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360 Degree Feedback

Known as multi-source feedback, multi-rater feedback, multi-source assessment, and the full-circle appraisal, 360 degree feedback has taken hold across America in organizations large and small. In fact, research indicates that over 90% of Fortune 1000 companies use some type of multi-source feedback.

During World War II, the military used feedback from multiple sources to evaluate performance; businesses then began gathering feedback from multiple sources. Although gathering feedback from multiple sources gained momentum throughout the 1990s, collecting and compiling feedback was time consuming and cumbersome using a paper system. Gathering feedback from multiple sources using web-based questionnaires has streamlined the process.

Here’s how it works. A questionnaire is developed or purchased from a company that contains items related to job functions like listening, communication, planning, decision-making, interpersonal relationships, job knowledge, flexibility, goal-setting, teamwork, time management, character, and leadership. Sample items might be, “follows through on commitments”, “makes needed adjustments in own behavior” and “sets priorities”.

Rating scales vary by questionnaire and by question. On some questionnaire’s, raters are asked to indicate their agreement with an item by selecting “strongly disagree, moderately disagree, slightly disagree, slightly agree, moderately agree, or strongly agree” relative to the employee. On others, raters are asked to indicate whether each item is a “strength” or “development needed” for the employee.

Questionnaire items and rater attention are focused more on behaviors and competencies than on basic skills, job requirements, and performance objectives, which are usually addressed during performance appraisals.

Feedback is usually gathered from four to eight of an employee’s subordinates, peers and supervisor(s); the employee also completes a self-assessment. Some organizations include feedback gathered from an employee’s customers, vendors, or other external stakeholders. Feedback is usually reported by categories of raters such as self, supervisor(s), peers, direct reports, etc. Information is confidential and some, if not all of it, is anonymous. Human resource professionals may or may not be involved, depending on the organization and how systemic the feedback initiative is.

Employees report that 360 degree feedback more accurately reflects their performance than feedback received from a single individual. This comprehensive circle of feedback helps employees understand how their behaviors, attitudes, and skills are perceived by others; the feedback helps employees understand their strengths and areas for growth. Together, employees and their supervisors use the feedback to identify the need for training and create a professional development plan to enhance their career growth.

Full circle feedback helps support team building and team-based initiatives, since employees are more likely to broaden their thinking beyond their bosses’ expectation and include expectations of peers on their team. Such a feedback initiative fosters employee involvement at every level of the organization, giving people the sense that their input is valued. Shifting the responsibility of gathering feedback from one to several individuals reduces the possible shortcomings of the opinions of any one individual.

Some organizations use 360 degree feedback when making decisions related to employee promotion and pay, provided the feedback initiative is linked with human resources and the performance appraisal system. Care must be taken to address raters who either inflate or deflate their employee ratings to make them look good or bad, respectively. Debate continues to rage about whether or not 360 degree feedback is appropriate when appraising performance.

“The focus of 360 degree feedback should be on learning, not reward or punishment and is therefore more effectively implemented in organizations that have a culture of trust and cooperation,” explains Susan Heathfield, an expert in human resources and organizational development.

Use of 360 degree feedback is most appropriate in both personal and organizational performance development; it is most successful when a coach or human resource professional is involved in the process and when the feedback supports employee development with respect to the organization’s mission, vision and core values.

Organizations considering the use of 360 degree feedback should develop a plan and ask the following questions:

  1. Why do we want to use 360 degree feedback? What are our desired outcomes?
  2. Does our organization have a culture of trust that will support 360 degree feedback?
  3. Will feedback be used for development only or combined with appraisal systems?
  4. How will users be trained in giving and receiving feedback?
  5. How will the feedback initiative be communicated to those in the organization?
  6. How will employees be held accountable for changes based on feedback received?

Regardless of good intentions, a 360 degree feedback initiative is only as good as its two most critical parts: the raters and the questionnaire. Proper selection, orientation, and training of raters are critical to constructive feedback. The questionnaire must be designed to minimize problems with item wording, order, context, and respondent recall. Questionnaires must be tested for reliability and validity. This ensures that every question means the same thing to each respondent and that the item really measures what it is intended to measure. Very few organizations have the capability to do this in-house.

If you don’t ask the right questions in the right way, you won’t get the information you need! Why spend time on an initiative that lies outside of your core competencies? Tap into the expertise of companies that provide reliable, valid surveys along with data analysis and external benchmarking capabilities. Do the right thing and do it right.

If you would like to learn more about how NBRI can help you gather 360 degree feedback in your organization, contact us at 800-756-6168.

Terrie Nolinske, Ph.D.

Research Associate

National Business Research Institute

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