How 360 Works

Pioneers of the Process

Alignment is Key

Bracing for 360

Is Your Company Ready?

Tips for Offering 360 Feedback


Corrections or additions?

How'm I Doing?

This article by Kate Butler was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 7, 1998. All rights reserved.

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What you think of me is none of my business. Unless, of course, I work for you, in which case your opinions of my performance are central to my business. As my boss it is your responsibility to help me perform well. To do that you've got to talk with me and answer the question made famous by Mayor Ed Koch: How'm I doin'?

Lately, however, a radical new method for answering that question has been creeping into corporate America. It wants to know what everybody who works closely with me thinks of my performance -- my boss, my peers, and even those who report directly to me.

Who cares what they think? is my first line of defense in response to this method. Then I realize that if only I'd had some advanced notice of the switch to this system I might have behaved a bit differently along the way. Aha! And then I slowly begin to realize the value of asking the opinions of so many.

As executive director of a Trenton-based consulting company, American Humanagement Associates (aha!), I have been exploring this practice, known as "360-degree" feedback. The Princeton offices of such Fortune 50 companies as Xerox, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and Bell Atlantic are using 360-degree plans now, and the concept of assessing your supervisor's performance is spreading to smaller firms. Many firms schedule performance reviews for January, so it's timely to consider what it would be like to be appraised both by subordinates and coworkers as well as by the boss.

What do I do if faced with this? Any feedback I get from colleagues does, indeed, matter. And that's what makes it so scary. How can I prepare myself if my company decides to implement this process? How do I humanely deliver feedback to my boss? And, just as important, how do I receive my feedback without rancor for the bad news, or depending too much on the good news? In other words: What do I do with this information when I get it?

To start with, remember that feedback is a relatively new focus. Performance reviews were simple in the old days: you went to work (if you were a man), and every Friday received an envelope with your pay right after watching with horror as a coworker was summarily and seemingly randomly fired. Yep, that was the method -- of late referred to as Theory X -- of management which prevailed in this country at the start of this century. The random firings were believed to motivate employees to perform better.

Since they were random, however, they served no purpose, we now know, other than to make the workforce paranoid and a bit crazy.

Current theories of management have progressed mightily beyond Theory X and now center on Performance Appraisal (PA) systems. They answer the question: how well do you perform each of the tasks assigned you?

We used to ask the boss to be sole judge of performance. The process of 360-degree feedback was designed to increase the accuracy of that assessment and make it more relevant to the development of each employee. The term "360-degree feedback" refers to a delicate process in which employees get feedback from "relevant others." Rather than take the word of one person -- who, for any number of reasons may not be able to see our skills clearly nor evaluate them objectively -- this process includes the voices of all relevant parties.

The very idea of multi-direction feedback can chill the hearts of even the most adept managers, yet we routinely receive an abundance of feedback in our daily lives. Every event from the baby's smile this morning to the hand gesture offered by the fellow motorist I inadvertently cut off on my way home last night is technically feedback: a comment in response to an action of mine.

Some comments impact us more deeply than others. When I receive feedback from a stranger ("Nice coat!"), or applause for a speech I've just delivered I am pleased. But when the people with whom I am intimate and about whom I care deeply extend similar reactions to me, the value increases.

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How 360 Works

Though formal 360-degree feedback programs have been in use for nearly 30 years, only recently have they become popular. Ideally they involve a structured process in which a valid survey instrument is distributed -- often by certified feedback coaches -- to the subject (hereafter referred to as Terry) as well as to Terry's boss, direct reports, and peers.

The data is gathered and sent back to the company that developed the survey for analysis, and the resulting report is sent to the counselor/coach, who makes an appointment with Terry to discuss its findings. It is an effective development tool for Terry when the discussion centers around the gaps found between Terry's self-perception and those of the relevant others.

Together with the coach, Terry develops an action plan for improvement. It is this plan -- and none of the other documentation -- that Terry shares with her boss.

