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The term “360-degree feedback” has been around for nearly 30 years, and has been in regular use for over 20. It has also gone by other names, like “multi-source feedback,” multi-rater feedback,” and “multi-source assessment.” It has mostly been used for developmental purposes rather than for personnel decisions, and can be contrasted with the “downward” feedback that comes from superiors and supervisors, and “upward” feedback that comes from subordinates.

360-degree feedback

Like the circle it refers to, 360-degree feedback is well-rounded.

What Is 360-Degree Feedback?

Three-hundred-sixty-degree feedback is a process for gathering, measuring, and reporting observations about an individual in pursuit of multiple data-driven outcomes:

  • Rater perceptions of how clearly specific behaviors are demonstrated
  • Comparison and analysis of perceptions across a range of raters
  • Creation of sustainable, positive changes in behaviors valued by the organization

Included in 360-degree feedback are all steps that affect the quality of the feedback, because the data collected will be shared, reviewed, and used for decision-making at some point. If the feedback is not used, then it’s not really feedback. And if it’s of low quality, it’s a waste of time. The people providing the feedback include coworkers, internal customers, external customers, suppliers, contractors, and others who interact with the person requesting feedback. It has become a staple of executive coaching.

What 360-Degree Feedback Is Not Designed to Do

It’s important to understand what 360-degree feedback is not designed to do. For one thing, it’s not designed for measuring employee performance objectives. It shouldn’t be used to determine if an employee meets job requirements, and it’s not focused on basic, job-specific skills. It is a qualitative, rather than quantitative measure, so it’s not for rating things like attendance and achievement of quotas.

For executives participating in executive coaching, 360-degree feedback can be tremendously useful, providing honest perspective and helping the coachee see him- or herself as others do. Care is taken to facilitate honesty among people giving feedback, by assuring them negative feedback won’t go in their supervisor’s “file,” and that the executive is actively seeking honest feedback. Information may be collected electronically through surveys, or through face-to-face interviews.

How Technology Can Help (and Hurt)

Executive coaching

Coaches must resist the temptation to gather and collate data, then print out a report, with no follow-up.

Technology in the form of online feedback forms can be tremendously time-saving and cost-effective for collecting feedback. It also stands to disrupt feedback providers’ days minimally. But the problem with online feedback forms, along with any online tools designed to evaluate those forms, is that the executive coach will simply create a thick report, drop it on the coachee’s desk, and consider the job done. On the contrary, follow-up is essential. For some organizations, collection of feedback in the form of individual interviews is used partly to avoid this hazard (and partly to be able to gather context clues that don’t come across in electronic surveys).

Potential Risks and Rewards

Perhaps the biggest risk with 360-degree feedback is organizations thinking of it as a complete performance management system. In fact, it is only one component in the executive coaching process designed to maximize executive performance and help executives realize their potential. Another risk is that this type of feedback will be used without aligning it with the organization’s overall strategic aims. If the questions used to solicit feedback are irrelevant to the goals the organization and the executive are trying to achieve, it can be an expensive, disruptive waste of resources.

And unfortunately, there will be occasions when company politics works its way into 360-degree feedback. Some raters may inflate feedback in the form of overly glowing reviews, while others may take the opportunity to try to make a disliked executive appear incompetent or ineffective. Preventing this requires training the organization and briefing the individuals providing the feedback, as well as providing checks and balances to prevent dishonesty or abuse.

That said, most organizations that make use of 360-degree feedback in executive coaching find satisfaction with it. It can offer feedback that is far more meaningful than any single kind of feedback (such as that exclusively from superiors or subordinates), and it can help team members work more effectively together. And it can be an outstanding tool for the executive to use to define personal developmental needs. Leadership coaching is a passion of mine, and I work with individuals and organizations personally to develop the best set of tools to use to identify executive strengths and weaknesses, define goals, and measure progress toward them. I encourage you to contact me to learn more about my leadership coaching services.

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