360 feedback can be enormously powerful in helping your people reinforce their strengths, identify areas for improvement, and get better at what they do. But organizing the process means making several design choices which can either make your 360 program a huge asset or a useless burden.
We’ve identified eight key questions to consider:
The article is split into distinct sections addressing each point so you can either read in full or go to the part that’s most relevant for you.
At each stage, we make clear where we think you can go wrong and why, so you can avoid the pitfalls and run a fast, effective process which helps your people grow and improve.
If you don’t work for a company that uses 360 feedback, chances are that someone, somewhere in your firm is thinking about implementing it, even you.
When done well, it’s enormously powerful.
Here’s engineering leader and author Michael Lopp (aka Rands) talking about some 360 he received:
‘It was just the truth, these are the things you need to work on… I kept that piece of paper, I think it was two pages, in my backpack for a year and a half. I probably looked at it every week. I’ve done that same 360 two more times… never has there ever been better feedback for me than that document.’
It’s also really easy to get wrong.
We began thinking about why, and realized that the effectiveness of your 360 feedback process involves several key choices that are easy to underestimate but will define the success of your program.
Should it be anonymous? Should it be direct or go through a manager? Who should be asked? How should the information be presented? How do I get people to engage with it? And that’s just the start.
If we’re being honest, some of the existing advice that’s out there underplays the implications of these decisions and we imagine has led to some unsatisfactory outcomes.
Bad 360 processes feel onerous, vapid, and performative. But they don’t have to be that way.
This piece is designed to make you aware of all the pitfalls that could compromise your 360 process, and by doing so, help you run a fast, effective process that could really benefit your employees - whether you’re thinking about it for your team, or for your whole organization.
We want to get to a point where you have a playbook which will mean your people get some feedback worthy of keeping in their backpacks for a year and half.
Yes, we are going to start with the basics (mainly because some other articles we’ve read have some odd 360 degree feedback definitions, which complicates the whole process).
360 feedback is just feedback for an employee from a range of others beyond whoever’s directly responsible for their career development (usually their manager).
It’s not necessarily anonymous, or performance-related, or ratings-based (as we’ve seen argued elsewhere). It could be. But these are choices you’ll make later.
For now, it’s just feedback from a range of people who together offer a broader (360) perspective about an individual’s work.
Ok now we’re getting into it. To a large extent, your answer to this question will define how you structure your entire process.
This is generally the number one reason companies run a 360 process. If that’s why you’re here, excellent. You’ll want to remember this as we progress.
The benefits of 360 feedback can be multi-faceted, but it’s principal one is that it helps employees improve by giving them a fuller picture of their work and its impact, beyond their own opinions and that of their manager.
Before we move on, let’s briefly look at some other reasons companies collect 360 feedback but which generally result in poor outcomes so you can get off this train before it leaves the station.
If you want your staff to receive genuine feedback which helps them improve at their jobs, you should never collect it as part of a review process which affects their compensation.
If those giving feedback know that their comments could affect a colleague’s pay packet, at best they’ll shy from giving a full picture and at worst, your process could become a tool for vindictive score-settling. This is even before we get to issues like a lack of attention to the feedback because the recipient will mainly be interested in hearing what they’re going to be paid next year.
Now, you may want to include 360 feedback as part of your formal compensation processes and to assess people for promotion/lay-offs. If so, all well and good. But you’ll need to be explicit with contributors about how their comments are going to be used, and expect them to have limited developmental value.
Various surveys over the past decade have shown that employees want more feedback.
The fact these surveys keep coming out suggests that employers aren’t making huge strides at ensuring they get it.
This isn’t to undermine the scale of the challenge. Giving feedback is a skill which requires thought, tact, care, and a willingness to navigate difficult conversations in the interests of helping someone improve. In some organizations it therefore doesn’t happen very often.
In these situations, it may be tempting to introduce a 360 process to ensure employees get at least some feedback once or twice a year.
This is the wrong solution to a bigger problem.
If your team isn't used to giving each other feedback day-to-day, they’re not going to respond well to being forced to do it every six months.
That’s not to say 360 feedback can’t play a powerful role as part of the feedback culture at your company. But it should be just that, a part of it - not the focus.
One Harvard Business Review article talks about a company which uses 360 feedback to identify conflicts between individuals on the team so managers can intervene and prevent the disagreements festering. Other examples of 360 feedback forms include questions about individual’s attitudes towards their team/company/manager.
In short, they’re trying to gather information on the team/company rather than individual performance.
