Taking the fear out of 360 degree feedback
Monday, May 26, 2008/
Not everyone likes the idea of a 360-degree feedback assessment. Here’s how to make sure the process is pain-free and productive as possible.
Many companies now ask their people to do some 360 degree feedback assessments. But not everyone jumps for joy at the thought. There seems to be some fear and anxiety related to the process, and not every company introduces it in the best way to get the best value for managers and staff.
What are the benefits?
As a learning and development tool, 360° feedback has many benefits:
It allows learners to get high quality feedback about their skills and performance.
It allows learners to test out their self assessments against those of others.
It is useful in identifying individual and group development needs.
It is useful as a post development evaluation tool.
Why is there so much associated anxiety and resistance to the process?
Unfortunately, for most people, the idea of getting structured feedback (either through 360o feedback, or even in a performance appraisal discussion) is anxiety provoking. Their concerns centre on the following issues:
What is going to be said of me?
Am I going to be criticised?
How is this information going to be used?
Who will see it?
Is this a threat?
When people feel anxious or fearful, these feelings are manifested in a number of predictable ways, especially in resistance. The following types of resistance are common:
Resistance to participate in the process.
Resistance to accept the results.
Resistance to do anything useful with the results.
General bad mouthing of the process to others.
What is the best way to minimise anxiety?
There are three underlying design principles in the process that can assist in minimising the anxiety and get best buy in:
Many, if not most, 360o feedback systems are cumbersome and time consuming. Learners usually have to answer a large number of questions. The analysis and interpretations are so complex that, often, the selling organisation does this part of the process (which increases the cost). The eventual report, although detailed and scientific-looking, is difficult to digest (that is if the learner has the time to wade through endless pages of data analysis). Commonly the report gets filed away in a drawer.
Research suggests that there should be less than 50 questions. So best buy-in might be one that has only say 40 questions and a simple five-point scale, that only takes about 10-15 minutes to complete (for the self-assessment and the feedback ratings by others). Doing these online means scores are done automatically. The emphasis needs to be on making the process the means to an end… not an end in itself.
This leaves more time for the learner to focus on the ACTION that arises out of the 360o process. This action flows from the answers to these questions:
a. What are my strengths?
b. What are areas I need to work on?
c. What are discrepancies between my self-assessment and the assessments of others that I need to explore more fully?
This is consistent with the adult learning principle of immediate application.
2: THE PROCESS MUST BE RELEVANT
Another adult learning principle is relevance. Any learning experience has to be relevant, otherwise learners will switch off. This is where so many other 360o feedback processes fall down. In many of them, the attributes or qualities that are assessed are often vague or ambiguous. So the results obtained are difficult to relate back to the learner’s job. As a result, the relevance of the exercise is questionable.
Good quality 360 degree assessment tools should focus on real life behaviours and skills that are needed in today’s fast paced workplace. They should be in clear lay language and relate to specific skills.
There are many kinds of uses that ensure direct relevance, for example:
Leadership training – before and/or after a training period of course – to assess strengths and weaknesses. Results could be pooled and could be used to enhance or prioritise a program’s content.
It could be used as a pre and post test to evaluate improvements over time or after a period of training.
Individual mentoring and coaching could be enhanced by specific results from 360 degree feedback.
As additional specific feedback on problem areas or issues discussed at a performance appraisal.
An employee may wish to do some personal self development and 360 degree feedback could form part of a self directed learning effort.
3: GIVE THE LEARNER CONTROL OVER THE PROCESS
Most 360o feedback processes take control away from the learner. Ideally a manager or HR department of a company should research and find a process where the learner takes control of the 360 degree process. This will minimise anxiety.
Learners could select the topic – leadership, communication, negotiation, project management or whatever will be most useful at the time.
The learner takes control of his or her own results
A major concern for 360o feedback users is anxiety about who will see the results and how they will be used. Once again, the best way to minimise anxiety is by handing control back to the learner. Let them retain control of the results of their 360o feedback experience! Learners want to “own” their data and choose to share or not share it.
If a manager, team leader or HRD specialist wants to pool the data of a group, to get a summary of strengths and weaknesses that can be very useful. But the individual self-assessments and the feedback from others can remain where it belongs… with the learner. The key issue is respect for the ownership of a learner’s information.
The learner can choose who gives feedback
The issue of the selection of feedback givers is an area of controversy in 360o feedback. Many argue that the feedback givers should be chosen by some other person (such as the learner’s manager) and that their identity should remain hidden from the learner (anonymous feedback).
This supposedly increases the chance that the feedback will be honest, as there is no fear of retribution. But the opposite is often the best way to proceed… that the learner should choose the feedback givers, for the following reasons:
Giving control to the learner is a key adult learning principle and will minimise learner anxiety.
Learner choice of feedback giver mirrors the real world, where, if someone wants feedback, they choose someone and ask them for it. This is all part of an open approach to giving and receiving feedback – where it is seen as normal. Conversely, requiring feedback to be anonymous reinforces a culture of secrecy and discomfort with feedback.
One of the extraordinary benefits of 360o feedback is that discrepancies between self-assessment and the assessments of others can be identified. When this happens, it is desirable that the learner seeks further information, by going to the feedback giver and asking questions to clarify the situation. If the feedback givers are anonymous, the learner cannot access them for this information, so that this avenue for development is limited. They can go and ask questions like:
I scored low on this skill area. Can you please give me some examples of when I haven’t done that well on this skill – because I scored low on it.
Please give me some specific examples of when I used these skills well/poorly.
Why and how do you think I should develop this skill further?
360o feedback allows wonderful opportunities for increasing insight and awareness, improving communication, identifying learning and development needs, prioritising learning activities, motivating, building confidence and program evaluation.
In choosing a 360o feedback system, consider the question of ROI. Does the system you choose deliver practical, flexible and meaningful results, in a cost and time effective manner? And does it do this while maximising learner interest and relevance, while minimising anxiety, fear and resistance?
By Eve Ash, psychologist and Managing Director, Seven Dimensions, is the co-author of Rewrite Your Life! (Penguin) and co-producer with Peter Quarry of the Ash.Quarry production – Preparing for Your Appraisal from the TAKE AWAY TRAINING SERIES www.7dimensions.com.au
To read more Eve Ash blogs, click here