360 assessment guide for managing effective leaders

In many organizations, performance reviews are conducted by supervisors who may not even be familiar with the leaders they’re assessing.

While this approach may work for some, a 360 degree approach is more effective for most.

A 360 assessment provides a holistic view of leadership abilities, skills and job performance.

It can also uncover qualities that typical reviews don’t, like interpersonal skills and the ability to be a team player.

To fully utilize these assessments, there are some guidelines that facilitators and raters must understand. We’ll explain those guidelines and how your organization can use 360 assessments to more effectively manage its leaders. 

A 360 Assessment Overview

The 360 assessment, also known as 360 degree assessment, is a powerful performance feedback tool that utilizes evaluations from a leader’s supervisors, peers, and subordinates. There is also typically a self-evaluation section for the leader.

In some settings, customers or clients may also be included. This allows for feedback from various points of view at several different levels.

Most organizations use the 360 degree assessment to implement and improve professional development. While it does help create an effective performance evaluation, it also offers opinions and observations that the leader can use to shape his or her career path and future.

Evolution of a leadership growth tool

Using surveys to obtain feedback from a 360 perspective is not a new practice. In the1950s the Esso Research and Engineering Company used this tool to evaluate employees. This resulted in a more powerful, efficient workforce and increased financial success which ultimately led to a buyout of the company, placing them in the Exxon Mobil family.

The early success of this concept was not without its growing pains. It was a little cumbersome in its infancy because the feedback had to be handwritten. This prevented the complete anonymity that is a cornerstone of the system. The invention of the typewriter made this easier and the feedback more secure. The emergence of the internet was a game changer though, allowing a faster, completely anonymous, and more efficient way to conduct the surveys.

The 360 degree feedback concept gained traction in the 1980s, growing in popularity as companies like General Electric began adopting the idea and experienced incredible success. Jack Welch, CEO of GE, used the 360 degree feedback in conjunction with the six sigma program to identify and retain the top employees which also boosted shareholder value each year.

Today, the 360 Degree Feedback system has grown in popularity, earning a mention in a Fortune magazine which estimated that some form of the method was being utilized by around 90% of all Fortune 500 companies. Further, around a third of companies in the United States, overall, also use 360 degree feedback. It has become a standard in corporate development with a big push to keep it as an internet service.

Breaking the performance feedback mold

The typical performance review structure is based on a downward feedback model that addresses performance and work behavior. It’s usually delivered by management or supervisory staff to subordinates.

There is no lateral or subordinate evaluation with this approach. Another feedback model that is often used involves upward feedback that is conducted by subordinates and delivered to management or supervisory staff.

Although they can garner some valuable information on work performance and areas to improve, they are still typically short-sighted and one-dimensional.

A 360 assessment takes a different approach to managing leaders. It provides a broad, multi-dimensional scope to the review table. Employees can use the information to structure their own developmental path within the organization or industry.

The 360 assessment isn’t recommended as a stand-alone assessment, but rather as a supporting piece of your overall leader development program. This is often misunderstood by companies or falsely advertised by unreliable employee development providers.

Despite that, many organizations are realizing its flexibility and potentially broad applications.

A Question of Accuracy and Universal Application

Despite the success corporations have experienced with the 360 degree assessment, it is not a perfect system and some controversy has emerged regarding its accuracy and ability to be customized to meet the needs of all organizations.

The question of rater accuracy was raised because the length of time the person being evaluated has known the rater has a significant impact on the outcome and accuracy of the review. Studies show the degrees of influence that time known affects rater accuracy. In order of accuracy, from most accurate to least accurate, they are:

360 assessment accuracy scale

The reasoning for this, according to researchers, is that knowing someone for one to three years allow them to get past the initial period where first impressions and more formal behavior are more prevalent, keeping the “real person” to be evident. Those who know an individual for less than a year are still seeing the person on their best behavior.

At the one to three-year mark, that person is more relaxed. Beyond three years, though, the rater may allow some bias to creep in and generalized the individual as opposed to seeing them in a more objective light. The results can also vary widely among multiple raters. This can make it difficult to determine which feedback is accurate and which is based on biases and motivations of the raters.

The other controversy centers on the ability for the system to be customized to fit the organization using it. Not all jobs or even all types of organizations will find that it works for them.

There has been some criticism of companies that use the system for appraisal purposes, mainly because it is not likely that all employees will receive adequate training to properly evaluate their coworker’s performance.

