How to get 360s right

How to get 360s right

The popularity of 360 assessments seems to come and go in the corporate world, going in and out of fashion like a 90s trend. When done right 360s can provide a valuable and rich source of feedback for your employees who are able to gain valuable insights (perhaps for the first time) into how others truly experience them. However, they also come with a warning. Handled badly and they can cause damage, breaking down trust and seeding doubt into work relationships.

If you are considering using 360s in your organisation, read on for how to ensure you reap the rewards and avoid the pitfalls.

Choose your Tool Carefully

Much of the critique around 360s comes from data on assessor bias that shows that individuals are pretty bad at judging the skills of others. Our assessments of others are often heavily influenced by our judgements of ourselves, and our overall rating of others can reveal more about us than the people we are assessing (people tend to be low, medium or high raters across the board when assessing others). Competency based 360s are particularly problematic as most of the assessors have an incomplete picture of the skills of the person, they are rating. For example, someone could be asked to rate their leader for strategic thinking capability but have no iteration with them on strategic issues or know anything about their thinking process.

In our 360s we use values to see how each assessor experiences that person in the workplace, without making an assessment about their skills/competencies. Values based 360s are grounded in positive psychology and that means there is no good or bad result it is simply the values that others are experiencing. This works to give the person being assessed a complete picture of how they are showing up in the workplace without judgements being made about their skill level in different areas. This is particularly helpful for leaders where the dyadic nature of the leader-follower relationship means that perceptions of how the leader shows up are particularly important to the impact that they can make as a leader. With leadership, perception is reality. If I don't perceive my leader as being trustworthy, as a follower, I am unlikely to open up to them - whether they actually are trustworthy or not. By giving the leaders 360 information on how others perceive them we can then work with them to support them to show up in a more authentic way that aligns with their actual values.

Debrief Properly

360s are most damaging when the results are given with little to no debriefing and support. Individuals are left to make sense of their results and process the feedback on their own. Every 360 should be accompanied by a 60-90 minute debrief session conducted by a certified professional. The debrief process allows the person to fully understand their results and consider how they integrate the findings into their development plans. If uncomfortable issues do come up in the 360, having a guide there to support them will make the processing of any negative feelings that arise easier to manage.

Support with Coaching

When done in isolation, studies show that 360s can have minimal impact on employee performance. Impact is increased when the 360 is supported with coaching focused on supporting the individual with increased self-awareness and implementing behaviour changes. Coaching can help to overcome some of the issues typically associated with 360s - processing feedback information, integrating the feedback into the participants sense of self and translating the feedback to become a more effective leader. With a guide through the process and someone to hold leaders accountable they report overall greater satisfaction with the 360 process and more significant behaviour changes.

Voluntary/ Mandatory?

There is much debate on whether 360s should be voluntary or made mandatory. Those in the mandatory camp argue that if 360s are an integrated part of performance management then they should be treated like other performance interventions and applied equally to everyone in the target group. While on face value this makes sense, given the nature of 360s (the huge opportunity for upside and downside) the implementation needs to be more carefully considered. I would argue for voluntary participation of 360s at ALL LEVELS. So, everyone in the target group has the opportunity to take part and it made expressly clear that it is voluntary. (see below for times when people may be actively discouraged from taking part).

Voluntary participation also applies to the assessors in the 360. We recommend sharing the 360 with around 40% more people than needed to ensure there are enough responses.

Line Management Involvement

To reinforce the importance of the 360s in the organisation, line managers should be involved in the process. In keeping with the advice on voluntary participation above, also keep the person being assessed in the driving seat when it comes to sharing their results with their line manager. Invite them to have a meeting to review their results and discuss next steps and development plans.

Another way to have line managers involved in the process is to conduct pre and post calls with the person being assessed, their line manager and the 360 assessor/coach. This helps to ensure an efficient and effective conversation between the two parties. The coach will guide the conversation and get the two parties fully aligned. Topics that can be discussed in these sessions include - needs and expectations of both parties; setting shared goals for the persons development; discussing any contentious issues; reviewing 360s results, interpretations and actions; setting an agreement for ongoing support for the individual.

Link to Performance Management

Best practice says that 360s should be integrated into wider performance management initiatives. This presents a dilemma for HR professionals on the voluntary/mandatory question. If 360s are integrated into wider performance management initiatives does this make voluntary participation a smoke screen, where the claim is that it is voluntary, but leaders know if they don't take part they will suffer in the form of incomplete performance management information. There is no perfect solution to this dilemma and how you tackle it will depend on your specific circumstances. Here are some questions to ask to support the process:

If people choose not to take part how will that affect performance management? How can we ensure they won't be 'penalised' in any way for not taking part?
Can we give access to 360s for these individuals at a later stage when it might be more appropriate for them?

When Not to Use

There are some clear cases when 360s are not appropriate:

  • When someone is very new to a role. Give them time to settle in and for people to fully experience their leadership before asking for assessments. At least 6 months is required.
  • Low organisational trust and psychological safety. If the organisation culture is experiencing high levels of dysfunction and low levels of trust, 360s are not recommended. There may be doubts about the promise of confidentiality and more false positive ratings will ensure.
  • Poor performance. If a leader is not performing well - whether this is an ongoing issue or a slump in performance - a 360 could work to demotivate and discourage that person even more. It may be used by HR or their line manager as a way to avoid having a difficult conversation. Don't do the 360 and give clear honest and compassionate feedback instead.

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