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The use and misuse of 360-degree assessments

By Elaine Varelas, 11/6/2006

Don't you wish you could tell people what you really think? The 360-degree assessment was designed with that goal in mind-extracting an honest and insightful look at employees and how they work. A 360 is an excellent developmental tool, which provides clear and practical insight into how a person's self perceptions may differ from the perceptions of others. When used correctly, 360-degree assessments can help managers strengthen their skills, positively impacting the organization. Unfortunately, many companies use 360s haphazardly and incompletely, or implement them in the wrong context.

Before we discuss the proper way to use this powerful diagnostic tool, we should first define the 360-degree assessment. It is a tool used to gather feedback about an employee's management and leadership attributes from a sample of people who work with him or her. 360s focus on an employee's inherent skills and on how he or she interacts with bosses, peers, and direct reports. Confidential surveys or interviews are conducted with each of these colleagues in order to gain a full-circle understanding of the employee's strengths, weaknesses, interpersonal skills, and management techniques.

The 360 is a good indicator as to why a particular employee is successful-or not-and enables the employee to see oneself through others' eyes. The feedback is best interpreted with the help of a 3rd party coach, an HR professional or a trained manager. The greatest value of the feedback is that it helps the employee identify his or her best developmental opportunities-ones that can be pursued with the organization's full support.

360s are invaluable developmental tools, yet many organizations use them improperly. Why does this happen and what do organizations do wrong? One of the more common mistakes is to use 360s to gather negative information as a means to oust a non-performing employee. If you already know what you want to have happen, forget the 360! "Piling on" is destructive and will create a negative experience for everyone involved. This practice will also keep others in the organization from wanting to participate in or benefit from an objective and properly conducted 360 in the future. Employees need to believe that this tool will be used purely for their own success or they won't be invested in the process.

Another common error is not protecting the confidentiality of the people interviewed. It is critically important that both the feedback results and the source of the feedback remain anonymous. Breaching confidentiality can destroy the integrity of the system. While employees may know who provided some of the feedback (most employees only have one boss), effort should be made to keep all other information anonymous. If respondents believe that specific answers may be attributed to them, they may not be as honest or objective as they should be. They need to be assured that their responses will be delivered to the employee in a constructive way, so that the employee will be able to incorporate the feedback into his or her developmental improvement plan.

A third area where organizations frequently get tripped up is in the actual delivery of the feedback to the employee. Without expert assistance in interpreting the data from the feedback report, there is a risk of misinterpretation or even misuse of sensitive information. The results should be delivered directly to the employee by an experienced coach, an HR professional or a manager who has been trained to interpret and provide feedback. This will help the employee to frame the information in the most productive developmental context. It is important to align the interpretation of the feedback with the larger business issues facing the employee. The feedback may be able to shed some light on why a particular organizational issue has been a problem. Or it may help to identify the qualities that are leading to one's success as a manager. Feedback is not just about correcting one's weaknesses. More often, it is about how to leverage one's strengths for greater success in the future.

It is not important or even advisable that the specific feedback results be shared with anyone else in the organization. (Again, protecting the confidentiality of the respondents is key.) What is important is that a specific development plan be created and that it is shared with others in the organization who can support its implementation, especially the employee's boss. This is another problem area for many organizations. They invest in a 360-degree assessment process up to a point, and then drop the ball at the most crucial time-when it is time to create and implement a developmental action plan. Too often, the feedback report ends up gathering dust because the employee isn't given the support or resources needed to implement the plan. Without an action plan, why bother to get the feedback? In other words, don't get all dressed up if you don't plan to go to the party!

One way to build a strong organizational commitment to the process of gathering 360-degree feedback is to have your organization's leaders volunteer to be the first to engage in the process. Employees may be more willing to participate if they see it is a positive, top-down initiative. Leaders can demonstrate that the corporate culture is one of constant learning and growth, where feedback and honest communication are encouraged and embraced.

So, as we have observed, 360-degree assessments can be a valuable tool in creating a developmental culture in your organization. However, if not used correctly, they can bruise egos, disrupt operations and frustrate employees. HR managers should avoid using 360s to "fix" non-performing employees. Instead, they should emphasize the potential for 360s to help the organization and its individual employees reach their full potential.

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