360 feedback, Leadership, Management Style and Performance Improvement

We have had a very positive experience working with Organized Change. They designed a survey for one of our global teams to help design an organizational change and develop scenarios for our strategies. Organized Change is a dependable collaborator who can be relied upon to help us meet our goals.

With the movement in the eighties to find new strengths and productivity through employee empowerment came the idea of performance appraisals from subordinates as well as superiors - "360 feedback." It has produced some real successes; but when not done artfully, including internal preparation, it can rebound.

There are three common ways of getting 360 degree feedback:

using an outside consultant, minimizing any personal friction within the organization;

launching a comprehensive program in-house to get feedback on all key people, top to bottom;

creating a comprehensive program designed to uncover not just personal flaws but systematic and organizational ones, too.

In each case, we help you through the tough questions that will ensure your organization gets the most from the process - without backfire. With our help, you can orchestrate constructive change - without artlessly stepping on toes.

This section has three articles on 360 feedback: "The three degrees... "is below.

Ten commonly asked questions about 360 feedback is here.

The effects of 360 feedback on leadership style is here.

The three degrees of 360 feedback: giving feedback on management style

David Chaudron, PhD

Giving feedback on management style is one of the more difficult tasks of organizational change. For better or worse, changes in mission, organizational structure, pay systems and who gets hired may affect you personally, but the changes are not directly about you. With receiving feedback on your management style, it not only affects you personally, it is personal. It's no wonder that despite it's popularity, implementing systems that give feedback on management style must be done with caution given the sensitive nature of the data and the possible defensiveness of the employees who receive it.

Management Style, and a summary of 360 feedback

Until the later 1960's, feedback on management style has usually come from the top down. Either as part of a yearly performance appraisal, or after a particularly disastrous event at the company, a manager has received feedback from their boss either as 1) part of a heated exchange of views just before the manager is fired or 2) heard vague, uncomfortably said mouthings about improving relations with people.

This started to change with the advent of sensitivity groups, or "T" groups in the 1960's. During these sessions lasting several days, employee from a variety of organizations came together to learn how people felt about each other in a group.

The main focus was on personal growth and development. Because of this focus, employees came back to their workplace intent on acting differently and better towards their fellow employees. Unfortunately, "T" groups were not successful in the long run because managers who came back to the same work environment that either didn't reward such new, more caring behaviors or were overwhelmed by other managers acting the same old way. In response to this, the various consulting groups and institutes that ran T groups began to focus their feedback sessions on work behaviors and management style. Through various exercises, situations and discussions, participant's behaviors were compared to national norms, and received counseling and feedback on how to improve.

Starting in the 1980's, a new wrinkle to this approach was developed. As the idea of increasing employee influence and autonomy ("employee empowerment") became popular, the thought arose that a manager ought to receive management style feedback from more than one source, from those who knew them best: their subordinates, their boss, their peers and themselves. This information was usually gathered via numerical surveys and open-ended questionnaires. This feedback from all the circle that knew someone became known as "360 feedback."

Options for implementation

There are three options for implementing 360 feedback, each more comprehensive and powerful in promoting change, both organizational and personal:

1) Send a few managers to an outside consultancy for assessment and feedback. In this option, managers may hand out survey to whom they know (and expect to get feedback with minimal negative information) the data collected by the consultancy, and the managers receive an "offsite" training and feedback session with similar managers from different companies. This approach has been derogatively called "sending the fair-haired boys to charm school."

While this approach has its merits, its major deficiency is the same problem that T groups had: a few individuals are changed, the overwhelming mass of management is not, and the systems and processes that encourage old behaviors are still in place.

2) The second approach is to bring such a program "in-house", where many managers receive 360 feedback. In this approach, the feedback can be more systematic for two reasons: 1) surveys are handed out to all subordinates and peers rather than those who have been "volunteered" by the person receiving feedback. This tends to reduce "sampling bias" of just giving it to those who might give just good feedback; and 2) the implementation of this process can be from the top of the organization down the bottom. This has the advantage of allowing upper management to be an example of willingly receiving such feedback and encourage them to be both models of behavior and coaches to those underneath them.

