Help Employees Reach Goals with 360-Degree Feedback

Help Employees Reach Goals with 360-Degree Feedback

The 360-degree feedback mechanism for evaluating employees has been in use for decades — long enough for a battery of academic studies to highlight its benefits and drawbacks.

051816_Thinkstock_484956744_lores_KKFirst, consider the limitations of the traditional supervisor-only evaluation, particularly for employees who work in teams or who have subordinates of their own. In this environment, direct supervisors:

  • Often find it hard to give critical feedback to employees they’ve become close to over the years,
  • Might have biases that unduly influence their assessments one way or another, and
  • Have a limited means of understanding how colleagues, subordinates and others may perceive the employee.

A 360-degree feedback system can help you overcome those obstacles.

Start Cautiously

Before you jump into it, it might be more prudent to start a 360-degree system in conjunction with an ongoing development process, simply to pinpoint areas where an employee might benefit from additional training. Why? This allows you to gain confidence in your ability to evaluate the feedback you get from the process.

With some experience, you should be able to weed out comments that amount to complaints from disgruntled subordinates or colleagues. Also, employees are more likely to warm up to the process if they know that you’re giving it a trial run. Keep in mind that ideally people need at least six months of working with a person to be able to make valid evaluations.

If your organization is large enough, you might consider starting off with a 360-degree-feedback performance-rating pilot project in one department or division, before launching the program company-wide.

These programs aren’t always anonymous. One school of thought holds that it’s better for all raters in a 360-degree program to identify themselves in order to:

  • Maintain accountability, thus encouraging constructive and detailed input and helping avoid toxic comments and even conspiracies that damage an employee’s reputation,
  • Encourage a workforce culture of openness, and
  • Make it possible for an employee to engage directly to resolve a specific complaint or concern.

Anonymity Preferred

Still, most 360-degree programs are based on anonymity. That allows those providing the feedback to give more than bland or favorable comments out of fear of negative repercussions. Anonymous or not, a side benefit to a well-managed 360-degree program is that those giving the feedback get the message that their opinions matter.

Advocates of these systems encourage employers to avoid launching a 360-degree program until they’ve identified a specific purpose for it. That way, they can also establish a basis or benchmark for evaluating the success of the program. An example of a valid purpose might be to change an organization that has developed a rigid hierarchy into one with a culture that emphasizes continuous feedback and improvement.

Keep in mind that when you’re identifying a purpose, this type of system shouldn’t be viewed as a way to address poor employee job performance. Employees might become more self aware through the process, but it isn’t a substitute for direct communication between a supervisor and an employee.

Survey Design

If you’re designing your company’s program in-house, a critical element is the outline of the survey, which should include:

  • Questionnaires that aren’t too long (it should be possible to do a review in 15 to 20 minutes),
  • Questions that have one point and are as short as practically possible,
  • Questions that are unbiased and avoid words such as “excellent” or “always,” and
  • Rating scales of at least seven to 10 points that ask to what extent the person being rated exhibits the behaviour, rather than how often,

It’s also a good idea to use a dual-rating scale that includes both quantitative and qualitative performance questions. For example, you could ask:

1. To what extent does this person exhibit a behaviour?

2. Given the person’s role, to what extent should the person exhibit the behaviour?

By comparing the answers, you basically perform a gap analysis that helps interpret the results and reduces a rater’s bias to score consistently high or low.

Best Practices

Here are some pointers for implementing an effective 360-degree program:

  • Tell feedback providers how their input will be used, to assure them their time will be well spent.
  • Train feedback providers on the importance of being objective and avoiding invalid observations that might arise from their own prejudices.
  • Ask feedback providers to comment only on aspects of the subject employee’s performance that they’re in a position to observe.
  • Ensure the performance criteria are job-related and not personal in nature.
  • Require some accountability, even with anonymous feedback systems. Incorporate a mechanism that would enable someone other than the subject of the evaluation, for example, a senior human resource manager, to address any abuse of the system.
  • Ensure adequate participation to assign maximum statistical validity to feedback results.
  • Have a system in place to help the subjects of the feedback process and act on the input they receive.
  • Build in and follow a process to periodically evaluate the overall statistical validity and goal achievement of the program.

No Guarantee

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a 360-degree feedback system will accomplish the goals you set for it. But, as this method of review was pioneered in the 1950s and rose to popularity in the 1990s, its longevity alone suggests it might be worth a try.

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