It’s hard to find a senior manager these days who hasn’t undergone 360-degree feedback. And for organisations intent on building leadership capacity or improving team performance, it’s a convenient and readily available solution, due to the range off-the-shelf options.
There’s no doubting its increasing popularity, or its potential to raise an individual’s awareness of how they impact on others and act as a catalyst for behavioural change.
However, to have any genuine value or meaningful impact, 360-degree feedback must be far more than a standalone activity. It should involve managing the individual’s expectations, aligning questionnaires to competency frameworks, setting goals to integrate the exercise into personal development plans and providing feedback from trained facilitators. The process surrounding the 360-degree process itself is complex, and how well HR and learning managers plan that process will determine what impact it will have.
“It is the process around the way you use 360 that is as important as the tool itself,” says Hazel Stevenson, a director of the HR consultancy Saville Consulting Group. “You have to be clear about how you’re going to use it, and how you’re going to link into appraisals and personal development plans.”
It’s important to provide context for employees so they have a firm understanding of why the 360 is being done – ie, for their own development as well as the organisation’s needs, says Debbie Moore, director of bespoke services for Roffey Park.
“Linking it to personal development plans or leadership and management development helps people understand why,” says Moore. “Without thinking about the organisational context and without tailoring and buy-in, it could be seen as a fad.”
The latest research into the use of 360 suggests that there has been something of a ‘faddish’ approach, with insufficient support for development following on from the exercise, according to Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, chief executive of Leadership Research and Development.
“What organisations should be doing is not introducing 360 until they’re absolutely committed to the development that needs to follow,” she says.
“The other reason for failure is line managers don’t follow up, and the individuals themselves don’t go back to [the results] regularly.”
Too many organisations adopt 360 and don’t stick with it, says Barry Hazelwood, a consultant for the organisational change consultancy Huthwaite International. “We have these scores, these results. The issue is how to change them,” says Hazelwood. “That’s where many organisations fail, and where we come in.
“Some companies introduce it thinking it will force people to communicate. They are using it because they don’t have effective dialogue processes, but there’s no substitute for dialogue.”
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) adviser Angela Barron agrees. “Where communication is top-down, it won’t work – it will only work in open cultures. Not all companies are going to be ready for 360-degree feedback. It’s going to take some time to make sure the conditions are right.”
Alimo-Metcalfe maintains that while ensuring development for the individual takes place, it’s important to make sure the process meets the organisation’s needs as well. “I’m concerned that there’s a lot of focus on 360 in relation to individuals, but not in relation to the culture of the organisation,” she says.
“What comes out of 360 is the individual’s feedback and development plans,” she continues. “We aggregate that and ask: ‘How do we look as a group, what is the impact of this area of weakness on staff below us?’ as that impacts on the culture.”
The more 360 is integrated with other development tools, the more benefit it will have in terms of identifying cultural behaviours, says Stevenson. To demonstrate this, he cites an example of an IT company that overlaid 360 data with personality data and case study information.
“We could see what their behaviour was like, as well as the motivation and values of the organisation,” says Stevenson. “The whole point is that they are meant to be used for added value for the business, contribute to the bottom line and improve leadership and performance.”
Putting time and effort into planning the feedback process will help sustain the momentum for development, and while opinion varies on whether feedback should be facilitated by an external coach or internal line or HR manager, there’s no disputing the specialised skills required.
“Feedback should be done in such a way that the individual is not arguing whether it’s right or wrong, but rather on why the boss is seeing the individual in that way,” says Stevenson. “So the facilitator moves the individual away from the questionnaire, and towards the behaviours they’re exhibiting in the business.”
Alimo-Metcalfe advocates that once the individual has had their initial feedback session with a trained facilitator, they should have at least three one-to-ones every six weeks. A ‘ref-resher 360’ is another good idea, says Moore.
“We often get people to do it six or nine months after the event. Organisations sometimes want a shorter timeframe because they can see what shifts are being made as a result of focusing on their development.”
Opinion is divided as to whether feedback should come from an external consultant or internal manager, but most organisations using 360 on large numbers of employees eventually go the route of training in-house facilitators. “[Whether or not the consultant is] external is not critical,” says Jenny Cridland, BAE’s leadership development director. “What is important is that the individuals you use within your organisation are trained, and their skills are kept fresh.”