3) The third approach involves all of the second approach, and also deals with "systems issues." Where 360 degree feedback alone can only deal with problems caused by individual behavior, it by itself does nothing for the systemic causes of problems, such as organizational structure, inappropriate and distorted measurement systems, company-wide lack of skills, or performance appraisal and pay problems. 360 feedback can serve both as a catalyst to help management realize the systematic causes of organizational problems, and can be part of the solution, so that management style becomes in harmony with other organizational changes senior management is trying to make.

Questions to ask before you start

A word of caution here: questions about implementing 360 feedback are easy to ask but not so to answer. Often times, management assumes the answers but does not openly discuss them with the result being much chaos and confusion down the road.

Among these are some of these questions are:

Who will be involved? Which employees are to be the focus of the 360 feedback, and who will provide it to them?Is this voluntary or mandatory? Will some employees be offered the "opportunity" to receive this feedback, will everyone receive it, or will just management receive the feedback?

Who needs to agree? Who will be the decision-making body about 360 feedback? Will it be the head of the organization, or Human Resources, or a cross-section of employees from a variety of levels?

How ready is your organization ready to handle 360 feedback? Often times, organizations may be willing to pay consultants to assist them in implementing such a system, but the organization needs to be prepared. At times, "soft skills" training in communication, leadership, management style, meeting management etc. is useful in preparing management. Teambuilding activities might also be useful, as well as a general organizational climate survey to determine the context of implementation and find any additional issues beyond management style that might be a problem.

What methods and measurements will be used? Will employees just fill out numerical surveys, or will this information be supplemented with observations and interviews? Will the report be just a graph, a summary of high need for change survey items, or will there be a written report with recommendations? To what extent will this report be personalized and hand-crafted vs being automated?

To what extent will the data be collected anonymously and/or confidentially? While the intent may be to keep the survey data anonymous, if written comments or interview data are also included, the data may have to be altered to avoid making obvious conclusions about who communicated what. In addition, management must answer questions about personal, confidential data that might be accidentally revealed during interviews.

What will be done with alleged violations of laws, ethics or policies? Though this may not be the intent of 360° feedback, on occasion information is gathered that suggests violations of legal, ethical and company codes of conduct. A horrendous example of this with one of our clients several years ago were allegations made that a single woman had become pregnant by a manager and received a promotion to keep her from making a fuss.

What information will be public? At first blush, you might think that all data will be private, but does that mean that one's own supervisor can't see the data and the report? Will group and company averages be made public without them being broken down into individual scores?

What consequences will there be? Will they receive additional coaching and counseling, training, or be terminated or re-assigned? Will the 360° feedback be the sole determiner of this decision?

What logistics and support will be necessary to make this successful? To what extent will the data be collected electronically (via the Web or intranet) or on paper? What administrative and technical support will be necessary?

What systems changes will accompany this organizational change? As stated before providing feedback on management style in and of itself can only be part of organizational change and can rarely stand on its own. As a result, one must ask how and when will 360 degree feedback be incorporated into training, selection and pay decisions?

If you are looking for 360 feedback consultants, surveys or training, please contact us.

Ten Commonly Asked Questions about 360 feedback

David Chaudron, PhD

What is 360 (degree) feedback?

360 feedback, also known as 360 degree feedback or multi-rater feedback, is a method to give information to a person, generally in management on his or her management style and/or performance by more than one group of people.

What uses does it have?

It's usually used just for its development purposes, but can also be a part of performance appraisal. If it's used for selection, performance appraisal and the like, it may be subject to the usual laws and regulations regarding tests and other selection instruments.

Who should receive this kind of feedback?