The process can be administered as part of either a performance review system -- complete with implications for bonuses, rewards, and/or demerits -- or as a component of career development. The difference between the two is in how those filling out the forms (called raters) perceive their role.

I support the concept of asking all employees for input. The more often we do this, the greater the likelihood that we'll survive these times of turbulent change and thrive into the next century. Yet though I strongly encourage using 360-degree systems for career development, I caution against their use in performance appraisals. Using a 360-degree system as part of a performance appraisal can be very damaging and may actually obviate its original intent.

As part of the performance appraisal process subordinates may believe that, "At long last I have the power to get the idiot boss fired." Or, the reverse: If the boss has promised me a coat-tail rise, my intent in completing the questionnaire changes dramatically. Far more genuine, unencumbered by hidden agendas, and useful, I believe, is the feedback received from raters who understand the intent of the process to be the development of the subject, be it boss, peer, or direct report/subordinate.

I would not, therefore, use 360 as a component of annual reviews, for it's too difficult to filter for intent.

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Pioneers of the Process

This opinion is shared by the Clark Wilson Group, designer, publisher and early pioneer of the process, and by Emil Sadloch of Sadloch Associates, a Yardley-based consultant and certified coach of 360-degree feedback systems. Sadloch likes using Wilson systems because they offer a broad range of surveys and have a deep research base, enabling his clients to compare their team's results with organizational norms. Sadloch uses 360-degree instruments and processes only as a part of a career development process. "It is a philosophical decision I made a long time ago," he reports.

The intent of the process, according to Jane Wilson, vice president of the Clark Wilson Group, is to gather sound and reliable data for a feedback and coaching discussion (a service provided by Sadloch). The ultimate aim is to help the client build an independent development plan.

An important piece of the process, according to both, is the use of questions that have been analyzed and tested through strict psychometric processes and which meet the criteria for reliability and validity.

Clearly, to be most effective, 360-degree feedback is not a "do-it-yourself" project. The process is not to be entered into lightly -- even when used strictly for development purposes -- because it has the makings for causing damage to both the individual's and organization's psyches.

Let me explain. When the process was first developed in the early 1970s the intent was to research the skill sets required of a manager and then find a way to measure their success at using them. First the researchers asked managers to assess themselves. They then provided them with surveys to distribute to their bosses, peers and subordinates.

The results? The complete picture of Terry's performance -- found in the compilation of all responses -- was found to be most accurate. The industrial psychologists conducting the research then knew they had a valid tool for measuring competencies. A new process was born. At the time it was called "multi-rater" and "multilevel" and was, as you may imagine, a difficult sell, because few people enjoy the thought of getting feedback. More blood and tears are shed on corporate carpets in that often painful process known as Performance Appraisal than in any other organizational process. And for two good reasons: lack of education and lack of alignment.

We are woefully uneducated in meaningful methods for giving feedback, believing often that our role as manager requires us to point out all the foibles in our direct reports. We forget that they need to be caught doing something right, as well.

Another cause for my concern is the issue of alignment. All human resources mobility systems (those systems which affect the way employees move into and throughout the system) must be in alignment with each other and in sync with the organizational climate. What does that mean? Simply this:

If the guy at the top inspires hushed tones when passing by, your system is probably not conducive to having a feedback system in which underlings are expected to give constructive criticism to their immediate superiors.

To step in and impose a rather egalitarian system of peer review on employees after they have been growing in a hierarchical system for years is like asking cacti to bloom in a swamp.

The same is true when someone at the top decides to implement a 360 degree appraisal process. It, like the cactus, might not thrive in your climate. Indeed, death is likely.

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Alignment is Key

Alignment -- establishing the appropriate environment for a particular performance appraisal system -- should therefore be a company's first priority. The addition of a 360-degree system is akin to the insertion of a transplanted organ performed by surgeons who haven't found an organ that is a complete match: "Oh well," this surgical team theorizes, "we like this process a lot, so let's just go ahead and put it in and see what happens. We'll deal with the infections -- and whatever other consequences arise -- as we encounter them. After all, we're doctors!"