A few companies that use the 360 degree assessment have reported instances of employees manipulating the feedback ratings. Among those companies are Amazon, IBM, and GE, so this issue isn’t confined to small or even mid-sized companies. Even major, large corporations are susceptible to fraud regarding the 360 degree assessment system.

The Real Purpose Of A 360 Assessment

Supervisor roles don’t always allow for sight or understanding that extends beyond that of the person in that role.

It can be difficult for managers and supervisors to evaluate the effectiveness of a leader’s interaction with subordinates and in order to be an effective leader, there must be a 360 degree view.

Every individual or group that the leader comes in contact with is affected in a unique way. By providing the broad and varied insight from many different sources, leaders can take the feedback and apply it to their behaviors and practices, seek training where needed, and use it to grow professionally and personally.

In short: It helps build better, more effective leaders.

This level of feedback helps each leader to understand strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It allows subordinates to contribute their own insights into various aspects of the leader’s work to make him or her a better leader.

The assessment can highlight areas that are working and areas that need more development. It is a powerful addition to an organization’s performance management system when the findings are supported by training and development techniques. It is not a static process like many performance reviews.

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360 Assessment Misapplications

The 360 degree assessment is a valuable feedback tool when used for developmental purposes. However, it is improperly used by many organizations.

Some of the common misapplications of the program include:

Not protecting people’s confidentiality

This means failing to protect the confidentiality of the people who were interviewed. The feedback sources as well as results must be kept anonymous.

When that confidentiality is breached, it can be extremely destructive to employee morale, the integrity of the system, and the organization as a whole. 

Each contributor must be assured that their feedback will be anonymous and the employee will receive all responses in a way that is constructive. This allows participants to incorporate the information into a professional development plan.

Using the assessment for negative feedback

It’s wrong to use an assessment to gather negative feedback on an employee who is ineffective or unproductive in an effort to remove them from the position, section, or company.

This is very likely to backfire in that other leaders and employees will be unwilling to participate in future assessments, thus missing out on a truly beneficial, growth experience.

It is vital that leaders believe the assessment will be used to help them succeed, not as a manipulation tool to get rid of certain leaders and employees.

Misinterpreting assessment feedback

Feedback delivery is another problem area for many organizations. All too often they fail to utilize expert assistance when reviewing the feedback report and interpreting the data.

Sensitive information is at great risk of being misused, mishandled, and misinterpreted. A manager who has been trained in the interpretation and provision of feedback is critical, although HR professionals or coaches who are experienced in the appropriate method of feedback delivery are also viable options.

The proper training enables the deliverer to become a facilitator, helping the leader process the feedback in a context that is positive and focused on development and success. This is important to ensure that they can leverage their strengths as well as identify weaknesses.

The Benefits Of 360 Degree Assessments

Organizations can realize many valuable benefits when they implement the 360 assessment for their leaders. Some of the most notable benefits include:

It strengthens and develops teams. Team members can gain insight into learning better strategies for working together and working more effectively as a team. With all team members involved, it holds them accountable to their coworkers while aiding in creating an environment of better communication and strong team development.

It puts the responsibility for professional and career development in the hands of the leader. Leaders can take the information and determine the best course of action for developing their career.

More relevant feedback from a broader scope of sources. More sources mean more perspectives and this lends to a well-rounded feedback experience from supervisors, coworkers, peers, and others.

In an environment that employs single voice feedback, this is certainly an improvement. The structure streamlines the process and removes a great deal of pressure from the manager as many people are involved, thus carrying some of the weight.

The perceptions of various sources paint a larger, more accurate picture and helps leaders better comprehend their own role in the organization and how other members of the staff view their effectiveness and work.

It highlights and provides understanding and insight into performance development needs on a professional, organizational, and personal level.

Substantially reduced risk of discrimination. Because the feedback is coming from many different sources, there is less of a chance for the leader to be discriminated against based. It also prevents a supervisor from conducting an assessment based on any emotions, either from an interaction with the leader or a conflict at home.

Potential Drawbacks Of 360 Degree Feedback

While there are many benefits to 360 degree feedback, there are also some drawbacks. Most come from an organization’s misapplication of the tool or misunderstanding. Here are some examples: 

The feedback fails to follow effective change management guidelines. Often the system is obtained because it was mentioned in a seminar or book, but it is not understood that it is not a plug and play system. 360 degree feedback is meant to be integrated into a performance management system and the resulting actions should follow those of any planned change within the organization.