This is a survey. Whilst it’s useful for that purpose, it’s not 360 feedback for the individual.
Now you might ask, why not include a few of those questions alongside the individual ones?
As we’ll get onto later, just answering the individual questions well is time-consuming enough, without also factoring in broader considerations.
Trying to tackle individual and team at the same time is likely to just result in doing two jobs badly.
(Apart from this post, obviously).
The road to HR hell at your company is paved with ‘best practice solutions’ from other firms.
360 feedback is no different.
You need to be clear about what you want to see from your feedback process and how it can benefit your team and organization.
Don’t start with the solution before you’ve figured out your purpose.
At this point, we are assuming that the principal reason for this exercise is to help your team get better at their jobs.
We’ve identified eight key considerations you’ll want to think about so you succeed:
The following sections explain the options facing you at each stage, so you can decide how you want to proceed and get this process right.
Getting this range of perspectives is useful after:
In practice, this means 360 feedback is often collected once or twice a year. Although some teams may choose to collect it quarterly.
You’re going to be asking people for their feedback on each other’s work, so what format do you want that feedback in?
The two formats you see most often in 360 feedback templates are:
We’re going to argue strongly for the former.
If the objective of the exercise is to help your people get better at their jobs, they need to know where their strengths are (and why) and where their areas for improvement are (and how they can get better).
It is impossible to deliver that feedback in a rating. Let’s compare two examples in answer to the question ‘How would you rate Sarah’s communication skills?’:
‘4 out of 5’ / ‘Good’
In my work with Sarah, I’ve observed her communication in two ways - over email with colleagues and customers, and in her presentations. Her e-mail communication is a real strength - she’s succinct, responsive, and her tone is spot on for internal and external audiences - but I think she can improve her presentations. I’ve seen her present three times in the past six months and each time she has been very detail-oriented, which although impressive, has meant her overall message has got lost on her audience. She may want to focus more on the impact she wants to have on her audience for future work.
Whilst this example may seem overblown (it isn’t really - we’ve seen both), it shows the impact your choice of format can make.
Ratings advocates will probably say:
First, it’s arguable whether ratings systems are in fact quicker. Respondents can take an age agonizing over whether someone should be a ‘3’ or a ‘4’ out of five, and the lightweight nature of the responses can encourage organizers to create far more questions than is necessary. We came across one 360 template from a major company which the creators claimed had 52 questions, had been used 21,500 times, and took 10 minutes. 21,500 people have been deeply wronged.
Second, tracking data is only useful if it’s helpful to the individual (remember we’re treating team data as a separate exercise/survey). Some individuals may find it helpful to know that their colleagues perceive their communication skills have improved from ‘3’ to ‘4’ over the past six months, but we’d venture many would prefer the written detail.
Of course, you could do both. But then you have to ask whether the additional thought that goes into the ratings in addition to the free text is worth everyone’s time.
It probably isn’t. And speaking of time…
There are many, many areas that we’d all like feedback on. But that’s exactly why you need a culture of ongoing feedback in your team, not why you need a 360 process (see above).
If you try to gather feedback on too many things, in writing, and want it to be good, people will be at their laptops for days and everyone will hate it. It’s not unusual for some respondents to have 5, 10 or even 15+ individuals to write about as part of one of these processes.
You need to think very carefully about any 360 degree feedback questionnaire you're going to ask your staff to dedicate their time to. One to three questions is understandable. Any more than 5 will start to get onerous and you’ll want to make sure those questions are really worth it.
We return to the purpose of the exercise for some clues as to what to ask.
You could just ask one question:
‘What’s the most important thing you feel Alex could do to improve at his job and why?’
‘What do you think Alex should know to improve at their job?’
This isn't a bad option. But it’s likely that you’ll get a lot of feedback on areas for improvement, and not as much on areas of strength, which are as important to reinforce.
So you may decide to go for two questions:
‘What has Alex done well over the last 6 months and why?’
‘Where do you think Alex could improve his work over the next 6 months and why?’
This is one question away from the ‘Stop, Start, Continue’ framework which you may also find useful.
These are open-ended and useful questions, but you might also choose to ask about more specific areas/skills/competencies which are important for performance at your particular firm. If skills in data analysis, or report writing, or customer service, are vital indicators of performance, then by all means nudge respondents to comment on them.
The main thing is to only issue a 360 degree feedback questionnaire which is going to result in the most helpful feedback for your people. Extraneous questions only place additional burden on respondents and will dilute the time they can spend on the important stuff.
You may even want to ask the individual in question if there’s anything specific they want feedback on. If it’s important enough, it may be worth dedicating a question to it.