How many times have I been called in to organizations in this post-op predicament and been expected to perform triage? Inserting any new part into a functioning system without first checking for alignment/matching components becomes noxious and is a sure path to systemic crises.

Now that I've done everything in my power to talk you out of instituting a 360-degree feedback process without considerable preparation and caution, let me say that for those who refuse to be intimidated by tales of gloom and doom, you may well be among the few organizations where this process will be aligned with present practices.

When entered into and conducted carefully and appropriately, full-circle feedback systems can yield great rewards. Both Bell Atlantic and Nynex, for instance, bought into 360-degree systems for development of senior managers, and both found it produced honest feedback.

I've always been a fan of gathering hard data -- especially baseline data against which to measure progress. In the face of hard data Terry loses the ability to cry foul.

Defensive managers often do that during somewhat subjective performance appraisals. "Of course you'd say that," goes one common retort to receiving critical feedback, "You've never liked me because I'm ________ (pick a quality)." Well-designed and valid 360-degree feedback processes eliminate the option of such alibis for poor performance.

People can no longer say to those evaluating them: "How dare you come in here and judge me," because the coach has a simple reply: "I'm not here to judge you, but to help make sense of the data."

Additional rewards:

Increased loyalty and job satisfaction reported by previously voiceless employees.

The discovery of other systems needing improvement, such as recognizing that the organization's mission is unclear to the executive team, causing misaligned plans and priorities.

The break-up of any collusion that the boss might be using to wrongly promote the wrong people. At the very least it makes collusion visible.

The identification of any manifested biases.

The ability to compare one's team results to norms; to measure up to a benchmark.

Research shows us conclusively that among the three environments in which one can live -- one with a preponderance of positive feedback, one with a preponderance of negative feedback, and one absent of any feedback -- the healthiest people emerge from those with mostly positive feedback, while the next healthiest come from environments in which they received mostly negative feedback. (The attention might have been negative, but at least they got some attention.). And the least healthy people come from an absence of feedback -- a condition in which many executives find themselves.

Like bowlers in the dark, without feedback on what pins they have knocked down, they don't know the "next" best things to do.

Implementing a 360-degree feedback system may well put them into the abundance of positive feedback category and give them the feedback they need to lead healthy lives.

Like many human resources systems that seem, at first blush, like a good idea, 360-degree systems need buy-in from the top. Buy-in is necessary for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the higher up one rises in an organization the less feedback one receives. Leadership must be enlightened to the process and its benefits. Executives, having participated in the process for the first time, are often delighted with the results and become feedback converts if not out and out feedback junkies. Once they get the kind of numerically quantified, structured data available in 360-degree feedback plans, they often seek more.

Take the case of Johnson & Johnson. In the 1980s it ordered the Wilson Leadership Index for its executive team. At the time they were firmly against using the services of a professional, outside coach. After the first round with the 360-degree process the executives requested the coaching component, which they then got.

The only people who don't like feedback, it seems, are those who don't get much. And with good reason. All growth begins by identifying the present level of mastery, whether in karate class or on the job. Gathering baseline data by use of a 360-degree feedback process allows for measured progress. No longer will people be able to say to those subjectively evaluating them: "How dare you come in here and judge me?"

The coach has a simple reply: "I'm not here to judge you, but to help make sense of the data. Let's look at the data."

Neat. Clean. Measurable. Just the way I like an organization.

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Bracing for 360

Organizations must certainly make a substantial investment to ready the culture for 360-degree systems," agrees John Sarno, executive director of the Employer's Association of New Jersey (EANJ). And he should know. In 1997 alone he conducted training programs to hundreds of state employers interested in implementing feedback systems.

"If you've never had any feedback system in place," he warns, "do not begin with 360-degree, which is a sophisticated system. Begin with the standard, one-on-one, top-down method first." In the meantime, create a culture appropriate to a 360-degree process: one with plenty of honesty, candor and peer relationships, he advises.

