How to Use 360-Degree Feedback

Ultimate Guide to Leadership Assessments

Finding Out What Everyone Else Thinks

Every leader needs feedback. The questions are how to get them the right kind of feedback, when they should get it, and who they should get it from. That’s where a 360-degree feedback tool comes in handy. A lot of companies use 360s, but many of them don’t know how to use 360-degree feedback correctly. 

In this section, we’ll cover the details on how to use 360-degree feedback effectively.

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What Is 360-degree Feedback? 

Also called a multirater tool, 360-degree feedback is a process to survey a group of people who work around a leader about the leader’s performance and behavior. The feedback should be private and anonymous to ensure that people feel comfortable being truthful, without worrying about damaging their relationship with their leader. 

The feedback should be from a variety of sources, including the leader’s manager, direct reports, key partners, and peers. The leader also rates themselves for each skill in the survey. That way, they can see how their perception of themselves varies from the perception of those around them. 

Most of the time, 360-degree feedback is collected through an online survey. However, in some cases – particularly at the executive level – it might be collected through an interview with a trained assessor. 

After the survey, leaders get detailed reports about how others have observed them on the job. They can then use the data to fuel their development, focusing on key strengths and weaknesses. 

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When Should I Use 360-degree Feedback?  

Often, there’s a big gap between how we think of ourselves and how others think of us. The use of 360-degree feedback can help to close that gap. For example, a leader might think they are doing really well at communicating, only to find that others don’t think they communicate clearly at all.  

Or you might have a high-potential leader who isn’t confident about her skills, but is surprised to realize that others around her perceive her as a strong leader. 

Either way, the goal for 360-degree feedback is to ensure that leaders are aware of how others perceive them. Armed with the data, they can incorporate it into their personalized development plan. In addition, it helps to drive accountability for practicing their leadership skills on an ongoing basis. 

At a broader level, HR can use 360-degree feedback to spot strengths and weaknesses across their organization’s entire leadership population, or specific segments of it. This approach can be particularly useful when you are trying to shift your corporate culture or solve an issue in a part of the company. With this information, you can create group-based development programs that focus on key gaps. 

When Should I NOT Use 360-degree Feedback?  

Because 360-degree feedback is relatively easy to use, a lot of companies want to get the most they can out of the data. We generally recommend that 360s should NOT be used for the following: 

  • Performance management: If people know that their ratings will impact someone’s performance review, and possibly their position and compensation, they may not respond as truthfully. Some may be more hesitant to provide useful feedback for improvement, for fear it will negatively impact the person’s career. On the other hand, it can create a competitive situation, leading to some toxic behavior among colleagues. 
  • Promotion decisions: A 360-degree assessment can’t determine whether someone is ready for the next level. Because 360s are limited by perceptual data, the insights can only tell you what the leader is currently doing. Therefore, you won’t get a picture of what they might do in their next role. 
  • Decisions about potential: Like promotion decisions, a 360-degree assessment can’t tell you who has leadership potential. You simply can’t spot what they might be able to do, only what they currently are doing. 

How the 360-degree Feedback Process Works 

Step 1: Define Your Competencies 

The first step to using a 360-degree assessment is to pick your set of leadership competencies. You might have competencies that are unique for specific roles, such as a frontline leader. Or you might use a common set of competencies across all of your leaders as part of a broader leadership culture. 

If you don’t have an existing competency profile, your provider may be able to create one. For example, at DDI, we have set lists of common competencies based on our own research that you can use as is, or modify to fit your company. 

Note that it’s critical to choose competencies that have clearly defined behaviors that are both observable and measurable. Otherwise, it will be too hard for people to rate whether someone has really demonstrated the competency. 

Step 2: Determine the Rater Group 

Once you define your competencies, determine the rater group for your leaders. Some companies allow leaders to pick who they want to rate them. Other times, the leader’s manager and HR choose to be involved in selecting the rater group. 

For the leader to receive valuable feedback, it’s important to select a diverse group of raters. Even more importantly, it can’t just be people who have positive views of the leader. It’s also critical that the raters are close enough to the leader to have true opportunity to observe their behavior and performance. 

Step 3: Administer the Survey 

Assuming you use an online survey, raters provide their responses online. Each leader should receive a list of competency areas to rate their leaders on. 

For best results, raters should be asked to rate leaders on behaviors associated with each competency area, instead of the overall competency. This helps pinpoint exactly which behaviors leaders need to change. 

For example, if a leader scores low on a broad competency like communication, they wouldn’t know exactly what to do about it. Is the problem that they don’t communicate enough? Is it that they write long, rambling, unfocused emails? Or is it that they don’t seem to understand the needs of their audience?  

It’s also important to allow feedback providers to share open-ended comments. These comments add context and clarity for development.

By ensuring raters provide feedback at the specific behavioral level, leaders can pinpoint exactly what they need to do to improve.  

Step 4: Leverage the Results 

Ideally, reports for individual leaders should be fairly easy to understand. But in some circumstances, it may be helpful to have a trained coach walk the leader through the results. That may be especially true if the survey was only used for a small group of leaders, or was designed to address sensitive feedback about a leader’s behavior. 

