360 Degree Feedback – the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread – or is it?

It is that time of year again where employees and managers alike begin to think about their performance over the last twelve months.  They know the “inevitable” annual review process is about to begin and are wondering just what they will “learn” about themselves this year.

Many people do a sub-par job at best on their own self-assessment because they don’t believe there is value to the process.  They also believe the only thing that matters is what their manager thinks.  If you are lucky enough to have a manager who likes you, you will receive a good review and in turn, will receive an increase.  If your manager doesn’t like you, your review will reflect that and you are doomed for any future increase or promotion.

Does this sound like anyone at your organization or something you have mumbled to yourself?    Do you ever wish there were additional ways to gather feedback about everything you do? If so….. the introduction of the 360 reviews at your organization might save you.

What it is

The 360-degree feedback process is a way to gather balanced feedback from multiple layers of the organization, and may even include people you interact with outside of your organization.  It can be attributed to feedback or anonymous feedback.  Feedback is summarized and reviewed by rater-category for common themes.

The 360-degree feedback process is most commonly used for one of two reasons: gathering information for development purposes or gathering feedback for performance and salary increases.

A well-executed 360 is a powerful tool. With all the good it can bring to your own personal development and your organization’s performance culture, the 360 should be part of everyone’s annual review process.  If that’s the case, why doesn’t this consistently happen across all organizations?

To put it bluntly – It is not easy to create and manage a successful 360 process. It takes work. It takes trust.  All parties have to trust that their feedback will be used appropriately and for the betterment of all.  Your organization’s culture may play a large part in whether or not holistic feedback is welcome and supported.

Critical success factors

There are a few common “pitfalls” to a 360 process to be aware of if your organization is thinking about adding 360 reviews or looking for ways to make your current process more effective. Implement as many of these as possible to create a successful 360:

  • Executives must go beyond supporting the process: they must participate.  When everyone, including top management, participates, trust in the process flourishes.  Participating shows that executives are open to receiving feedback and will support it being utilized across all levels of the organization.
  • People need evidence that their feedback was heard.  Providing feedback is only a small part of a successful 360 process. Reviewing, digesting and taking noticeable action on the feedback you receive is where the initial groundwork of trust is created.

In addition to these cultural steps – walking the talk and following up on the results – several process steps will also help your organization succeed with 360s:

  • Clearly articulate the 360 processes.  Focus on what is the purpose, how will feedback be gathered and used, what questions will provide the best feedback, and how to understand the results. It is natural for someone in human resources to be very comfortable with a 360 process but that doesn’t mean that all other participants have the same degree of understanding.
  • Train to your process.  Initial education is a must and should be done not only on what a 360 process is but how it fits into your organization’s culture.  Focus on how to give and receive 360 processes. Focus on how to deliver written and oral feedback.  Focus on how to turn feedback both negative and positive received into actionable results.  Once the company gains base-level understanding, utilize your team to tell you where the process is working and where it does not. Continue to train and reinforce the method and behaviors you ultimately hope to achieve.
  • Let the employees lead the process.  No one knows more about who they worked with and who can provide the most accurate feedback than the employee themselves.  Trust them to start the process by selecting their own 360 raters and then have their manager or some other known party review the selections.

Common pitfalls of 360s

Implementing a 360 process shouldn’t be time-consuming, but it’s not without challenges.  Here are some typical ones, and guidelines for getting past each:

  • Initial 360 feedback will tend to the negative – especially if the feedback is anonymous.  In part, this is human nature: we are wired to think in terms of “what’s wrong,” more than “what’s right.” Encourage balance to produce effective results. Stay the course and understand where the feedback is coming from.  Continue to reinforce participation in the process.
  • Anonymous surveys do not mean that people won’t “know” who said what.  Educate people about how their feedback will appear to participants, and how to provide effective 360 commentaries. It’s a good rule of thumb to include at least 8 responses in a survey to increase anonymity. In addition, spend time laying out how feedback will roll up and be summarized for reviewing, to reinforce the way the aggregated data protects individual responses.
  • Providing 360 feedback is time-consuming.  Many of your top performers will be inundated with requests to provide feedback and they may experience rater fatigue.   Educate people as to how to best select their raters and build barriers in the system to limit feedback assignments to a manageable limit.

Properly handled, 360 feedback can be a very effective tool. Seeing yourself through others’ eyes can be very rewarding, and the process itself can help a culture become more open and honest.

Improperly handled, the 360 can reinforce a culture of distrust. To combat this, spend twice as much time creating the process and communicating intentions as you do create the actual 360 surveys.


Finally, be open to feedback on the process itself.  This will continue to ensure your 360 process is growing and evolving with your company and that participants are truly gaining the benefit of a successful 360 process. 360 feedback can indeed be the “saving grace” for your organization. Use it to invigorate your culture. Use it to inject balance into the performance management process. Use it to model taking the time up front to get it right from the very beginning.