The feedback focuses on the individual’s weaknesses and negatives. This is why a good coach or manager trained in 360 degree feedback is so essential. Effective managers focus on the strengths and positives of their leaders while helping the leader convert their weaknesses into strengths.

Sometimes an organization’s expectations for the system are more than it can deliver. It is important to understand that it is not a full performance management system, but instead was created to act more as a part of a larger development and feedback tool within the organization.

Assessments do not capture sufficient information. Sometimes the feedback that is gathered is not clear or is confusing and the leader or supervisor is unable to interpret it.

Because the feedback is anonymous, the leader is not able to reach out to the source and request clarification or additional information. To prevent this, organizations should develop coaches who are trained in the 360 degree process. They can work with the parties and help interpret and clarify feedback, making the process much more rewarding.

The system is not connected to the organization’s strategic aims. In other words, the feedback received should be aimed at their performance of expected job duties and related competencies. It is intended to be a support for the requirements and direction of the organization.

The sources are not experienced at rating or are not effective. The people who are providing the feedback need training as well as other players in the process. There must be a structure in place so that sources can’t inflate ratings to boost a leader or deflate them to bring the leader down.

Communicating with the Raters

The primary issue with raters participating in a 360 review assessment is the concern that their responses will not be kept confidential or that the individual being reviewed will be able to identify them based on the feedback they provide. This can cause them to feel uncomfortable and inhibit their willingness to offer candid, honest feedback.

Communicating the measures that have been taken to keep the assessment confidential will help the respondents feel more comfortable with the process. Another measure that encourages candid, honest feedback is using a neutral third party to collect the data. Most people feel more comfortable providing feedback when it is collected by an outside source.

Training is also a good practice to help the respondents have a better idea of the most useful, best feedback to provide. They need to understand that personal feelings should not weigh too heavily in the feedback given (although, the majority of people will draw from some personal bias).

There are 360 assessment trainers available that can help acclimate responders to the system and help them understand the process so that they can be the most effective and provide the most relevant data possible.

Preparing the participants is as important as developing the system itself. The same care and detail that went into creating the questions and establishing the program should go into preparing all involved parties including the responders, the person being evaluated, the person analyzing the data, and the person providing the feedback.

Communicating with the Individual being Reviewed

Delivering the feedback from a 360 degree assessment can be a delicate affair. Often, the employee receiving the feedback is nervous, uncertain, and may feel as if his or her job is on the line.

Open communication can help to alleviate those anxieties. Address any potential misunderstandings or misinformation about the assessment either in a separate meeting or at the beginning of the feedback review.

If the employee is willing to open up and share their concerns, that will allow for the most effective approach. However, some employees may not be very forthcoming or willing to share their concerns so the next best thing is to anticipate those concerns and address them. Some questions to address include:

  • The purpose of conducting the assessments.
  • How the data is collected.
  • How the data is processed.
  • Who will see the collected data? Will the person’s supervisor see it, or senior management? Will HR see it?
  • How will the data be used? How will it be used by each person who will see it (if they differ)?
  • Can they lose their job because of the results? Can they be penalized or demoted because of the results?
  • When will the results be delivered?
  • How will the results be delivered?
  • Is it mandatory that they participate in the assessment? Are they allowed to opt out? If so, what is required for opting out? How will opting out affect their position or employment?
  • How will the raters be chosen? Will HR choose them? The person’s supervisor?
  • Who is managing the assessment? Is it HR or is it the specific branch, section, or team?
  • What happens after the results are processed?

The more information that is provided, the more comfortable the participants will be and the more likely they will be to participate freely.

The review itself should be neutral in tone with any criticism framed as opportunities for growth. Personal issues should be avoided as much as possible.

The aim of the assessment is to facilitate growth and identify strong employees with potential to best support the organization. In many cases, using a neutral third party to administer feedback is preferable.

The Types Of Feedback From 360 Assessments

Various assessments each provide a different perspective and fulfill a different purpose for the evaluation. Your assessment may include one or all of the following types of feedback:

Self-Assessed Feedback

When a leader is tasked with a self-assessment, it helps to improve the communications and interactions between subordinates and supervisors. The leader should be trained to make notes and keep records of failures and accomplishments on the job throughout the period that the performance is monitored.

The performance plan should be the foundation for the self-assessment, but it should also highlight the leader’s growth capacity, their potential for promotion, and any training needs.

