360º Feedback: A Feedback or Decision-Making Tool?
In the world of assessment, 360º feedback is a useful way in which individuals can raise their self-awareness through hearing the thoughts of their peers, direct reports and leaders. The insights gained from 360º feedback can help workers to identify development opportunities through greater understanding of their colleagues’ views. What’s more, it can help to identify ‘blind spots’, whereby an individual’s view of themselves differs from those of their colleagues.
Despite the potential for 360º feedback to be an effective developmental tool, its promised benefits do not always reach fruition. This is often the case when 360º feedback is used for assessment purposes. For instance, 360º has been used in connection with performance-related pay, shaping bonuses received at the end of the year. This method, despite its popular use, is fraught with complications.
Bonuses Can Become Political
Adding monetary rewards to feedback transforms a developmental process into a political one. For example, individuals may selectively nominate their raters, asking only those who are likely to give higher scores, limiting the developmental use of the feedback. Who can blame them though? It’s understandable, given the financial consequences of the feedback they receive. If financial motives are removed, employees are far more likely to use the feedback for developmental purposes.
Creation of Mistrust
The monetary incentives are likely to make receiving feedback an emotive experience. Mistrust can be generated lower scores are awarded, given their role in shaping the individual’s pay. This is in spite of a wealth of research suggesting that the highest performing teams have high levels of trust 1. Relationships are just as important as the people an organisation has, or as the writer Margaret Heffernan says, ‘it’s the mortar, not just the bricks, that makes a building robust’. Unfortunately, 360º feedback used in this way only works to dissolve this ‘mortar’.
Feedback should be an ongoing process, rather than a one-off event. Research from business psychology has found that the highest performers constantly seek feedback from those around them, seeking continual improvement 2. If feedback is only given during one-off events, these events can become intimidating. A colleague once told me about when their direct report received feedback immediately before an appraisal, creating a difficult conversation whereby the direct report felt under attack and wished to protect their record. I imagine this happens a lot when feedback is saved and gathered for one appraisal. Instead, regular feedback could be given on an ongoing basis, immediately after tasks and projects to ensure that it is developmental.
I’m not arguing that 360º feedback shouldn’t be used in an appraisal situation. Rather, I’m arguing that its function should be purely developmental, rather than as a decision-making tool. As I said earlier, 360º feedback during an appraisal can help to clarify strengths and development areas, undoubtedly fuelling future levels of performance.
1 Costa, A., Roe, R. & Taillieu, T. (2001). Trust Within Teams: The Relation with Performance Effectiveness. European Journal of Work and Organisational Psychology, 10(3). 225-244.
2 Ashford, S. & Tsui, A. (1991). Self-regulation for Managerial Effectiveness: The Role of Active Feedback Seeking. Academy of Management, 34(2), 251-280.