Sometimes it is used for the person with obvious problems, though this is usually a mistake. As most behavior of people is influenced by others, it is often best for teams of management to be given feedback, rather than just one or two individuals. If the whole team goes through this process, it's a good idea for the manager of the team to get this feedback as well. Not only does he or she heavily influence what's going on, it provides a good example for team members to follow.

What conditions increase its chances for success?

Good planning pays off. All participants, whether it is the person receiving the feedback, the describers and any other who might receive the 360 report should agree on the groundrules going forward as far as anonymity, use of, distribution of reports, follow-up, etc. Agreeing on these groundrules may take some time, but is well worth it. The 360 instrument should be well constructed, following our usual recommendations on this subject, including avoiding "agree-disagree" scales.

Who usually describes the person?

Usually the feedback comes from four aspects: the person being described, their peers, their manager, and their subordinate. Sometimes feedback can also come from internal and external customers.

What kind of data are collected?

Sometimes 360 data is only collected in numerical form, where describers use a 1-5 scale to rate various behaviors. Though this is necessary, it's insufficient to get needed details. These data should be supplemented with open-ended questions asked on the 360 survey, and interviews by the consultant as well. Without these data sources, it may be hard to give specific examples of problem behaviors to the person being described.

Who should see the data?

There are really three questions here: Who should see the "raw data, who should see the consultant's summary, and who should know the plans for correcting problem behaviors. No one, except for the consultant, should see the raw data. There is just too much of a chance for misuse by someone in the organization. Who should see the consultant's summary is an open question. At times, we have given our summary and recommendations only to the person being described, though we don't recommend this. At other times, we have shared our summary with the person's manager. At the very least, the person's manager should see the person's plan for action, as he or she is the person responsible to follow through on his plan. We also have encouraged our clients to share their 360 data with their subordinates, and ask for their help in changing their behaviors.

How should we plan for 360?

After hiring the consultant, management must work with him or her to establish the groundrules for the 360: who will participate, and in what manner, how the ensure anonymity with sufficiently large groups of describers, to what extent the behaviors measured reflect the competencies desired by the company, etc. After the data are collected, the consultant should work with management to develop a feedback plan: where it will be, how much time it will take, how to track action plans, how much coaching is needed, etc.

What are the follow-up steps?

At the very least, a series of steps, with resources and timelines should be established and communicated to the person and the person's manager. In addition, professional coaching can be a useful adjunct.

How is 360 feedback integrated into coaching?

360 feedback is an excellent beginning for coaching, whether the coaching is done by a consultant, by the person's manager, or done jointly. The 360 feedback data allows us to pinpoint problems, so the coaching that we provide is more effective. The same instrument used to obtain the feedback might also be used as a way of measuring progress.

Effects of 360-Degree Feedback on Leadership Development

Since the Industrial Revolution, organizations typically communicated in a top-down fashion. The flow of feedback was in a similar direction where upper management gave feedback to middle-level managers and middle-level managers relayed feedback to subordinates. However, managers did not get enough feedback on how they were interacting with subordinates. The interactions between a manager and a subordinate impact many aspects of the workplace and employee experience at work, for example morale, commitment, job satisfaction, and even absenteeism. It is estimated that 60% of people quit their job due to reasons dealing with the supervisor. 360-degree feedback was developed in order to improve the manager/employee relationship. In present day, organizations 360-degree feedback is used mostly for leadership development. It is important to consider the impact that 360-degree feedback may have in your specific organization before implementing it. Critical aspects to consider are the reactions that leader may have, effectiveness of the feedback, and why to implement it.