Often, leaders will give themselves higher ratings than their supervisors or peers. When the discrepancy between the two is discussed, the leader can become defensive or feel that the supervisor is being unfair if the supervisor is not trained in providing effective feedback.

On the other hand, a leader may provide significantly lower ratings and be self-deprecating, intimidated, or self-demeaning. In these cases, it is the job of the supervisor to provide effective feedback and help the leader get a more realistic view of their performance and potential.

Peer-Based Feedback

Peer influence is powerful in a working environment. Often, where subordinates resent making their superiors look good, they seek out opportunities to build up their coworkers. This makes a much more effective team that is committed to meeting the department’s or organization’s goals.

Peer feedback is a proven method for predicting future performance. However, it does require perspective that the supervisor provides.

While peer reviews are effective for identifying candidates for awards or recognition, they’re typically not used for job retention, promotion, or salary increase. It is also a widely held belief that peer contributors should not have their identities revealed. The anonymity ensures honest feedback.

On the other hand, teams that are more mature and very close may benefit from a more open approach. It is vital that the peers who are doing the evaluations know the tasks of the person they are evaluating. They should have a very good understanding in order to be able to provide an effective evaluation.

Subordinate-Based Feedback

By formalizing the feedback program for leaders (where they are the raters), the supervisor can obtain a clearer picture of the needs of the leader. Subordinate feedback can reveal the interpersonal skills of their leader as well as his or her effectiveness as a leader. However, it may not be as effective for evaluating skills and abilities that are task oriented.

Anonymity is very important at this level. When they are not protected by anonymous submissions, the results will be tainted. Most will not be honest or will provide gratuitous responses that are not helpful at all.

In instances where the leader has fewer than four subordinates, he or she should not be given the ratings. Instead, the leader should discuss the results in a way that identities are protected.

Superior-Based Feedback

The first-line supervisor is usually the best choice for this level of feedback. They should also be the one to perform the complete performance management cycle which includes planning, monitoring, developing, appraising, and rewarding.

This is key because they have the power to redesign the leader’s work structure or reassign tasks if needed.

In some circumstances, the supervisor does not work closely with the leader they are evaluating or they oversee many leaders.

This can mean that they are not as closely familiar with the leader’s performance and behaviors as they should be as raters. This can be addressed with multiple raters, but all supervisors should be trained in the proper methods for conducting performance appraisals.

They should also be trained in coaching leaders, evaluating and planning their performance, and helping them develop professionally.

Interpreting The Feedback

Understanding the context of the feedback is vital to fully utilizing its benefits. When reviewing the results, the leader should realize that some of the raters are better qualified to address certain strengths, weaknesses and competencies than others.

As they review the feedback, it’s important to keep it all relative to the level of the rater in order to get the clearest picture.

When reviewing the feedback, the leader should keep in mind that bias often plays a part in nearly every rating system. While raters are instructed to use the provided standard for their evaluations, there will be some who allow personal bias to color their results.

There will likely be some comments that are hurtful, and the larger the department, team, or organization, the more likely it is that it will happen.

Instead of ruminating on the comments that are hurtful or unproductive, the leader should look for a consensus of opinions and use those as a basis for the evaluation.

Implementing 360 Degree Feedback

Once the leader has reviewed the feedback, it’s time to put it into action.

Instead of focusing on the lowest scores and implementing a plan to eradicate them all, the leader should use a combination of high scores and low ones, developing vital skills in both areas.

They should also hold their self-evaluation against the other various scores and look for areas that are contradictory. If the leader marked one skill high but participants marked it low, that should be a prompt to explore further.

A 360 degree assessment can be instrumental in helping a leader develop their leadership skills. It should be a part of their leadership development plan and treated as a growth opportunity, not a negative experience.

Best Practices for 360 Degree Assessment Success

As with any evaluation system, there are certain mistakes that can derail the program causing inaccurate to inconsistent feedback that is essentially unusable. These best practices should be employed at all stages of the evaluation from development to completion.

Communication – This is vital for the introduction of any new system or policy. It is important to communicate with the rater as well as the individual being rated. When the lines of communication are left open, all parties know what is expected of them and they are able to ask questions and gain a better understanding of not only their part in the process, but the big picture as well.

Effective Assessment Items – When developing the program itself, it is important to ask the right questions. Otherwise, the data will be useless. This means that incorporating corporate expectations that support the organization’s mission, vision, and strategy are as essential as including the employee’s job-specific competencies.

