360 feedback: Do I Have To?

April 20th, 2014

360 feedback: Do I Have To?

You may have read a few of our articles on 'Feedback' recently. Articles such as 'Feedback Phobia' and 'Rules Of Engagement', which each highlight how effective feedback can be, but how it is often greeted with negativity. Some managers avoid it because they feel uncomfortable giving feedback. A majority of staff feel the feedback they receive is unfair or inaccurate.

I experienced this negativity recently, when I received a less-than-enthusiastic response from a client who had learnt that her organisation would be introducing 360-degree feedback for senior managers.

For those of you who are not familiar with the technique, 360-degree feedback aims to improve the quality of information by including ratings and comments from a wide range of colleagues and external sources.

But does it actually work?

Many vendors of 360 software emphasise its awareness-raising powers. However, knowing what you should be doing better is not always the same as actually doing it better! Managers also need to accept the feedback and commit to action in order to make necessary changes.

In order to truly understand whether 360 feedback is effective we need to look at whether it leads to greater acceptance of feedback and more developmental action.

I recently attended a lecture by a former professor of mine who berated the room of coaches for failing to base their practice on solid evidence! With this in mind, I turned back to the academic literature to look at the evidence relating to 360 feedback.

Nowack and Mashihi's 2012 review of the 360 research concluded that it can lead to successful behavioural change but only when conducted under the right conditions. In the wrong circumstances 360 feedback, at best, leads to no change and, at worst, can be damaging to the managers involved.

So what do we need to consider when introducing 360 feedback? Broadly, we need two things: good data and good coaching.

Let's dive into those two points in a little more detail, shall we?

1. Good Data

This means making sure that the design of the questionnaire itself provides the most accurate and relevant information possible, which makes the feedback easier for managers to accept and take on board.

I appreciate that, as a business psychologist, I am more interested in the psychometric properties of questionnaires than most normal people, so I'll just say that you can improve your 360 questionnaires by paying attention to:

-The type and number of raters

-Looking at both the average and the range of scores

-Using an appropriate rating scale

-Designing a custom questionnaire based around your organisation's values and competencies

-Generating reports that use a variety of graphs, charts and comments to appeal to managers with different learning types.

2. Good Coaching

This is key to both the acceptance of the feedback by managers and to putting change into action.

Managers who have high self-esteem, low anxiety, high extraversion and conscientiousness are more likely to take feedback on board, be motivated to make changes and actually engage in personal development. For those of us who don't fit into this group we may need a bit more support to come to terms with the feedback and get off our chairs to make changes!

Those with low self-esteem will need more support to view 360 favourably. They often rate themselves lower than others rate them, have difficulty believing that others see strengths in them and focus too much on any negative feedback.

Managers who rate themselves higher than others may rate them, can struggle to accept the feedback and have negative reactions to the process, being defensive and hostile. These managers (who are often older males) can also be high achievers with high self-esteem and are the same group who are prone to stress-related heart problems and high blood pressure.

A good coach and/or business psychologist will identify and understand these factors. This makes them able to design a 360 feedback process that will break down resistance and increase acceptance of the feedback.

Finally, a good coach will use the feedback session to make developmental recommendations and agree actions. The research also suggests that it is important to involve line managers in this process and for coaches to follow-up on progress over time.

So what does this tell us?

I believe that 360 feedback can work, but only in the right circumstances and when working with people who really understand what will make a 360 feedback process successful.

The client that I referred to earlier in this article initially responded negatively to the thought of 360 feedback based on her past experiences. However, by working through the results with an experienced business psychologist she was reassured by the overwhelmingly positive feedback. She left the process with an understanding of a few key behaviours and trends that were holding her back, a clear action plan for addressing these and ongoing support from a coach. When 360 feedback is delivered in the right circumstances,it can be hugely successful.

If you would like to learn more about 360 Feedback click here

Pip Gwynn

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