360-degree feedback is a novel concept. This type of feedback involves a manager rating himself/herself and his/her subordinates, peers, superiors, and customers rating the manager as well on a several different leadership qualities. In some cases stockholders also may provide input. 360-degree feedback highlights the advantage of different perspectives, which can help the manager grow in his/her leadership style to become more effective. 360-degree feedback has been used for different objectives such as development, appraisal, and evaluation of managers and the organization's development processes as well. However, several psychologists urge that 360-degree feedback should be used for the process of development only and should not be used as an evaluation technique. (Tyson and Ward, 2004)

Carlson (1998) has suggested that there are three main assumptions that go along with 360-degree feedback. The first assumption has been to have feedback from multiple sources is more helpful and accurate then feedback from only one source. This has been based on criticism that managers do not always have an accurate perception of a subordinate and may have only have seen them work a couple times in a few situations. The second assumption has been that self-perception in comparison to other's perceptions may increase self-awareness. Self-awareness is the degree to which one is aware of his/her own strengths and weakness. Increased self-awareness is considered to be positive based on the increased ability to adapt to more situations. Finally, Carson has indicated that effective leaders will view themselves in the same way that others see them. A leader is considered more effective at his/her job in 360-degree feedback when alternative sources of feedback (i.e. supervisor, peer, and subordinate) are in agreement. Discrepancies in ratings are viewed as self-misperception and used to create an action plan for the individual to begin to develop his/her weaknesses and continue to utilize his/her strengths. Individuals are typically rated again approximately six months to a year later to measure and assess development.

Reaction to Feedback

Facteau and Facteau (1998) collected information from subjects at three different times using a pretest, performance rating, and posttest design. Employees were asked to take part in rating superiors and peers as well. The study looked separately at leaders' acceptance of feedback as well as the perceived usefulness of feedback. It was hypothesized that overall ratings, organizational support, and perceived ability of the rater would be positively related to the four reactions (peer and subordinate). As the overall rating decreased, the leader was less likely to accept the feedback as true and might have denied the bad ratings. The study concluded that overall ratings play a key role when understanding if a leader accepts the feedback from peers and/or subordinates. Feedback discussion sessions with individual managers may prevent resistance to negative ratings and help managers to be more receptive to the feedback.

Smither and Walker (2004) studied the relationship of narrative comments and improvements over time. Many researchers have not concentrated on narrative feedback, however, it seems important to use all types of feedback whether rating or narrative. Over one year, Smith and Walker investigated a manager's improvement in upward feedback ratings. The number of narrative comments a manager received, in relation to whether those comments were favorable or unfavorable, and whether the comments were behavior-task or trait oriented. The results showed that managers who received a small number of unfavorable narrative comments that were behavior-task oriented tended to improve more than other managers. For this reason, it is important for 360-degree assessments to be based on the raters' observation of the managers' behavior. This can provide the manager with concrete behaviors to develop instead of ambiguous constructs such as 'integrity' or 'people skills'. Although, the study also suggested that managers who received a large amount of the negative narrative feedback tended to improve less than managers who received a small quantity. Therefore, when feedback is provided to a manager, despite the amount of comments, it is important to focus in on two to three goals at the most to prevent overload and negative reactions. Overall, Rowson (1998) reported that 'there is a greater acceptance of feedback in countries where there is more familiarity with assessment in general' (p 47).

Effectiveness of Feedback

When examining effectiveness of 360-degree feedback it is important to look at three different aspects. It is important to consider the validity of technique and assessment from different perspectives. Many researchers believe that it is important that self-rating and others ratings should agree. However, the question arises, 'Does this really matter if the feedback still has an affect on the leader?'(Atwater and Ostroff, 1998). In addition, it is important to consider how the feedback affects the leader and what outcomes it will affect.

Research done by Atkins and Wood (2002) has provided evidence for the validity of 360-degree feedback when using it for leadership development. They tested this by assessing how well the ratings predicted assessment-centered ratings. Atkins and Wood also examined which source of ratings was the most accurate when predicting competency. Overall, these researchers were interested in better understanding the discrepancies between self and observer ratings. Results showed that the average of the ratings between subordinates, peers, supervisors, and self predicted job performance. Supervisors alone predicted performance; however this is not found across all studies. Supervisors were shown to differentiate between over-estimators, but not as well for under-estimators. As for peer ratings, they tended to overestimate performance for low performers. Furthermore, high self-raters tended to perform the worst on assessment test. Overall, the study showed strong validation evidence by the high correlations between the assessment scores and observer rating scores.

