4 Problems and 4 Solutions for 360 Feedback

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Corporate America has a love affair with 360 feedback as a performance evaluation and employee development tool. Most other kinds of organizations use them, too. These surveys usually consist of a series of questions with rating scales as well as open-ended questions to gather written feedback. Most employees don’t like being the subject of these surveys. Most employees don’t like answering the questions regarding their coworkers. It seems the only people who like them are leaders who feel the need to supplement their own feedback with input from others. That might be valid logic (and maybe not), but rarely are 360 feedback surveys designed to accomplish this with effectiveness and integrity.

Below I describe four problems with 360 feedback followed by four solutions. Leaders and employees alike wrestle with these problems. There are other issues that I don’t get into, but I most often hear these.

Four Problems with 360 Feedback Surveys

360 feedback surveys usually lack focus.
The worst example of this would be a survey that asks respondents to “provide feedback on Terry’s performance.” Not much better is the often used “Provide feedback on what Terry should keep doing, start doing, and stop doing.” These approaches to gathering written feedback result in comments that feel like a spray of shotgun pellets to your employee. Some of the pellets (comments), a very few, hit the target and are helpful (whether positive or negative). The rest of the comments whiz by, creating a lot of noise (and even fear), and the employee is left wondering, “What was that? Was that meant for me? What were they aiming at? I don’t know how to take advantage of that shot (comment).”

The feedback respondent pool is too broad.
When feedback is requested from personnel in multiple departments, without distinguishing between them in the feedback report, you and the employee have no way to interpret comments through any meaningful lens. What’s important to the sales team is different than what’s important to finance, and that’s certainly different than the lens of the employee’s direct reports. Every person’s feedback is filtered through their respective work lens. Feedback that that doesn’t identify this lens, the stakeholder context, is almost meaningless.

The feedback respondent pool is too large.
As the feedback pool grows in size, so does the amount of feedback that comes back. I once saw a 360 feedback survey that had invited 36 participants and resulted in 24 completed surveys. The qualitative feedback consumed three full, single-spaced pages of text. That amount of data quickly becomes noise and the employee can’t find the meaningful signal to be used for professional development. What’s more is that the leader can’t help interpret it either!

A specific timeframe for feedback isn’t indicated.
When feedback isn’t bound to a specific, recent, and short timeframe, the feedback often contains comments from experiences and scenarios that are long past. In some cases, the employee has grown beyond that issue and the feedback is no longer relevant. In other cases, the feedback is based on a long-ago, one-off event that the employee would be hard-pressed to recall even if it were identified in the feedback.

Four Solutions for 360 Feedback Surveys

Limit the focus.
There are lots of ways to limit the focus of a 360 feedback survey: a specific skill set, one or two elements of your company’s standardized performance model, a specific project, or a developmental goal. Limiting the focus of the survey requires respondents to focus their attention on specific experiences with your employee. Feedback will be more targeted and meaningful. This also provides you, the leader, with more meaningful data for coaching and development.

Limit and/or identify the perspective of respondents.
Depending on the focus of the questions (see above), you might also limit the perspective of potential respondents to a particular department. If your focus is the employee’s sales presentations skills there is no need to solicit feedback from those who never see these presentations. If, however, the focus is cross-functional collaboration skills, then you certainly want to have a broad representation. If you invite broad participation, be sure that the feedback report identifies each perspective: “Feedback from Manufacturing” and “Feedback from Customers” and so on.

Limit the number of respondents (maybe) and the amount of feedback.
If you’ve effectively limited the focus of the survey and targeted the proper respondent pool, the challenge of too much feedback is somewhat mitigated. However, your survey tool should also instruct respondents to focus their comments for each question to one or two key points with specific examples where possible. (If you use an online survey tool, you can enforce this by limiting the number of characters allowed in the response.)

Focus the timeframe.
Tell respondents to focus their feedback on what they have observed “during the last three months,” or “during Project X,” or “in the three most recent presentations.” Do what makes sense given the focus you’ve established and the audience you solicit feedback from. In most cases, though, it is difficult to get meaningful and specific feedback beyond 90 days into the past. The further back in time that the feedback comes from, the more biased and emotionally clouded it becomes.

Final Thoughts

In general, I’m not a fan of 360 surveys (unless they are validated instruments). The data that comes from home-grown surveys is too disjointed to make use of it. My wife had a great insight about 360 surveys: People think of 360 feedback surveys as mirrors that others are holding up to ourselves as if to say, “This is how you look to others.” That’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to say, “This is a portrait of you that has been painted by a whole team of painters. However, we didn’t tell anyone what color palette to use, which painting instruments to use, which painting technique to use, or which medium to use.” The resulting portrait is messy and hard to interpret. In many cases, the “portrait” isn’t recognizable by the employee or their leader.

If you utilize the four solutions noted above, you’ll make great strides in resolving these challenges and your team can paint a more helpful portrait.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by Erik Eastman. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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