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360 Degree Feedback:
Vicious Circle or Vital Link?

By Jack R. Snader and Marsha Wells

Realistic feedback on job performance is invaluable to anyone who wants to grow professionally. Feedback comes in many forms, and among the most popular is the type of tool called 360-degree feedback. The name "360-degree" refers to the full-circle process of gathering information about a person's job performance from his or her customers or subordinates-and from his or her manager-and then rolling the information into a confidential report that is delivered directly to the individual in question...without identifying which customers or subordinates said what.

While 360-degree feedback is an excellent concept, it has the potential to either help employees grow or intensify their defensiveness. When screening a 360 assessment company, be sure to avoid these pitfalls:

  1. The Wrong Instrument. Survey instruments appear to be easy to generate. But some organizations skip the step of asking what they want to measure and why they ought to measure it. Measuring skills that are highly correlated with job success is critical.

    Assessment instruments may be geared to measuring personality traits, social styles, trainable skills, or sets of competencies based on a job analysis or a developmental theory. Personality or social styles tests may be valuable for diversity training, but would not be particularly helpful in choosing the right candidate for most jobs. Developmental theory-based competencies will only be as effective as the accuracy of the theory. And an assessment of trainable skills isn't such a good bet if the trainable skills measured are not the primary predictors of job success for the positions concerned.

  2. Lack of Validity. A good assessment tool for performance improvement must be able to distinguish between high and low performers. People who are already successful in a position must score well on the instrument consistently, and people who currently perform poorly in their jobs must score poorly on the assessment, or the test is simply not reliable. And even the right type of instrument can fail if it is not psychometrically valid. Organizations get into trouble and waste money when they use instruments that cannot be demonstrated to be valid and reliable.

  3. Lack of Confidentiality. Reliable results are more likely to emerge within an environment of privacy. Assessments backfire when employees are not carefully prepared to receive feedback. Particularly when downsizing is suspected, employees are all too likely to view the announcement of a 360 assessment process as a way of separating the sheep from the goats. Another fear is that a 360 assessment will be linked to a salary review.

    It's vital to assure employees that the survey results will be strictly confidential, that only the assessed individual will see his or her assessment information, and that employees' positions or incomes are not contingent upon the results. Unless they understand this, employees will harbor fears that breed dishonesty. They are likely to go to great lengths to make sure all survey news is good news. They may appeal to their customers or subordinates directly, "My job is at stake here, so I hope you're not too hard on me!" Or, they may give subtle cues to a similar effect. Such manipulation damages the growth potential inherent in the process.

  4. Unprofessional Delivery of Results to Participants. Beware of any 360 degree feedback offering that does not provide a highly professional delivery process! Without full-service counseling at the time results are delivered, personal feedback can create confusion and resentment. It's not uncommon for a certain percentage of employees to be stunned by what they learn about themselves, to be angry and upset, or simply to deny the validity of their results. Unless the feedback recipient is offered professional one-on-one counseling to interpret his or her personal results, the value of the process may be lost to resistance.

    Skilled feedback consultants emphasize that feedback results are a matter of perception, not fact. They know how to connect assessment information to the individual's work goals, and help participants see how their customers' or subordinates' perceptions may be blocking them from achieving their goals. Rather than perceiving a need to change, when guided by a talented consultant the participant will perceive a need to change customer or subordinate perceptions. Professional consultants keep the focus positive.

  5. Lack of a Systematic Follow-up Process. To be useful, 360-degree feedback processes must include developmental support materials and a loosely supervised process for raising skill levels. Once individuals have an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and a strategy for elevating the perceptions others have of them, the employees work with their managers and coaches to develop individual improvement action plans, complete with targeted behavior goals and time frames.

    Developmental tools can include books, seminars, mentoring experiences, videotape courses, and audio tapes. Finally, the developmental phase must be followed by a chance to remeasure skills and show improvement through periodic reassessment.

Continuing the Growth Process

If your company is considering programs to enhance sales training and development, 360 assessments that are provided in conjunction with a complete, continuous growth process are among the finest developmental tools available. Not only do they provide a meaningful gauge, but they motivate participants by helping them realize how others actually perceive them. They provide the vital link between customers' private opinions and the seller's awareness. They sound a wake-up call that stimulates sincere growth efforts, so that when professional follow-up training is provided, employees are eager to learn.

For more information on Systema's assessments program which includes valid, confidential 360 assessments, professional delivery consultations, and a complete developmental process, e-mail us at:

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