Getting 360 Degree Reviews Right
Written on the 8 July 2015 by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman
We've all watched countless late-night infomercials regarding a new product or self-help program. As it ends, the person on the TV screen testifies that this new vitamin or exercise process has "changed my life." We assume we're not alone in our skepticism about how life transforming this new product really was. Indeed, as we mature, it seems that fewer and fewer things actually make a long-term difference in our lives.
But there is one thing we've personally seen that profoundly and consistently changes lives what's generally referred to as the 360-degree feedback process. In the course of completing tens of thousands of these reviews as part of our strength-based leadership programs, we had an up-close view of many people who were teetering on the edge of job termination, and have seen them blossom into extremely valuable contributors. It's been one of the really gratifying parts of our work.
Maybe that's why our blood comes to a slow boil when we see a popular columnist arguing that 360-degree feedback programs fail. Of course a careful reading of the article describes an entirely flawed implementation of a 360 process, and we grudgingly concur that this does happen. Sometimes the senior executives don't support the program, and in the worst cases they don't participate themselves. Perhaps reports go to participants with little or no explanation of how to read them and without follow-up from the manager or HR. Or perhaps the 360 isn't used to guide and inform people's progress within an overall system of development. Yes, we sigh, there are too many 360 implementations that are pathetic wastes of time, resources, and worst of all opportunity.
That's why we take heart when we see organizations do 360s well. What do they do that makes the difference?
The effectiveness of any measure is based on how well that metric can predict an outcome. Will the number of leads generated by a marketing campaign predict sales? Will the number of hurricanes in the Gulf predict the price of gas? Will the number of times a new product is mentioned in social media predict the success of that product? What we know from our years of research correlating leaders' 360 ratings to important organizational outcomes is that they are very predictive. While no one person's opinion is in itself necessarily predictive, the aggregate average of several raters really does provide a very accurate gauge of the skills of a leader. Our research shows that individuals rated through this process as highly effective leaders preside over operations in which turnover is lower and employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and sales are higher.
That said, there is one 360 rater who is highly unreliable and rarely predictive at all. As all our data and our long experience have shown us time and time again, that person is you. That is, your own perception of yourself is rarely accurate or predictive. For a GPS system to get an accurate picture of your location, it requires four different satellites. For leaders to get an accurate picture of their own effectiveness, they need feedback from their manager, peers, direct reports, and others in the organization.
Certainly, 360-degree feedback can be done well or poorly. But we are heartened when we see the process done well, because we know that virtually every time that happens, someone's life will indeed be transformed in a positive way. In a very real sense, it can be one of the rare activities that truly does influence careers and change lives.
Author: Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman
About: Jack Zenger is the CEO and Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. They are co-authors of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable,” and the book How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by Magnifying Your Strengths (McGraw-Hill, 2012).