Ron Czajkowski says that his organization, the New Jersey Hospital Association on Alexander Road, aims to do just that. "As part of the yearly written appraisal and the 90 minute sit-down "head to head" conference, what we do is try to encourage a dialogue," says Czajkowski. The dialogue might include the manager asking "what I am doing right, what am I not doing well enough, and how can I help you be a better employee."

"That is just common sense," he says. "If any manager is not doing that, I don't think they are managing well."

The New Jersey Manufacturers Association has only recently instituted formal appraisal systems, but, says Patrick Breslin, its organizational culture promotes two-way feedback. "Three years ago we established a process of written program of describing responsibilities and formalizing the grading process of employees by responsibility," says Breslin, of the insurance company that has grown to have 1,300 employees on Sullivan Way in West Trenton. "It was never part of the process that employees grade their managers on a formal basis but we have a good rapport here. We don't have a very stiff management, and in the private sessions of the review process the feedback goes both ways."

How do you know when you've got a system that will support a 360-degree feedback system? Lee Bellarmino did, albeit on a very small scale. Newly hired into the Trenton Savings Bank as a vice president, he realized his leadership style might not be consistent with that of his new employer. With 24 years experience at another bank that supported widespread use of 360 (where he was trained as a coach for the process) he decided to ask his colleagues to appraise his performance after one year on the job. The data he received helped him make subtle shifts to be in alignment with the corporation's style.

Bellarmino's plans include conducting another assessment of his work in order to measure his progress. He acknowledges that his present organization is not yet ready to implement a system-wide 360 feedback process as part of an employee development program. He reports working long-term on cultural issues to prepare for that eventuality. His prudence, patience, and plan should -- according to the experts -- pay off.

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Is Your Company Ready?

While I don't always like to admit it, I fear actually getting feedback. Yet I am addicted to it and have learned to ask for it. Without feedback I can't grow. Like bowling in the dark, I don't know the next best things to do. Without feedback I'll keep doing the same things over and over again until -- at age 50 -- I'm still behaving like a child.

That is, of course, an exaggeration, for I do get feedback, plenty of it. We all do. Regularly. It's just that what we receive is neither constant nor consistent, two requirements which make feedback useful to growth. Most feedback comes in unstructured, often subtle ways that confuse and don't point neatly to the path to improved performance.

How ready is your organization for similar growth? How will you know when you've got a system which will support this strange new way of assessing performance? Jane L. Wilson, vice president of the Clark Wilson Group, an early pioneer in multi-rater assessments, makes these suggestions in the journal published by the American Society for Training and Development (June, 1997). She offers a checklist of questions to be answered:

1. Why are we doing this? The organization must be clear about why it is conducting a 360 degree feedback process. She recommends it not be used for selection of employees to layoff or promote. Know what the feedback will be used for. Will it be used as a piece of the annual performance appraisal process or solely as a development tool?

2. What are the skills we want to measure? These tools measure attributes, not personality traits, and must be aligned with the organization's competencies testing. Be certain to test for the presence of the skills necessary for the specific job. (In other words: use a system designed by experts.)

3. How will the feedback be presented and dealt with? Do not handout surveys, get 'em scored and give em the reports, unless you want to cause serious damage. The handling of feedback should conform to the American Psychological Association's guidelines for ethical treatment. In other words: hire trained coaches to work in the development of action plans.

Wilson further warns that the effectiveness of the entire process is dependent upon the setting of boundaries known to all. Who will have access to the results of the worker's 360-degree survey? It should be only the worker and the outside coach, according to Wilson. "People need to feel safe for this process to work."

While some organizations have -- in the past five years -- begun to use 360 as a piece of the annual review process, Wilson (whose company designs and sells only instruments to be used for development purposes) offers a few guidelines for this use:

If you are considering an off-the-shelf feedback instrument, examine the purpose for which the survey was developed. Was it designed for performance appraisal or for developmental feedback? One size does not fit all. Use an instrument for its intended purpose. Raters approach an item differently depending upon its purpose.

