly and people are presented with high quality feedback, they are much more likely to move from awareness (that something needs to change), through to acceptance, and then to action. 

However, the impact of 360 degree feedback can be limited if the process ends with the feedback. Our experience shows that after the feedback people can be left feeling “so what now?”.

Defining specific actions at the end of the feedback discussion is the first step in ensuring that people actually do something with their 360 degree feedback.

A good 360 degree feedback session should end with specific actions being defined. There is a tendency to over-engineer action plans so we recommend keeping it simple:

  • what are you going to start doing, stop doing or do differently, in specific terms?
  • what practice opportunities can you think of? When will you apply your actions in reality?
  • when and how will you review progress?

What gets measured gets done

The ultimate measure of the effectiveness of your 360 degree feedback process is how much people have changed the way they do things. The best way to establish this is to repeat the process.

Repeating the process is a great way to evaluate the impact of the 360 degree feedback process. Repeating the process increases individual accountability for making changes in behaviour and it provides a tangible measure of individual progress and the effectiveness of any development interventions. Imagine running 360 degree feedback at the start of a leadership programme and then repeating it at the end and seeing an improvement in some of the key behaviours. 

The main thing to bear in mind when deciding when to repeat the process is that it can take several weeks of dedicated effort to break old habits and form new ones. We would generally advise that the process be repeated after 6 months or so.

In conclusion

In our view 360 degree feedback is the most effective way to encourage behaviour change and it is the most cost-effective way to develop people. The benefits far outweigh the potential downsides especially when the process is well designed and implemented.