Constructive comments

The
development of online appraisal systems linked to competency frameworks means
its high time that training professionals sat up and took note of the impact
360 degree feedback can have. Lucie Carrington looks at its relevance to
performance management

In these touchy-feely days of the 21st century, where so much business is
based on relationships, it is hardly surprising that 360-degree feedback has
become such a popular development tool.

Performed effectively, it can be a truly invigorating process for managers
and the firm. But get it wrong, and it could take an organisation months, if
not years, to rebuild employees’ confidence.

And there are certainly some horrendous examples – such as the manager who
received his feedback report and immediately convened a team meeting to find
out who had said what about him, or the colleague who saw it as an excellent
opportunity to settle a few old scores.

The desire to discover what our colleagues and our bosses really think of us
is also linked to employers’ desire to get more out their appraisal systems,
suggests Jeremy Pemberton-Piggott, a consultant with occupational psychologists
ASE.

As more employers attempt to link pay and bonuses to performance management
systems, it has become crucial that these should be as accurate as possible.

"Most managers only spend 15 to 30 per cent of their time with their
team. It is unrealistic to think they can give employees guidance and advice on
the back of this amount of contact," he says.

"By seeking feedback from other colleagues and even customers,
organisations are getting a more realistic view of how people are performing
and conducting themselves."

The City & Guilds awarding body is currently in the process of
introducing 360-degree feedback into a beefed-up performance management system.
The project has kicked off with a pilot scheme involving 17 senior managers,
including four board directors.

"They are all volunteers at this stage," says Graham Watson,
training manager. "It is a big-time commitment for them. As well as
seeking feedback, many of them will also be providing feedback on colleagues
involved in the pilot scheme."

With help from training and consultancy specialists MaST, City & Guilds
has developed an online system linked to a revamped competency framework. Those
asked to provide feedback must complete a 20- to 40-minute questionnaire.

The results are collated and fed back to the senior manager in a
face-to-face interview with a coach from MaST. The feedback is then used to
help managers to develop their personal development plans.

"The value for senior managers is that it is a development plan based
on direct feedback from colleagues. This would never have come about under the
standard appraisal process," says Watson.

"What’s more, several of the pilot group have asked to continue meeting
up with their executive coach to explore areas for development which came up in
their feedback."

Briefing everybody involved in the system has been a critical factor in
making the scheme work.

"There has been much to-ing and fro-ing to ensure everyone – those
giving feedback as well as those receiving it – understands what’s happening.
There has been a lot of liaising between senior management and the learning and
development team too," Watson says.

"It is a big commitment for senior managers, but you need to keep the
ball moving."

Claire Wilson, a consultant with Penna Consulting, says this type of
briefing is essential to the success of 360-degree feedback, and it is largely
up to HR and training people to make sure it happens.

"Communicate to staff how it is going to work, stress that it is an
open, honest system that will result in constructive feedback, and show them
what constructive feedback looks like," she says.

Perhaps even more important is how the feedback is interpreted, suggests
David Aylwin, a senior consultant with MaST. "You can have all the systems
in the world, all perfectly tailored to the organisation, but the ultimate goal
of 360-degree feedback has to be a really effective one-to-one session,"
he says.

Aylwin explains that these are effectively coaching sessions – especially
where senior managers are concerned – and should be done in confidence by an
independent third party. At a push, and only with plenty of training, a senior member
of the HR team may suffice.

As 360-degree feedback becomes the norm in many organisations, there are
signs that it is changing. The expansion of online services makes it far more
readily available to training specialists, and it should be easier to manage
than a paper-based system.

Organisations are also branching out into 360-degree feedback as a means of
measuring team performance and there is a growing body of tools on the market
for firms interested in taking this further.

They include ASE’s team climate inventory, which it developed three or four
years ago to analyse the key demands on a team’s performance. ASE is in the
process of building on its success with two more diagnostic tools to help teams
assess the challenges they face and the competencies of the team.

Team-based 360-degree feedback works particularly well in organisations that
have a matrix structure where people can belong to several teams, or in
project-based firms, where teams are formed and reformed for different
assignments. According to consultant Mark Thompson, this is one way in which
the Hay Group uses 360-degree feedback.