If you design your own survey, consult with a measurement specialist to make sure it will accurately measure what you want it to. The key to effective feedback is to keep the purpose clear, the data anonymous, and the environment safe for the raters and the person receiving the feedback.

Keep the feedback process for development and career planning separate from performance appraisal feedback. Six months before performance appraisal time, conduct a 360 assessment survey for development. In a session with a feedback coach, review the feedback and have individual write an individual development plan (IDP) based on that discussion. This is the "diagnostic" step.

During performance appraisal, gather anecdotal feedback from coworkers and subordinates as well as more detailed measures of performance against objectives from the worker's manager. As a part of the performance appraisal discussion between the worker and the manager, review the IDP to see what achievements have been made on the plan. This is the "enforcement" step.

One year later conduct the 360 assessment survey again. Compare the two to measure progress. Rewrite the IDP and continue the development process.

-- Kate Butler

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Tips for Offering 360 Feedback

The most successful multi-rate interventions are conducted by certified professional coaches. Indeed, using 360-degree reviews without providing training has been compared to practicing psychotherapy without a license. But if you're game to try it without professional assistance, expert coach Emil Sadloch offers the following Top Ten Tips for a savvy, productive and safe launch.

1. Unless your organization has used 360-degree instruments extensively, use them for development, not for appraisal. People will accept the benefits of heightened awareness, personal learning, and potential change. They will resist 360-degree systems used for judgments affecting their pay and their futures.

2. Develop support in the executive ranks. Senior managers will buy into the process if they see opportunities for measurable results and performance improvements. More and more, they know that people represent a valuable asset.

3. Ensure that the instrument is reliable and valid, not the personality or "styles" flavor-of-the-month type. The better 360-degree instruments have been developed based on a sound model of competent performance (of managers, leaders, teams, etc.) and are supported by a broad data base.

4. Verify the confidentiality of the data. The data belongs to the participant. Don't let others in the organization draw out confidential results. The potential for misuse can threaten a valuable intervention.

5. Build trust with participants. Develop an understanding of the culture and context of the organization. Show empathy in coaching, using questions rather than statements as you help participants grasp the meaning of their data.

6. Get the participant involved in working with the data. Help the participant to make relevant self-discoveries and insights. These lead to acceptance, ownership, and beneficial change.

7. Allow each participant to focus on the group whose feedback is most relevant: boss, peers, direct reports, or customers. Groups other than the boss may have the most valid information on the participant's true competencies. Go where the participant wants to go.

8. Help participants focus on results: the performance outcomes that are important to the organization. Help make connections between behavioral changes and desired results.

9. Build on the participant's strengths and seek balance in all skill dimensions. Say, "Keep those high scores where they are; they are helping you be successful." Ask, "What can you do to bring up the lower scores?"

10. Help the participant create realistic plans for change. Focus action planning on a few key areas that will contribute to operational and leadership results. Encourage sharing the results with trusted colleagues (or the boss).

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Kate Butler, executive director, American Humanagement Associates (aha!), 36 South Broad Street, Trenton 08608-2102, 609-989-9890. E-mail: Butler helps client organizations create and maintain ideal work environments.

The Clark Wilson Group Inc., 1320 Fenwick Lane, Suite 708, Silver Spring, MD 20910, 800-537-7249. E-mail: Publishers of 360-degree surveys that provide feedback on skills for individuals and groups, the firm's surveys measure skills that are observable, trainable and related to a specific role, and are statistically valid.

Emil Sadloch, president, Sadloch Development Associates, Nine East School Lane, Yardley PA 19067-3234, 215-736-8869. Sadloch provides innovative consulting and training services.

Lee Bellarmino, vice president, Trenton Savings Bank, 134 Franklin Corner Road, Lawrenceville 08648, 609-844-3100. Experienced as a coach for the 360-degree process and currently responsible for human resources, Bellarmino is planning for the eventual implementation of the process at Trenton Savings Bank.

John Sarno, executive director, Employer's Association of New Jersey, 799 Bloomfield Avenue, Verona, 609-393-7100.

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