360-Degree Leadership Feedback: Multiple Voices, Multiple Views

I first heard about 360-degree feedback in the mid-1990’s when I served as an HR director in a large transportation company. At that time, multi-rater leadership feedback was a somewhat radical idea which was being promoted at GE under Jack Welch. Welch struggled with effective leadership across his vast empire and used 360-degree data as a way to evaluate a leader’s effectiveness on more than just their business results.

In subsequent years, I’ve seen interest wax and wane for 360-feedback systems. Some organizations use 360-degree leadership feedback in partnership with their performance appraisal systems on an annual basis. Others steer clear of it, feeling that multi-raters systems are cumbersome to implement and produce mixed value. In my opinion, the truth lies somewhere in between these two views.

Implementing a successful 360-degree leadership feedback program is a complex project that needs careful planning and communication. When poorly planned, or implemented for the wrong reasons, these leadership feedback systems can do more harm than good. When carefully planned and executed, they can be powerful tools to reinforce core values and culture change.

Over the years, I have discovered one of the biggest roadblocks to successful multi-rater system implementation is the presence of myths and misunderstanding about these feedback tools. To help navigate through these murky waters of misinformation, I describe below my top 5 Myths and Misunderstandings about 360-degree leadership feedback systems.

Myth #1: Multi-rater leadership feedback is the perfect tool to use to identify underperformers and remove them from the company.

Fact: Multi-rater leadership feedback should never be used to resolve performance problems. It is the boss’ job to provide performance coaching and correction. The boss can use input from others, but ultimately the corrective feedback needs to come from the boss. When the boss decides to have the negative leadership feedback come from others, I call this the “chicken’s way out” of dealing with a performance problem. In this scenario, a boss does not provide the failing manager with constructive feedback but instead solicits the negative feedback from others and has them convey the bad news. Using multiple raters to give negative leadership feedback can result in nasty surprises for the recipient and will not fix the performance problem but can result in resentment and damaged relationships.

Myth #2: Everyone is great at giving feedback. It is a natural human trait. There is no need to train someone on how to give feedback.

Fact: Most folks do not communicate leadership feedback in clear, actionable terms. Rather than cite behaviors (“You raise your vice and shout at meetings”) they will share beliefs and assumptions (“you are disrespectful and rude”). When a person hears a negatively worded assumption, they do not know what behavior to change and thus get frustrated and defensive. They will then assume that the feedback giver is trying to undermine them and a barrier will be put in place of any further collaboration or support. Provide training, whether it is in the form of a briefing or documentation, on how feedback providers are to share their leadership feedback.

Myth #3: Multi-rater feedback is a great tool to use to acclimate a new leader to their new team.

Fact: the validity of the leadership feedback is in direct proportion to the length of the relationship. If a manager has worked for a boss for fewer than 30 days, he/she will base their feedback on a few interactions which may or may not be typical behaviors. If a direct report has worked for a boss for more than 6 months, they I have a wealth of interactions on which to base their leadership feedback. As a rule of thumb, I recommend that the relationship be a minimum of 6 months for a person to provide valid feedback.

Myth #4: You can implement a good multi-rater feedback program in as little as 30 days. All you have to do is to send out a survey, get people to respond, print a report and sent it to the manager. The manager can easily read the report and know what to change or develop.

Fact: Very, very few people can independently read their leadership feedback report and interpret the information to determine their development issues. Most folks need a coach to help guide them through what will look like mountains of data and random comments. A coach need not be an external resource. He or she can be a trained internal trainer, an HR rep, a mentor or anyone who the manager trusts to help them sift through the leadership feedback. Multi-rater feedback coaches need to be good observant listeners and people who can ask good questions and help guide the leader through the feedback to determine the best course of action.

Myth #5: Multi-rater leadership feedback can be used to evaluate performance if the performance appraisal system is not working. Multi-rater feedback systems can be used to gather information on performance effectiveness if your existing performance appraisal system is not being used well by your managers. When I ask a CEO why he or she wants to implement a multi-rater feedback system I sometimes hear: “I needs better data on how well my leadership team is doing. We have a performance appraisal system but I don’t trust it. Nobody uses it and those who do just say that all their subordinates are star performers.”

Fact: If your leadership team does not know how or refuses to use your performance management system, they will do no better using 360-degree feedback. Fix your base system before you add to it. Also, these tools perform two completely different functions: performances appraisals look backward, at the success a person has had in accomplish their work goals and activities. Multi-rater leadership feedback looks forward at how effectively a person is doing the work and looks to provide insight on developing skills and behaviors for future success. Performance appraisal and multi-rater feedback are complementary tools, not substitutes for each other.

I encourage all my clients to consider multi-rater leadership feedback. But do so with caution, care, and thoughtful planning to avoid these myths and other misunderstanding along the way.