"We tend to get together whenever we reach a particular milestone in a
project and brainstorm what we have learned from that experience as a group.
Feedback from clients is an important factor," Thompson says, adding that
this use of feedback has now become a part of Hay’s project management style.

A further development is the introduction of 360-degree feedback for
non-managers. On the whole, 360 degree has been limited to managers, usually
quite senior ones, for whom it is assumed to be most relevant.

However, some organisations are reviewing that assumption. Slough Borough
Council recently ran a 360-degree feedback process for some of its frontline staff
in the housing department, as the basis for emotional intelligence training.

"This was the first time these staff had ever had this sort of feedback
and they found it the most useful part of the course," says Rosemary
Westbrook, director of housing and neighbourhood services at Slough BC.

"It gave them a fuller and more balanced benchmark than a staff
appraisal would have done."

Slough BC has no firm plans to repeat the process, but the staff who
participated have recommended that the council consider introducing it for
frontline colleagues who have been with the organisation for a year or more.

As more providers develop their online offerings, there is little sign that
current enthusiasm for 360-degree feedback is waning. However, whether or not
360-degree feedback is right for your own organisation depends on the culture
of the place.

It needs wholehearted commitment from the people at the top – perhaps more
than most development tools. And some senior managers are simply not ready to
take the views of their peers and subordinates on board.

Case study
Defra gets to grips with 360-degree feedback

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
used 360-degree feedback as part of a major management development programme
for several hundred of its middle to senior managers 18 months ago.

The Being a Better Manager programme aimed to use the 360
process to equip participants with solid information about their management
skills and style, so that they could make the most of the training.

Managers assessed themselves as well as asking for feedback
from about five chosen colleagues. Defra offered some guidance.

"We recommended they choose a range of more senior
managers, including their boss, immediate peers and direct reports," says
Lynda Sanders, training manager for Defra.

"We had certain objectives for the programme and we asked
for feedback from colleagues around these objectives. For example, given that
one of the aims was better communication, we used the feedback to ask staff
about how managers communicated.

"We sold it to managers as an opportunity for them to
think about their communication skills, and then go on a course to fine tune
them," Sanders adds.

Managers received their feedback in a face-to-face session with
a Penna consultant before attending the two-day training course.

A lot of time was spent comparing people’s self-assessments
with their colleagues’ feedback. There was some discrepancy of course, along
with the odd sharp intake of breath as managers heard things they weren’t
expecting to.

"But by giving the feedback in a one-to-one session before
the training, we enabled them to think about what they needed to get out of the
course," Sanders says.

"And because the consultant giving the feedback was
usually the person delivering their course, it enabled Penna to tailor that
training to participants’ needs."

Some of the Defra managers had been through a 360-degree
process before, but for most individuals it was quite a new process.

"We sent a lot of information about it out in advance to
explain what the process was and what we were going to do with the information.

"As the first people went through the process, word got
back to other managers that it wasn’t anything to fear," Sanders says.

It was an expensive process. The pre-training feedback meant
that every two-day course took up four days with a Penna consultant.

It is too early to say how successful the programme was in
changing managers’ behaviour, although staff surveys suggest that people within
Defra do believe they are now being better managed.

Sanders is also in the middle of some fairly extensive
evaluation that involves revisiting the 360 process for a small sample of the
managers who went through it first time round.

"We haven’t finished the evaluation, but the indications
are that we will be able to say we got value for money out of it," she
says.

Top tips: secrets of success

– Be sure the organisation and its
leaders are ready for it

– Reinforce the view that it is a development tool not a stick
to beat people with

– Link the process to the things the organisation values and
wants to encourage

– Educate all participants – those giving the feedback as well
as those receiving it

– Avoid administrative overload – five to nine peers are enough
to ensure balanced feedback

– Honour people’s desire for anonymity, within reason

– Encourage people to choose their own peers, reports and
managers from whom they want feedback

– Let those giving feedback have the chance to say what they
feel

– Don’t skimp on the reporting stage – it should be
face-to-face and not by e-mail

– Make sure there are development opportunities -courses,
coaching or something else – in place to allow people to follow up their
feedback

Contacts

Penna Consulting – www.e-penna.co

MaST – www.mast.co.uk

Hay Management – www.haygroup.co.uk

ASE – www.ase-solutions.co.uk

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