Further Relevant Read: 360 Feedback Examples
Gathering 360 feedback in writing is efficient, and useful for presenting to the individual. But sometimes respondents may give better advice in person. It may be worth reminding those participating in your process that they can also speak to people and take notes if they think that would lead to better results.
Ok so by now you have your (short!) list of questions you want to ask respondents about each individual in the process. But who should actually ask the questions and directly receive the answers.
Typically, there’s three options:
Getting individuals to ask for their own feedback comes with a few considerations. First, the main value of 360 is the collected perspectives an individual receives on their work, not any one person’s opinion.
You want to avoid individuals getting pieces of feedback through one by one, which may be difficult depending on the tool you use to manage this process. Second, sometimes people need chasing to provide feedback, and this may be trickier if a more junior employee has to do the chasing. That said, it’s fine to do it that way.
A manager or a third party can mitigate both those considerations. They can collect all the feedback before presenting it to the individual, and they may have a better remit to chase tardy respondents.
The main consideration for these last two options is the process of presenting the feedback and whether you’re presenting it to the individual as given, or as a summary (see ‘What Should I do with the Feedback’ below). If you’re summarizing, the manager or third party has to be trusted by the individual to do that well otherwise the whole process loses its integrity.
Feedback should be collected from a group whose collected perspective will best advise the individual on how they can get better at their job.
This will likely be a range of people with direct experience of working with the individual in different ways. They are typically colleagues of varying seniority, but can also include customers, contractors, advisers, or suppliers. You’ll probably need at least five to get useful perspective, but any more than ten will start to get onerous for your firm.
It’s often asked whether the manager or the individual should choose the respondents.
If you’re trying to collect anonymous feedback (addressed next in ‘Should 360 Feedback be Anonymous’) then it has to be the manager.
Assuming you're not, it shouldn’t just be the individual, for obvious reasons of bias. But if it’s just the manager, and they happen to be more distant from the individual’s work, then they might not include someone who could have valuable input.
We’d recommend both.
Either the manager or team member should draw up a shortlist and then this should be finalized in discussion with the other.
Ah yes, this question.
Here’s some advice we found in some other articles on 360 feedback:
‘The key to receiving honest feedback is in the rater’s anonymity.’
‘The people who provide 360-degree feedback remain anonymous. Employees need candid, well-rounded feedback to improve and people are more likely to be straightforward if they know their identity is protected.’
This may be true. But it also may be (probably is) nonsense.
If we’ve acknowledged that the most constructive 360 feedback is in written form, then anonymity becomes very hard to maintain. In providing the details and context that would be helpful to the recipient, the writer will probably give clues as to their identity. This renders the ‘anonymity’ pointless or it leads to the writer not including those details, which compromises the quality of the feedback.
Moreover, who is giving the feedback adds valuable context to the recipient, and also enables them to follow up with that person if they have any questions. It also encourages more thoughtful responses if the respondent knows they’re going to be accountable for it.
So if ‘anonymising’ written 360 feedback can be ineffective and dilutive, why are we even having this discussion?
We imagine it’s because firms are worried that their employees won’t give very good feedback to each other, and this can be covered up with a cloak of anonymity.
If so, it’s the wrong solution to the wrong problem.
Speaking of which…
By this point you might have something like:
Essentially, you’re ready to send out your questions and/or arrange relevant in-person meetings. But you want to ensure that when you do, you get responses which are going to be useful for your people:
Some tips for this include:
Congratulations, by this stage your managers or team members should have collected some excellent 360 feedback.
But this is only half the story.
The value of this whole process is how that feedback is used, so let’s talk through a final few considerations as you discuss the feedback with your team, finalize the process, and make sure it’s a success.
A 360 process is fundamentally about asking a group of people some questions, gathering that information, presenting it for discussion, and storing it for future use.
Given these basic tasks, it’s not surprising that many still choose to try and organize this process over email. In practice, this works but is pretty painful. Responses can get lost among other emails, and any replies have to be copied into a further document for presentation, and then stored (lost) on a file system for future reference.
You could also use a survey platform you have access to - likely either Google or Microsoft forms. These are better than email, but still take time to set up and run the process, given they’re not designed for this explicit function.
Specialized 360 feedback software can make this process much simpler for all parties and ensure your people get the feedback they need to improve in their roles.
Kommon’s feedback feature is built to manage 360 processes, and offers the following advantages:
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We’ve compiled a list of questions you can ask your managers and team members to identify the challenges they face, and help you pick the right solutions.