In contrast, a study conducted by Fletcher, Baldry, and Cunningham-Snell (1998) has provided an alternative view. These researchers believed that the 360-degree feedback technique faces some of the same challenges that traditional top-down evaluations have in the past. They studied 360-degree feedback beginning with a pilot study for validation, which was followed by administration of the redesigned questionnaire, which had improved psychometric properties. They concluded overall that if 360-degree feedback is constructed around the lines of a psychometric test, then the information derived from the feedback can potentially and likely be misleading.

One of the most influential studies was conducted over a five-year period from 1991 to 1995. This study was two times as long as any previous research in the field. Smither and Walker (1999) hypothesized that managers who were originally rated poorly would improve more than other managers by using 360-degree and direct reports to discuss feedback. Researchers also suggested that managers who discussed present feedback, as well as, went over the previous year's feedback would improve more than when they did not. The results confirmed all hypotheses and demonstrated that 360-degree feedback can have many benefits to leadership development if used consistently over time.

What 360-degree feedback could affect?

Brutus and London (1999) looked at 360-degree feedback and its affect on goal setting. They hypothesized that feedback would be negatively related to goal setting and development. It was also theorized that supervisors' ratings would have a greater impact on the development goals the manager would select. It is important to note that direct feedback by itself affected the selection of developmental goals. Results showed that the two areas of performance rating and goal selection had a stronger impact for lower level managers in comparison to other managers. Furthermore, low performance ratings themselves increased managers to goal selection. In contrast to the hypothesis, subordinates ratings had a greater influence than supervisors on a manager's goal selection. These results are important to consider because the development goals that a manager has reaches to achieve determines in many ways what type of manager they will become. This study also showed that it is important to obtain feedback from subordinates because of the impact they have on a manager's goal setting.

360-degree feedback is a technique used to assess a manager's performance from many perspectives (i.e. supervisors, peers, and subordinates/direct reports) within the organization. Much of the research has supported the integration of this type of feedback into organizations to help leaders to develop leadership skills and reach their potential. Leaders need direction in realizing what their strengths and weaknesses are and how to develop them. 360-feedback does just that.

Atkins, P., & Wood, R. (2002). Self-versus others' ratings as predictors of assessment center ratings: Validation evidence for 360-degree feedback programs. Personnel Psychology, 55(2), 871-907, 34.

Atwater, L., & Ostroff, C. (1998). Self-other agreement: Does it really matter? Personnel Psychology, 51(3), 577-598, 22.

Brutus, S., & London, M. (1999). The impact of 360-degree feedback on planning for career development. Journal of Management Development, 18(7/8), 676, 18.

Carlson, M. (1998). 360-Degree Feedback: The power of multiple perspectives. Popular Government, 63(2), 38-49.

Facteau, C., & Facteau, J. (1998). Reactions of leaders to 360-degree feedback from subordinates and peers. Leadership Quarterly, 9(4), 427, 22.

Fletcher, C., Baldry, C., & Cunningham-Snell, N. (1998). The psychometric properties of 360-degree feedback: An empirical study and a cautionary tale. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 6(1), 19-34.

Rowson, A. (1998). Using 360-Degree Feedback Instruments up, down, and around the world: Implications for global implementation and use of multi-rater feedback. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 6(1), 45-48.

Smither, J., & Walker, A. (2004). Are the characteristics of narrative comments related to improvement in multirater feedback ratings over time? Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(3), 575-581.

Tyson, S., & Ward, P. (2004). The Use of 360-Degree Feedback Technique in the Evaluation of Management Development. Management Learning, 35(2), 205-223.

Walker, A., & Smither, J. (1999). A Five-Year Study of Upward Feedback: What Managers Do with Their Results Matters. Personnel Psychology, 52(2), 393-423, 31.