Weighing in on the 360-degree feedback assessment vs. development debate

There has always been a debate about whether 360 feedback should be used for performance assessments and reviews. Many practitioners arguing that it should be used solely for developmental purposes.  Here I weigh in on this debate, looking at it from both sides and sharing my personal opinion on how could be best practice.

360-degree feedback is a great people development tool when they’re accompanied by an effective 360 development design.  There are numerous ways that 360-degree feedback is used in companies, such as for development purposes, performance, reward and recognition and leadership development to name a few. 

What is 360-degree feedback?

So let’s begin by clearly defining the term 360-degree feedback is a system or process where employees request and receive confidential, anonymous feedback from multiple respondents on their behaviours and work performance. Typically, their respondents are people who have worked with them directly and can include the employee’s manager, peers, clients, stakeholders and direct reports.

360-degree feedback for development

Using the tool for developmental purposes obviously benefits the participants. 360’s are designed as a non-judgemental process where participants are informed about how their performance is perceived when the process is executed well. The process provides an honest space for the participants to reflect, learn and in many cases improve their performance, as well as build on their strengths. 

It engenders both honesty and openness in the respondents, only if confidentially is maintained and the feedback process following the initiative is managed well.   And honesty and openness in the participants, if they buy-into the tool’s purpose to improve performance, working relationships, self-esteem and confidence. 

In my experience, a well-managed programme contributes to increased leadership engagement in learning, creates a positive perception of the team that executes the process, as well as enhancing the perception of the organisation’s effectiveness and maturity throughout the company.

360-degree feedback for performance, reward and recognition

So, since 360-degree feedback leads to such positive outcomes with so many truths about an individual’s performance coming out of a well-managed programme; and since all companies need to measure individual performance, then it would naturally become a great fit for performance reviews, reward and recognition programmes.

The 360 process by design enables these performance measurement programmes to become more objective.  Gathering a diverse range of opinions on an individual’s performance from multiple raters can increases validity, as the perception of an employee’s performance is not solely in the hands of their line manager. 

The process helps to identify and reward those high potential (HiPo) employees and rewards people for their efforts that can regularly go unnoticed in large organisations.  And most importantly, it provides evidence and makes the performance assessment process more transparent.

The challenges of using 360-degree feedback to measure performance

The debate about using 360 feedback for performance comes from its challenges. Some of the challenges that measuring performance via 360 presents, is whether it contributes to a culture of fear and anxiety, leading to ‘unwellness’ at work.  With the rise in our awareness of the impact of mentally ill health in the workplace, this is a legitimate concern. 

People work and their relationships may become focused on their end of year performance assessment, especially when it’s linked to reward, recognition and in some cases promotion. 

Linking 360s to performance assessment can increase the presence of inauthentic and insincere working relationships, as people worry about challenging others.  As it results in employee’s avoiding healthy conflict and debate, which history has shown actually leads to innovation and more effective working relationships.  

And many researchers have argued that 360s linked to reviews can reduce its effectiveness, as people can hold back on their feedback or play political games (if they understand how the inner workings of the system work and how certain ratings impact themselves or their teams). 

Effective 360-degree feedback design

However, there is a silver lining and I believe things that we can put in place as HR or people development professionals to increase the validity and delivery of a 360-degree feedback process.  Firstly, it begins with communication especially around educating employees about the tool, its purpose and what the business will get out of it. 

The principles and systems behind the process need to be put in place, where employees learn that it’s focused on learning, reflection and growth; and not a way for off-loading poor-performing employees.  If you’re working in an organisation with educated knowledge workers, who are career-driven; then it should be easier to build a culture of growth where employees are empowered to learn and improve their performance.

And although easier said than done, there needs to be the right culture in place for 360 to work.  As linking 360 to performance reward and recognition can happen, if there is the right culture built on trust, commitment, awareness of accountability and occasionally but in necessarily required where employees are executing discretionary effort in their work based on working in the positive cultural environment.

360-degree feedback for leadership development

In terms of leadership development especially when used for developmental purposes to innovate and move a company along, I’ve noticed that 360 feedback does positively pay back an organisation.  This trend was also found in the research of Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman (2002).  However, interestingly they found that 70% of leaders would be better off a building on their strengths rather than fixing their weaknesses, which is mirrored in many of the strength-based development programmes that are in existence today. 

Zenger and Folkman found that leaders were more effective, not because of having no weaknesses or working on eradicating them but because they possess and exploited a handful of strengths.  So, the benefits of leaders understand what their strengths are in order to exploit them led to them become more effective in their roles. 

In summary

On both sides of the coin, there are numerous benefits to using 360’s for development as well as for performance, reward and recognition.  The debate about 360 feedback usage for assessment and development is dependent on the effectiveness of it’s implementation.

The key solution to effectively implementing both these methods is communicating and educating the workforce on its purpose, deliver and desired outcomes.  Any systems and process put in place need to be honest, transparent to result in an organisation’s creating a more insightful and reflective workforce. 

So, a group of employees that although they understand their areas for improvement, works towards exploiting their strengths.  And if the 360 process results in employees finding out that they’re not in the right role for their skills set, they should receive career development opportunities and support to find the right role for them inside or outside their organisation.  This will hopefully lead to better employee engagement, perception and advocacy of the organisation. 

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