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360′s: The Right Way and Wrong Way

Strong leaders have an odd blend of self-confident self-sufficiency and insatiable curiosity. They have the self awareness to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, yet also know that what they think about themselves is less important than what the people they serve – customers, vendors, employees, shareholders – think about them. They regularly seek feedback on their performance. Think of former NY Mayor Ed Koch who would continuously ask, “How am I doing?”

Many organizations have institutionalized the practice of periodically requesting 360 degree feedback as part of their review and development processes. There are many ways to do this. Some work better than others. Some are dangerous.

For most of my career, I have used qualitative 360′s to evaluate my own performance and that of subordinates and clients. I keep it simple, asking five questions:

  • Overall, how is this person doing?
  • What are his/her strengths?
  • What are his/her opportunities for improvement?
  • What should he/she start doing?
  • What should he/she stop doing?

The idea is to get people talking, to probe the silences and meanings between the lines, and look for commonalities and differences in different people’s comments.

This is a powerful tool, but time consuming. Not surprisingly, an industry has grown with automated online 360 assessments. They not only efficiently provide more data points; they also facilitate benchmarking.

And therein lies the problem.

360′s are wonderful for identifying blind spots and to raise questions for further exploration. They are terrible for forming judgments about someone’s performance. And benchmarking automatically encourages judgment.

Why? Call it apples and oranges syndrome. Different people and different organizations approach 360s differently. That makes comparison to benchmarks – averages – meaningless. And without meaningful standards to evaluate results against, making judgments based on these surveys is a misuse of data.

Over a decade ago, I was given the opportunity for a broad 360, along with most of the other managers in my company. I was pretty new there, and was eager for feedback. I included in my feedback everyone I dealt with, including two subordinates who were in process of being terminated.

I got a lot of useful feedback. But my scores were far below the benchmarks. Being analytically minded, I dug into the numbers and found that every question had 2 people who rated me zero on a five point scale. If I assumed that those were unreliable respondents – possibly vengeful – and recalculated my scores excluding the zeros, my ratings strongly above average.

My boss saw the below benchmark scores and informed me I had a performance problem. He did not want to hear about the two consistent outliers. “The numbers speak for themselves,” he said.

I mentioned this to a friend within the company, and she was horrified. “Mark,” she said, “these 360′s are used for management decisions. We all cherry-pick our panels. No one puts in someone who might rate them low.”

So there was gamesmanship involved. The game may be played differently in different organizations, but it’s safe to say that different people will approach 360s with different rules and assumptions. Averaging them and establishing benchmarks is therefore inappropriate. Apples and oranges.

I strongly encourage leaders and managers to get feedback from these powerful tools. But understand the limits of the methodology, and don’t try to evaluate versus benchmarks based on averages. Use the feedback to find areas to probe and explore. Then make informed decisions.

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