The downside of 360’s - ZM Coach

When you’re a new manager, getting quality feedback is crucial to your success. Becoming a manager means taking on tasks and behaviors that may be new to you. It’s important to know how that’s going – whether you are being received the way you mean to be. Unfortunately, it can also be extremely difficult to get clear and useful feedback.

Many coaching and leadership development programs include 360 feedback as part of their offerings. This is when the person being coached receives feedback from multiple perspectives in the organization – their boss, other “higher ups”, peers and direct reports. The goal is to provide a well-rounded view of how the person is doing in their role. The feedback then serves as the basis for coaching.

Typically 360’s are carried out one of two ways. Either there is a rating tool provided, with some room for comments. Or the coach conducts interviews, and then provides a report of themes from those discussions that the coach reviews with the client.

In concept, 360’s are a great idea. Professional success requires effective interactions up, down and sideways in the organization. Getting feedback from each of these perspectives can provide a well-rounded view of the client’s strengths and opportunities for improvement.

However, there are some serious downsides.

For the rating tool approach, the major drawback is that rating systems are generally ineffective at providing useable feedback. Ratings are necessarily opinion-based. There’s no rigor requiring data to back up the given rating – no requirement that the rating be based in examples or facts. What this means is that any biases that exist in the mind of the rater will be incorporated into the feedback. Friends will be rated higher than foes, regardless of actual performance. Because they are subjective, the information they provide can be difficult to interpret and put into action.

While the interview approach can make up for some of these shortcomings, two fundamental problems remain. The first is that the feedback ends up being necessarily vague. Interviews are typically conducted with the promise of anonymity. Results are reported as broad themes. If the feedback aligns with the client’s self-concept, or known shortcomings (or strengths), it will make sense to them. They can usually come up with their own examples. However, if the feedback is new, or the client isn’t aware of the issue that’s seen as problematic, it can be difficult to provide specific behavioral examples without giving away the source. The result is that the feedback gives an impression of what isn’t working (or what is), without any real examples to back it up. The lack of specificity can make it difficult to act on.

The second – and in my view, more problematic issue — with 360 interview feedback is that it enacts the “triangle” dynamic. This is when Person A thinks something about Person B, but instead of telling Person B, they tell Person C. By definition, 360 interviews create this pattern.

Why is that problematic? Unless Person A has a direct conversation with Person B (before or after the interview with the coach), the information flow between them has been circumvented – and with it, the possibility for an authentic relationship. The thoughts that Person A has about Person B are now in the silent space between them, rather than in the open. The more we hold in that silent space – in “secret” – between ourselves and another person, the more difficult it is to have an authentic relationship with them.

Person A is left wondering: Did Person B get the feedback? What was their reaction to it? Did they know it was me who gave it?

Meanwhile, Person B is left wondering: Who thinks that about me? Is it this person, that person, the other person? Maybe they all do? Am I doing that thing now? Is the person who gave me that feedback in the room judging me for it?

For both people, the experience is destabilizing. Their sense of security on the team is reduced, and ultimately, so is the level of trust.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. The coach can guide the client through a process for gathering feedback directly, rather than doing it for them.

Preparation for this is key to its success. Guided by the coach, the client identifies topics they want feedback about. They access and cultivate their curiosity, so they can take in the feedback without becoming defensive. They identify what constitutes effective feedback and how to solicit it. They learn how to partner with the person giving the feedback to move past any hesitations. They practice asking for examples and specific behavior changes they could make in order to improve. They see how to frame the conversation and create a safe space for open dialogue.

From that place of being fully prepared, the client then holds one-on-one conversations with each of the “360” respondents. These conversations open the communication channel between the client and their colleagues. They deepen relationships and build trust – ultimately contributing to more openness on the team. This process builds a culture where feedback comes out from the shadows, no longer secret, but a celebrated gift to be shared among colleagues, in the service of growth and development.

This is something I help my clients with, so they can continually improve their performance and build teams where trust is high, and learning and growth are the norm. If this is appealing to you, let’s talk. We’ll get on the phone for about 45 minutes to explore about where you are in your career right now, and where you’d like to grow as a leader. If I can help you on that path, we’ll talk about what that could look like. Or if I’m not the right fit, I’ll happily steer you to other resources to meet your needs. Either way, it will be one of the best hours you’ve spent focused on your career.

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