At Marconi, the long-term plan is to train line managers to have the competence and confidence to give feedback themselves – a challenge for an organisation such as Marconi, which has a lot of engineers with highly technical skills.
“It’s a case of either giving up, or trying to address the issue,” says Marconi’s head of learning and development Neil Grant. “If you say it’s so important that you need someone else to do it, I would ask what happens during performance management, reward and recognition? You can’t devolve everything to specialists. You really need to try to build that relationship between the manager and employee, and build trust.”
BAE Systems: getting off to a flying start
For aerospace giant BAE Systems, 360-degree feedback is a key development tool in its performance-centred leadership (PCL) programme for its top 600 senior managers.
“We felt that having a suite of tools and processes all built towards understanding an individual’s performance in terms of what they do and how, was an important part of understanding our leadership population,” says Jenny Cridland, BAE’s leadership development director.
Outcomes of the 360 feed directly into each senior manager’s performance and development review, which covers their achievement of objectives and development needs, as well as their personal development plan, which takes a longer term view of development needs and changing behaviours. Trained facilitators take individuals through their 360-degree feedback, but the role of line managers is critical to ensuring the exercise becomes the basis for further development.
“A large proportion of our senior leaders have been trained in coaching skills,” says Cridland. “While that’s not directly tied to 360, it gives the correct style and mindset. The individual has to have ownership to ensure that [further] development takes place.”
BAE based the 360 questionnaire on the company’s own leadership competencies. More than that, BAE took input from an external consultancy, academics and an internal focus group comprised of its senior leadership population – a blend resulting in what Cridland describes as the “professional rigour” that gives the 360 tool “credibility and traction for the organisation”.
Three years into the 360-degree framework for senior leaders, a recent study of the PCL programme indicates there have been benefits both to individuals and for business objectives. BAE now plans to cascade 360 feedback to the next tier of 6,000 managers.
Marconi: from survival instinct to forward thinking
The success of any 360 exercise is largely dependent on the competency framework underpinning it. The design of the 360 questionnaire should be based on the organisation’s management or leadership competencies.
Marconi is in the process of taking some 200 senior managers through 360 following the company’s financial re-structuring last year, and the starting point for the project was to evaluate and refine its competencies.
We had a set of 10 leadership competencies that had gone back a few years,” says head of learning and development, Neil Grant. “We refreshed them significantly, with a view to using them in our 360 tool.”
He adds: “You can use an off-the-shelf tool, but instead of having broad competency questions, we wanted questions related to specific competencies in Marconi language.”
Marconi is working with HR consultancy DDI to design and deliver the 360-degree feedback, and the process of formulating the questionnaire has been very much about fine-tuning, including ‘road testing’ a draft version on managers around the world, and having it ‘sense checked’ after being translated into German and Italian to ensure no meaning had been lost.
Marconi’s 360 is part of an organisational development initiative led by chief executive Mike Parton to raise individual awareness of performance and potential.
“The reason we wanted to use 360 was we saw it as a powerful tool to give objective feedback,” says Grant. “We’d been focused a lot on the singular goal of survival and hadn’t had time to use any lateral vision in terms of growth.”
Tailoring 360 to the key leadership competencies has given context to the exercise and helped ensure it serves as a springboard for further development, rather than simply being an end in itself.
Vivienne Willis, a business consultant for DDI, says: “If you have identified the competencies, they link in with your business objectives and goals.
“By having the right competencies driving your goals, you will be more effective in terms of the behaviours identified with those competencies, and the better you will perform.”
Most common problems
- Individuals don’t know what to prioritise from the feedback, so they do nothing
- Their self-ratings differ from the ratings of others, so they disagree with the feedback and reject it
- They don’t see how their rated competencies relate to their job or the organisation’s strategy, so they are not motivated to change their behaviour
- They may recognise they are weak in a certain area, but conclude that it ‘hasn’t done them any harm so far’
- Managers do not invest enough time or effort in developing their direct reports and helping them to act on the feedback
- People are reluctant to ask for help from their manager, subordinates or others
Solutions for success
- Designate the areas most in need of development so the individual can prioritise
- Ask those conducting appraisals to help individuals develop their target competencies
- Design the feedback summary report so that it stresses development actions rather than criticisms – don’t make it look like a school report
- Consider making changes in how the feedback is communicated
- Train individuals in effective development planning
- Train managers to support the development of their people