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Getting the most from an investment in 360 degree feedback

Blog content orginally written for and was published on the Training Journal

It’s widely accepted that 360 degree feedback can be a valuable resource in an organisation to objectively assess some aspects of performance and to support development.  360 degree feedback can also be a significant investment, which is why it’s so important to get the right 360 product, which is welcomed by colleagues, valued for its quality and importantly, gets used!  With my first-hand experience of implementing and using a variety of 360 degree feedback products, and learning some lessons along the way, I share here eight key considerations for HR and OD managers and teams who may be tasked with sourcing and implementing a 360 feedback tool in their organisations.

Consideration 1 - Be clear about what you want to achieve from the 360

Taking the time to ask questions of colleagues at different levels of the organisation to find out how a 360 could help them will give you an indication of what to measure and who the respondents might be.  Do colleagues want to gather feedback to improve performance, encourage a culture change, understand skills gaps, or a combination of all three?  The answers to these questions will help you to determine whether to assess skills (what someone is good at) or behaviours (how someone approaches their work and relationships). 

Consideration 2 – Ensure the 360 degree feedback tool will have longevity

Frustratingly, especially for me as a Yorkshire lass, I have seen thousands and thousands of pounds invested in the design and launch of a 360, only to find that the competency framework, company values or leadership behaviours change after a few months, leaving the 360 sadly sitting gathering dust on a virtual shelf.  Before you start to procure a 360, be confident that the areas you want to measure are current and future-proof for at least the medium term.  I would also recommend that you build into your specification the ability to tweak the 360 product over time.  This will save time and money in starting again from scratch.

Consideration 3 – Look for an administration-light system

There are a number of 360 systems available, and I would advise looking for one that is highly automated and not dependent on HR/OD completing the administration.  Whilst in HR/OD you might want to keep an eye on the numbers using the 360, you certainly won’t want to be inputting the details of all respondents, chasing late questionnaires or emailing out hundreds of 360 degree feedback reports!  Walk through the process from the perspective of the colleague, their respondent, the HR/OD/Manager who is setting it up, and check how much or little manual intervention is required.  And definitely make sure that the final report is available to download simply at the push of a button!

Consideration 4 – Ask your end users to test the 360 feedback product

The look and feel of 360 systems varies widely.  If you have come up with a shortlist of providers during your procurement, ask some of the colleagues who will be carrying out the 360 to test them out for you.  The measures on the 360 might be generic, but your colleagues and their respondents will be able to tell you lots about the experience of setting up the 360 campaign and completing the questionnaire.  What did they think of it?  Was the language clear? Were the screens easy to move through?  How responsive was it? Let’s face it, a slow system coupled with a clunky feel is a real deterrent to completing any questionnaire, and you wouldn’t want to introduce that into your organisation.

Consideration 5 – Avoid the ‘Not Applicable’ from the outset

I know I have completed many 360 questionnaire for colleagues, clients and partners where the questions I was being asked just didn’t seem relevant to me.  I’d either select ‘not applicable’ if it was available, or go for the middle response so as not to overly praise or criticise.  Write questions carefully and test them out on the different types of respondents (e.g. peers, customers) to check the relevancy.  Even better, look for a 360 product where you can input different questions for each type of respondent.  These products increase the relevancy and accuracy of the responses, hence increasing the value of the 360 questionnaire for all parties.

Consideration 6 – Invest time in getting the 360 degree Feedback report right for your organisation

Typically, colleagues will keep their 360 degree Feedback report for quite a while, dipping into it as a source of reassurance for their strengths and building their development plans from it.  It’s therefore very important that the report is easy to understand, interpret and learn from.  A simple layout that considers strengths, development areas and allows for anecdotal feedback works very effectively.  As a rule of thumb, if you can pick up a report and understand it on first read, then your colleagues will be able to as well.  If you need a training session to interpret scores and graphs, then this would flag up to me that the report is complicated.  If it’s complicated for you, it will be complicated for your colleagues.

Consideration 7 – Think through the positioning of the 360 in your organisation

Increasingly, we are encouraging colleagues in organisations to take responsibility for their performance and development, even doing away with formal appraisals and focusing more on regular, constructive conversations between colleagues. If we apply this sense of personal responsibility to a 360, then the colleague completing the 360 will want to take ownership of their feedback report.  Whilst they may welcome a conversation with someone about the results, if you are working towards a culture of personal responsibility in your organisation, then you certainly don’t want to introduce a sense of the 360 being ‘done to’ your colleagues.  Positioning the 360 as a voluntary tool to support development, or linking the tool to a training programme is typically more effective than insisting on completion at appraisal time.

Consideration 8 – Make the most of the feedback conversation

In my experience, 360 feedback conversations are most effective when there is an opportunity for the colleague to share their reflections on the report and then move into a “so what?” conversation which can shape their development plans.  Think carefully about who is the best person to have this conversation with colleagues in your organisation.  Is it the line manager?  They know the colleague well, but will they be objective enough?  Is it HR/OD?  Is the report clear enough to interpret without the need for any formal feedback?  What’s most important is that anyone involved in feedback has appropriate coaching skills and has the best interests of the colleague at heart.

And talking of best interests, one of the most important considerations is to find a 360 degree feedback provider who has your best interests at heart and will support you to identify and develop the right product for your organisation.  Selecting a provider with experience in HR/OD will mean they understand your world and focus on what you want to achieve.  And remember that credibility is king - ask for testimonials and demonstrations.  If you are going to spend money on a 360 product you need to know you have selected a provider who will deliver exactly what you want in order to make sure that the 360 is an investment for your colleagues and for your organisation.

Opinion piece has been written by:

Alison Wheatly

Operations Director at Aspire Development UK ltd   

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