What is 360 feedback?

360 feedback provides information on an individual from a number of sources. This gives Managers and individuals better information about skills and performance, and working relationships. Normally, 8-10 people fill in questionnaires describing the individual’s performance. Often, the individual fills in a questionnaire for themselves too, assessing their own performance. Ideally the whole process should be anonymous and the feedback presented to the recipient by a skilled coach.

The questionnaire usually consists of a number of statements rated on a scale, and includes the opportunity to add free text comments. The report should summarise the answers given. It often shows the actual ratings given for each question, and for each competency, and any written comments (a ‘competency’ is an area of performance measured by a group of questions).

As the term ’360 feedback‘ suggests, the recipient receives feedback from those all around them in the organisation: from above (their Manager, or Managers), from below (their direct reports) and from alongside them (their peers or colleagues). And, in today’s flexible and changing organisations, 360 feedback questionnaires are often filled in by a diversity of people, including suppliers and customers outside the business.

360 feedback is growing in popularity as an input to performance management. 360 feedback is useful because it provides:

  • New pertinent information about competencies, and how others see individuals.
  • Valuable input into many of HR’s initiatives, for example coaching, training, leadership development, appraisal, etc.

Because organisations have become less hierarchical, Managers often have multiple lines of reporting and there is much more team-based working, so feedback from just one Manager is no longer sufficient. There are often closer working relationships with other stakeholders, for example clients, customers, and suppliers, who can add a different and valuable perspective.

Does 360 feedback work?

Research on 360 feedback shows a consistent improvement in skills and performance. However, research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in 1997 could not adequately prove that performance management had an effect on business performance, although the research concluded that this was probably because there was not enough evaluation taking place.

If 360 feedback is to make a difference, it is important to ensure that:

  • The questions asked are short, clear and relevant to the person’s job. Atwater et al found clear, relevant questions to be absolutely critical
  • The respondents are credible to the recipient. London and Smither showed that larger samples of respondents are often more credible, and have more impact. However, enlarging the sample by adding respondents who are not credible to the recipient confuses the feedback and dilutes its impact.
  • Everybody gets some critical feedback. Research suggests that mild praise raises self-esteem, but produces no change, except to encourage existing behaviour

Done well, 360 feedback challenges the recipient’s perceptions of their skills and performance, and provides the motivation to change. It can challenge perceptions in three ways:

  • The feedback on an aspect of behaviour is the opposite of what the recipient expects.
  • An aspect of behaviour is shown to be more (or less) important as an explanation of their performance than the recipient thought.
  • The results highlight relationships between aspects of behaviour.

It is often critical feedback that provides the greatest motivation to change, as long as the respondents are credible and their views are of value to the recipient. And good feedback gives people the information they need to change: it tells them in just which competencies their strengths or weaknesses lie.

What can people discover about themselves?

360 feedback should not bring any surprises to people. It should help them to understand how their behaviour is perceived by others and confirm the behaviour that is most likely to get results. If implemented appropriately, it can give good information about:

  • the difference between the way individuals see themselves and how they are perceived by others
  • the differences between the perceptions of different groups of respondents
  • helping to make performance management a more objective and fair process

What concerns do people usually have?

360 feedback is a sensitive issue. The CIPD organisation has come across instances where it has been questioned by individuals, many of which can be traced to inappropriate implementation. In general, if individuals are going to trust the 360 feedback process, practitioners must ensure that:

  • Issues of confidentially are clearly communicated detailing who will have access to the data and for what purpose.
  • It is clearly stated how feedback will be given and by whom.
  • The process for identifying respondents is clearly set out with recipients having some opportunity to input.
  • Sufficient time is allowed to pilot the process and to consult with individuals on both the design and implementation of the process.
  • Both recipients and respondents are adequately briefed on the process, how to complete the relevant forms and the aims and objectives of the exercise.
  • Adequate opportunity is given for people to comment and raise their concerns.
  • People are not forced or coerced to take part by Managers.
  • Feedback is never attributed to an individual, that feedback reports and developments plans are kept secure and that data protection rules are obeyed 
  • The process is constantly monitored and evaluated, all concerns acted on and any changes adequately communicated.

In organisations that do not have a tradition of open feedback or upward communication, it is likely that 360 feedback will be seen with greater levels of mistrust. This can be overcome with sufficient attention to the above issues but may also have to be accompanied with some pertinent challenges to the prevailing culture to establish higher levels of trust.

Generally, an organisation may not be ready for 360 feedback if is in the middle of a change programme which includes downsizing or restructuring and where the aims and objectives can be misinterpreted.