Once the leader has the report, they can leverage it to identify their strengths and create a plan for future success. Perhaps more importantly, they can spot relative weaknesses where they can accelerate their development. 

At the HR level, group data provides a broader look at the organization and its cultural health. You can use it to identify group development priorities and spot any highly problematic areas that need additional intervention. 

How Does 360-degree Feedback Benefit Leaders? 

The main value of 360-degree feedback is that it helps leaders see how their own perception compares to others' perceptions. This insight can help them uncover both hidden strengths and blind spots.  

These blind spots are often the most powerful outcomes of a 360. Suddenly, leaders can see how specific behaviors might have held them back. These turn into “a-ha” moments and can help them commit to change.

Along with that newfound commitment, leaders can use the data to create a targeted development plan that leverages their strengths and helps them develop in their target areas.

And of course, leaders really do get a “360” view from different groups. For example, they might see that their direct reports love working for them, but their key stakeholders are frustrated. Or they might see that their peers rate them highly, but they aren’t focusing on what their direct reports need. 

How Many People Participate in 360-degree Feedback? 

The number of people who go through a 360 varies widely, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.  

For example, some companies use it only for a single leader – often an executive – who is struggling. Or they might use it when they are considering someone for a specific promotion, and want to get some data about where they can improve. Some CEOs even insist on getting an annual 360 for themselves to help them gauge their own performance. 

More often, companies use 360s across larger portions of the company as part of their talent management process. They might conduct a 360 for each of their leaders every year or two, ensuring leaders get the feedback they need. Or, some companies use it to kick off insight at the beginning of a learning journey or leadership development program. They might even assess different sections of the company at different times. 

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How Often Should I Collect 360-degree Data? 

Everyone wants to know how often they should do a 360. And realistically, it depends. 

For some companies, the right answer is to get 360-degree feedback annually or every other year as part of their regular feedback process. For others, it might take place only when there’s a triggering event, such as a change in organizational strategy. Some only conduct these surveys when they are hearing that there are cultural leadership issues in all or part of the company. 

Here are a few factors you might consider when you’re thinking about running a 360 survey:

  • How stable are leadership jobs in your company? If you’re experiencing a lot of turnover, it may be time to gather some insight.
  • How much time have leaders had to develop? A 360 should spark development. If your leaders haven’t had time to improve yet, it may be too soon to send out a 360 again.
  • Are your raters fatigued? Collecting data too often can tire out your raters, leading to lower-quality responses.

While there’s no single correct answer, what’s important is that you are finding a way to build data and feedback into your leadership culture. Otherwise, it will be challenging to get an accurate picture of where strengths and gaps are. 

How Much of a Time Commitment Is This? 

The time commitment for a 360-degree assessment varies based on the number of people being assessed. If you’re doing only one or a few leaders, the whole process could be wrapped up in a month or so. 

Of course, if you’re rolling out the survey across a broader group, it may take about two or three months, depending on how much work you need to do up front to identify your competencies. It also depends on how much time you give raters to submit their response, which is often about two weeks. 

The length of the assessment itself depends on the number of competencies you choose. On average, most people take about 30 minutes to complete the rating process.  

However, consider that if you assess large groups of leaders at one time, each rater may have to complete multiple surveys. As the time adds up, consider if you might need to give raters a longer period to respond. Or you might consider ensuring that a person isn’t asked to rate too many people, although that would require active management by HR. 

What Are the Common Pitfalls of 360-degree Feedback? 

A few mistakes can counteract the good intentions of collecting 360-degree feedback. Here are some of the most common ones we’ve seen: 

  • Not spending the time to select the ideal rater group. The quality of the data is dependent on the raters. Picking people who are familiar with the leader’s performance and who will provide balanced feedback is key. 
  • Misusing 360 data. Using it for performance management purposes or to make decisions around a person’s promotion readiness may poison your results. 
  • Not having a plan to support the leader post-assessment. The big payoff to leaders is the personalized data they get. Many leaders may need help with the interpretation of their feedback report and may need additional support to craft a development plan based on the results. 
  • Asking about competencies too broadly, rather than specific behavior. We often see clients use general competencies in their surveys, such as simply asking about communication or coaching. But you need to dive down into the specific behaviors detailed within the competency. Otherwise, the leader doesn’t know what they are doing specifically that’s right or wrong. 
  • Using external benchmarks to draw definitive conclusions about how your leaders compare. The culture of a department or organization can significantly affect the outcomes of a 360 survey. For example, a relaxed culture that might influence higher overall scores. Meanwhile, you might see lower scores from stressed leaders who are going through a restructuring. That’s why it’s important to use benchmarks cautiously in a 360, and take your culture into account.

Can I Pair 360s with Other Assessments? 

You can pair a 360 with multiple other assessments to get deeper data. For example, you can combine a 360 with an assessment center to get better data about readiness and potential for future roles.

You might also consider combining 360 assessments with a personality test. A personality test reflects what’s going on inside, or what you might call their “wiring.” In contrast, the 360 reflects what’s going on outside, and their behavior.

When you pair these two types of data together, leaders can gain deeper understanding of how their inner wiring is manifesting in their actions. As a result, they may be able to recognize how some of their reactions are harming their success, and learn how to overcome their natural tendencies for better outcomes.

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