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360 the power and the problems

360 feedback has now been around for many years and as coaches it is a ripe tool for development conversations. Or at least it should be if used well. However there are some problems with 360 tools that I believe can easily be rectified with a few mindset changes amongst users. In this article, I’m talking about online 360s that ask you to rate an individual against a suite of competencies or behaviours etc that are deemed important by the organisation.
The thing about 360 is we bring our own biases to completing them both as the giver and receiver (in those 360s where our own assessment is compared to that of others). It is highly unlikely that we will look at every statement and value them equally. When asked to look at a set of skills or behaviours outlined for any role we will each see some as more critical to the performance of anyone in that role than others. In leadership roles, some will see ability to strategise as key, whilst others will think that visionary is more important and then those that err to the human side will see an ability to engage with others. I’m sure as I created this short list you automatically agreed or disagreed, adding your own and rating each; and I just listed three. Your valuing of all things is automatic and is part of who you are so you can’t let it go when giving feedback. This will often mean that things you think rate really important will have a higher bar than things you think are less so, meaning that, when looking at others your ‘perfect 10′ will be higher to achieve in some statements than others.

What this means for the receiver is that they may get skewed ratings based on the perceived importance of others. At best, these will be averaged out amongst the group, but that’s what will happen: they will be averaged out.

And then of course there is your manager’s input.

The Managers Feedback
In most 360s your manager’s feedback is separated from that of your team, your peers and your customers or other stakeholders (if your 360 goes there). There are two things to note in the managers feedback so let’s deal with its importance first. It’s no surprise that for many of us the managers feedback is often the one we note first and get concerned about in any areas where the score is low. Your manager often holds the key to your eventual promotion and even in the most enlightened organisations their perspective and willingness to promote others to others and be an advocate of you is significant. That’s why people don’t really like giving upward feedback (what if they don’t like what I say?) in any form (electronic or face to face) and think twice before disagreeing or debating with ‘the boss’.

In 360 feedback this can mean that the boss’ ratings are unintentionally skewed i.e. the receiver is often more likely to want to work on those perceived weaknesses in order to keep the boss happy. So add that to the boss’ natural biases above and you can get people paying attention to the wrong things in the wrong scenarios just because the boss gave that feedback.

And why do I say the wrong things in the wrong scenarios? Let’s look at the other issue with manager feedback.

What people are exposed to
The second biggest problem with manager feedback is what they actually get to see. Most of us don’t spend all our time with our boss outside of team meetings and 1-1s. Our role involves us engaging with other people, our own team, our stakeholders etc. So when it comes down to it, what does the boss actually see of us? And how can they assess our performance for many things that don’t apply to their ‘cone of visibility’. Take coaching as a skill, behaviour or competence. Unless the boss is open enough to ask you to work with them in a coaching way (and I look forward to the day when that is normalised in organisations), how can they know. They can only ask your people and then their rating of you is by word of mouth and often as good as ‘they do it or don’t do it’.

I believe that bosses need to look closely at what they should be expected to see and not expected to see and then once rate the areas that their input is expected and they should have experience. If, like coaching, it’s something that is applied with peers or your team, the boss should say ‘I don’t have direct experience and nor should I and then I choose n/a i.e. not applicable.

This shift in mindset would require the manager to let go of any view that they must give feedback in all things just because they are the boss and really focus in on where their experience of you is valid.

Peer feedback should be the same e.g. ‘Do I think my colleague should adopt a coaching approach with me?’ can then be followed with a rating on whether they do and how good it is only based on the validity of expectation and experience.

This would result in a more powerful use of 360 which we will explore next.

All things to all people
When looking at 360 scores we tend to follow the averaging approach to all of them so that it gets easier to choose what to work on. This can result in people trying to be all things to all people or at worst trying to be someone they are not, just because everyone scored them low on that area. This can be very unsatisfying and often debilitating meaning that many give up on what they get from their 360.

What I often advocate is that they get underneath the feedback and try to explore what is being said. If it feels like the feedback is ‘be like me’ then the receiver has a clue on the giver but it’s not helpful (‘needs to pick up their pace’, ‘needs to be more open and engaging’ etc can often be linked to a behavioural style as opposed to a skill or competence). But underneath that the receiver can still explore the perception versus their own reality e.g. ‘No I am not a talkative individual but what is my approach to being open and engaging and where am I not getting the most from that approach?’

So using the 360 in a focused and deliberate way moves it out of the averaging or the personal into a better gap analysis. But there is even more focus that can be applied to gain extra benefit.

The situational leader
There are many ways of looking at situational leadership from skill/will frameworks to Goleman’s six styles. I’m not going to refer to any of these specifically but to the principle and that is you need some flexibility of style and approach based on the situation you find yourself in.

In the context of 360, the situation perspective can be linked to the audience i.e. ‘what skills/competencies/behaviours should I be expected to apply within my team environment, versus with my manager, with my peers and my customers/stakeholders.

In a sense the is the reverse of what I’ve advocated above in talking about the you that different people are exposed to. I’m suggesting that the receiver of feedback considers where they should be applying skills/competencies/behaviours more than with other audiences through a situational leadership mindset.
This would mean that when you look at feedback from your team you would expect to see some things in play more and used to a greater degree than you would when you look at your manager’s feedback. The example of coaching I used above is a very obvious one. If your team don’t think you coach, then that should be more of a worry (they should expect that from you) than if your boss doesn’t (they shouldn’t expect you to with them).

Anyone who gets equal or average scores across the board may not be seeing themselves through a situational leadership mindset and that in itself may be a developmental need.

Then applying a focused approach, the receiver can choose developmental areas for their team leadership, peer relationships, managing up etc as separate and distinct. Application is in the right environment and the receiver is able to own that shift in style rather than be all things to all people.

How the boss uses the 360
Flowing on from the manager giving feedback where they should expect to have an experience and the receiver taking a situational focus on what it means, you can then look at what the manager gets out of the 360 compared to what they might have got out of it in the past.
The manager can now work through the 360 with the receiver with the question being ‘are you giving your team/peers/customers what they need?’.

This makes the output of the 360 less of an assessment and more of an exploration for the manager i.e. they will have some sight of things they would never expect to have sight of. This means that they can better coach their direct report in key leadership skills, a conversation harder to have if they are seen to ‘judge’ without real knowledge i.e. a safe conversation for both.

There is nothing radical in this and I’m sure some managers have come to these conclusions themselves but for many managers and many organisations, this tiny shift might make a big difference to the power of their 360 feedback process.

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