The assessment items should be written so that they are easily understood and framed so that they capture the best, most appropriate data that is being sought. Items that are not written well, are vague or ambiguous will return data that is not usable. Each question must have a point and must line up with the organization’s needs.

Plan, Plan, Plan – A feedback program that is not carefully planned will not run well and will not be as effective as it could be. It cannot be hastily thrown together with little thought into the logistics and company-centric elements.

There are many considerations to be made, especially prior to launch. Poorly planned programs will be evident to the employees and this will undermine its credibility. A program cannot be effective if the participants do not take it seriously.

Establish a Culture of Trust – A culture of trust should be established before the program is ever introduced. Participants need to trust their leadership which will, in turn, encourage trust in the system. They need to know that feedback will be anonymous. That is one of the most common concerns. Employing a neutral third party to conduct the feedback portion of the program will help significantly.

Incorporate Support from Senior Level Leadership – The leaders of the organization must be on board with the program in order for it to be successful. It is important they encourage participation and are vocal about their belief in the system.

There needs to be a united front among all levels of leadership, regardless of which employee level will be using the system. Memos, meetings, emails, and other forms of communication from senior-level leadership should be used to promote the program and encourage participation.

Transparency is very important in gaining employee trust. Bottom line, if the senior level leadership is not involved and supportive, the feedback program will fail.

Create a Development Plan – Completing a 360 Degree Assessment program is utterly useless if nothing is done with the data. When there is no movement to incorporate the information into a plan to grow the company, grow the employees, and build on the success of both, then there is no point in even implementing the assessment.

Each individual who is assessed should be encouraged or even led in creating a development plan that is comprehensive with clear developmental goals that are based on the feedback that person received.

Align Metrics with the Organization’s Mission, Vision, and Strategy – Each assessment item must be created to line up with the organization’s mission, vision, or strategy. If the data being collected does not meet this requirement, then the competencies, skills, and overall professional growth of the employees will be moving them in a direction that takes them away from the organization and it counterproductive to the intent of the assessment.

The 360 degree assessment is designed to help the employee improve and strengthen knowledge, skills, and abilities that support the organization so all methods by which the data is gathered: feedback, questions, etc. must remain in line with that objective.

Hold Participants Accountable – While making developmental goals is a good step, they are useless if the participants are not held accountable for hitting benchmarks and reaching those goals.

Using S.M.A.R.T. goals (Smart, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) is a simple, effective way to encourage goal setting and ensure that the employees can reach them. It empowers the employee by putting them in control of their own growth and success. Goals must be achievable as well as measurable.

Dispel Fear –  There is often some amount of fear associated with feedback assessments or any new program that analyzed employee performance. Participants may fear that their anonymity won’t be protected or that perceptions of them by other employees or leadership will change because of the feedback received.

Communication can go a long way in dispelling fear. Communicate with the people who are giving the feedback as well as those receiving it to ensure that they fully understand the process. Remain as transparent as possible and answer any questions to help relieve anxiety and foster confidence in the system.

Establish Appropriate Feedback Delivery Processes – A good feedback program encourages employees to learn from their assessment, let it help them set growth goals, and help them perform more effectively and efficiently.

When that feedback is negative, overly critical, or delivered in any other inappropriate way, it can be counterproductive to the original intent by creating a defeatist culture and causing morale to plummet. This could cause the entire program to crumble and leave leadership with more work to rebuild morale and reconnect teams.

Criticism should be included but it must be delivered appropriately. Professional coaches who are neutral to the situation are often better at providing the feedback because they have been trained specifically in softening the blow, so to speak.

Develop a Follow-Up Strategy – Follow-up is absolutely vital for the most effective leadership development efforts. Participants have no real way of knowing if they have improved or if they need to readjust their improvement strategies if there is no measurement in place.

Establish a follow-up feedback plan where the participants can revisit the review and assess areas of improvement and areas of little or no change. This is ideally done six months to a year after the collection of the initial data. However, many HR specialists advise more frequent performance meetings to better monitor growth.

Monitor, Analyze, and Measure – The 360 Degree Assessment is designed to be a continuous method of capturing data, analyzing that data and measuring the outcomes.

It is not meant to be a one-time exercise or a static or linear data capture structure. It is a cycle that must be repeated over and over. It should grow with the organization and with each individual employee, monitoring their emerging strengths, their growth, their weaknesses, and their shifting goals, which should change and evolve as the employee grows.

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