360 degree feedback focuses on the need to attract develop, engage, and retain employees through matrixed reporting structures. It addresses the desire for more transparency, leading through critical times, managing generational differences and increased employee involvement. These trends are creating the need for managers and leaders to get better feedback about their skills and behaviors from sources other than just their boss.

360 Degree Feedback: Best Practices

A 360 degree feedback process is a very effective way to do that. The goal of 360 degree feedback is to increase an individual’s awareness of his or her behaviors so that they can become a more effective leader. Feedback is solicited from an individual’s supervisor, direct reports, peers, and others and then compares that feedback with a self-assessment to determine strengths, development needs and potential “blind spots.” This type of feedback can be a valuable tool if used correctly. Based on our experience implementing 360 degree feedback processes, we have put together a list of nine best practices that we’ve found are essential to success.

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A Clear Purpose

The 360 degree feedback process should be designed to address a specific business or strategic need. For example:

  • Building the talent pipeline
  • Improving leadership depth to meet current or future organizational needs
  • Providing feedback on core organizational competencies (i.e., success factors)
  • Enhancing sales skills (or sales management skills) to strengthen the sales team

The key is to be clear about the strategic purpose and clearly communicate that to participants and raters.

360 Feedback Best PracticesFocus on Development versus Performance

A key to a successful process is to use the tool for development. While there is an ‘evaluative’ component to the process, the outcome is about overall employee growth. If the process is seen as a performance tool, problems can emerge (e.g., employee resistance, rater’s ‘padding’ responses, and fear of retaliation that may prevent candid feedback).

Create a Meaningful Competency Model

Build a customized competency model that focuses on the specific behaviors your leaders must demonstrate to help your organization succeed in the future (versus a one size fits all approach). Align the competencies and behaviors with strategic objectives. By identifying the essential behaviors needed, the competency model will define your organization’s overall leadership expectations and will serve as a guide for talent management and succession planning. Involve key stakeholders in the competency model development process to create buy-in.

Build in Accountability for Results and Change

Require that participants complete an action plan and that they share the action plan with their manager/supervisor. Require supervisors to conduct a coaching (development) meeting with their respective 360 participants to review the action plan and discuss next steps. Regular (informal) coaching should occur over time; formal “check-in” meetings (e.g., every six months) should take place to review progress against the development plan.
Support managers in their role in the process. In many organizations, the managers/supervisors are not necessarily seasoned at conducting coaching/development discussions. If this is the case, support them in their role by facilitating train-the-coach sessions. If necessary, provide additional coaching or training for the managers/supervisors (e.g., coaching, giving feedback, listening, handling defensiveness) to build skills.

Identify Gaps and Strengths

Data collected for an individual should be presented in a report format that is clear and concise. Look for a dual scale feature available in some (but not all) instruments. Dual rating scales enable gap analyses tailored to the position of the person being rated. These scales give raters an opportunity to give feedback on current behavior as well as needed behaviors. The result is a look at both strengths (small gaps) and development needs (larger gaps) represented in the report graphic below. The report should outline an individual’s strengths and areas for improvement. Reporting both strengths and areas for improvement provides the best opportunity for development planning.

Maintain Confidentiality

Confidentiality can be a concern for the individual being evaluated as well as those providing the feedback. This is one reason most organizations use an external partner to administer the process. Make sure that those who complete feedback instruments will not be individually identified. Create a process where they are comfortable giving honest and complete feedback.
When setting minimum response rates consider the culture of your organization (for example, it is customary for minimum response rates for direct report and peer groups to be set at three; however, some organizations set them at four given the culture and climate of their organization).

Give Individual Participants “Ownership”

Give 360 degree feedback participants ownership of the process. Allow them to select their raters. If they have their raters assigned to them it is easier to disown the data since they weren’t involved in the selection of the raters. We do find it helpful to have the manager/supervisor participate in the rater selection process. That way s/he is involved at the front-end of the process as well as the back-end while coaching and providing support.
Share feedback directly with participants as soon as possible following the administration process. The 360 participant should be the direct recipient of the report. If HR Business Partners, OD Practitioners, or in some companies (depending on culture) the managers, have been through a train-the-coach session, they may also receive a copy of the report so they can facilitate a coaching/feedback meeting.
We do recommend that participants share action plans with their supervisor. The supervisor can then use the action plan as a framework for developmental discussions and goal setting.

Support the Process

Ideally, a process is in place where someone facilitates a coaching/feedback session with the 360 participant (outside coach, HR/OD Business Partner). The purpose of this meeting is to help the participant read and interpret results, identify strengths and development needs, work through any defensiveness, answer questions, provide focus for development planning, etc.). This is followed by the development discussion the participant has with his/her manager. Finally, it is important to support the overall process with resources (e.g., training, books, materials, ongoing coaching, etc.).
During development planning, remember the 70-20-10 rule. People learn best by doing (e.g., assignments, projects, ‘rolling up their sleeves’ for hands-on tasks). This should be 70% of an individual’s development plan. 20% of the plan should include access to individuals, coaching, mentoring, etc. Finally, only 10% of the plan should be formal training, reading books, attending conferences, etc. It is easy to reverse the numbers in development planning (i.e., 70% of the development goals are about training, reading books, attending conferences, etc.). Work hard so this does not happen.

Repeat in 12 to 24 Months

Organizations that have successful 360 degree feedback processes measure progress and improvement efforts by administering again in 12-24 months. While nothing is static (i.e., direct reports may change, roles and responsibilities may change), repeating the process helps to provide participants with a metric over time. The organization can also monitor its results by analyzing changes in the aggregate report.