360 Survey On the Wall…I Hardly See Myself at All

This post, from January 2012, challenges the 360 degree feedback process first popularized in the 1990s. Too often, rather than use such a  process as a springboard to having important conversations, we make the process itself the focal point thus diminishing its usefulness. 


I’m not a big fan of surveys.  That includes, (dare I say it?), the 360 degree performance assessment type survey.  I know, they are meant to be a useful tool but to me, no matter how carefully put together they are, the result is rather like a distorted mirror in the Fun House, not very clear and not particularly accurate.

On the face of it, 360-degree assessments present as simple processes; something like the one Bob here is undertaking. (The clip is 62 seconds)

The trouble is, there are often a number of factors at play that skew the results one way or another.  Here are only a few examples of what I mean.

  • When Bob’s boss asks him to complete a survey at a time when Bob is not best pleased with him, his objectivity flies out of the window and his responses are coloured by the way he’s feeling at that moment in time.
  • Bob would like his colleagues to complete their survey about him favourably so he completes their surveys favourably too.  It’s kind of a quid pro quo thing. You know?
  • The questions all ask Bob to respond by choosing from a range of ratings from poor to outstanding.  While he has a pretty good idea what each rating means to him, he has no idea what they mean to others and what standards they work from when they complete the survey.
  • Even though there may be room for Bob to explain his ratings, usually he doesn’t, because frankly he doesn’t have time.  He still has more surveys to complete for several more of his colleagues. So he just ticks the boxes and hopes that will be enough to satisfy the process.

So, while I agree that “good information helps Bob make better decisions”, the information gathered from a formal 360 process runs risk of being inaccurate and therefore, not really that useful.

The question is, what is Bob to do?  How will he find out how he’s doing if there is no formal process to tell him?

To me, the answer lies in his willingness and ability to consistently focus on three things:

How he talks to people and how he listens ~ If the communication between Bob and his Boss; Bob and his colleagues and; Bob and his team is honest, clear and empathetic, there will be enough trust among them for him to simply ask how he’s doing without having to go through a formal and anonymous process.

How he builds relationships ~ in my mind, the health of any business relies on its ability to build relationships.   This requires people like Bob to work well with those around him; to understand their challenges; help them; and solicit their help too.  Building relationships ensures that the quid pro quo among colleagues has meaning that goes beyond the notion of “I’ll tick your’ like’ box if you’ll tick mine”.

How much he cares about helping others to learn and grow ~ In my book, people who spend time coaching and providing learning opportunities so that others can be and do better usually know when they are doing well.  For them, great performance comes from their ability to help others deliver great performance too.  If Bob were to do this, he would have no need of a formal feedback structure.  He would be giving it and getting it.  Every day.

So okay, maybe I’m being a bit Utopian.  I know there are still many organizations that struggle with all three of these things.  It is not an ideal world.  I’d like to think though that rather than relying on complicated and expensive 360-degree performance processes to guide them, more workplaces will spend their time talking, listening and simply building relationships well enough to make them unnecessary.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?



Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Human Resources, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

10 responses to “360 Survey On the Wall…I Hardly See Myself at All

  1. Hi Gwyn…you are absolutely right, however anyone who uses a tool expecting that in itself it is the thing that will make the difference, is mistaken. A tool such as 360 degree feedback provides the opportunity to break down some of the barriers and create opportunity for change as you mentioned. If applied correctly the feedback output and insights are what matters most. Although many use these tools poorly it is rarely the fault of the tool, rather the user and associated environment. After all it is not the fault of the hammer if your house falls down. I continue to enjoy your work…Thanks again, Steve.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Steve ~ I certainly agree with the intent of the 360 degree process. It does provide an opportunity for people to look inwardly and to make personal change. As you point out though many use the process poorly and I worry that the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits of using the process in the first place. While it may not be the hammer’s fault if the house falls down, in that event, I might be looking at my ability to use it and perhaps select a different tool. Or, as you say, learn how to use it properly!
      Thank you for that and for taking the time to say it here.

  2. Gwyn, this is a great post with a daring sentiment. It does seem that in our busy-ness and our love affair with technology, we have lost the art of the simple. I absolutely agree.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Carol ~ I suspect that mastering the art of the simple is more complicated than appearances would suggest. If anything, technology tempts us to mechanize things that require more thought and greater personal investment. I’m with you. The combination of busy-ness and reliance on technology can lead us down a pretty slippery slope. Thank you for coming by!

  3. Gwyn, thanks for this thought provoking post! I have a hunch that the anonymous nature of 360’s subverts the authentic communication that will truly bring about growth and learning. I completely agree with your take on the everyday and ongoing feedback and relationships that will make this happen.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jamie ~ Yes, it would be nice to think that anonymity allows for authenticity but in so many cases it calls to the darker side because the accountability for things said is missing from the process. We are perhaps a long way from being able to rely solely on peoples’ willingness and ability to share genuine and useful information with each other about things that affect them personally. So we use tools such as 360 feedback to do it for us. I just think, like you, that taking the time to build relationships that include trust is a worthwhile occupation.
      Thanks for coming by. It’s always nice to see you here 🙂

  4. Hi Gwyn – I’m not a big supporter of 360’s or employee engagement surveys. My biggest issue with both is that they can be seen as a replacement for conversations that could deliver needed feedback in a timely manner. Also, I believe promoting anonymity sends a negative message. It’s as if we’re saying we believe the population is incapable of accountable conversations or that it’s more acceptable to deliver feedback if no one knows where it came from. I’d rather redirect the money invested in these programs to help us all grow our communication and emotional intelligence skills.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      I’m definitely with you on that one, Susan. Thanks for weighing in.

    • I’ve seen lots of situations where 360s have proved to be a great supporting tool for the overall performance appraisal process. Of course the tool can not deliver good results. It’s all about how the process is implemented and how the feedback will be used in the end.
      I’ve also seen situations where non-anonymous feedback was OK and desirable. But in some situations people will only provide honest responses if they are guaranteed that feedback is 100% anonymous.

      • Gwyn Teatro

        Hi Gabriel ~ I think we can agree that it is not the tool so much but how we use it that makes the difference between receiving purposeful feedback and simply going through the motions. My own observations of the 360 process has sadly emphasized the latter but it is encouraging to know that your experience has been different. Thank you for that and for taking the time to share it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s