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Boss’s Tip of the Week #39: 360-Degree Feedback: How to Get the Truth (and Improve Your Performance)

The Boss's Survival GuideHere is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Top executives (read: high-profile CEOs) in big, publicly traded companies (and a lot of governments) routinely get feedback from all sides. Their performance draws comment (often very public comment) from others in the organization, the Board of Directors, Wall Street analysts, the press and a lot of anonymous people posting on Internet bulletin boards. If they don’t have a sense of how they’re perceived they just aren’t paying attention.

The rest of us can often muddle through happily oblivious to how we are perceived – and to our biggest flaws as managers. It happens because everyone thinks that we already know, because they are afraid to confront the boss, or because nobody asked. Yet without feedback from all sides we can continue to work with blind spots, holding ourselves back.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to get the feedback you need – stay with us — through a 360-degree feedback process. Yes, we know that 360-degree feedback has a bad reputation in many places. That’s because the concept is good but the execution quite often is not.

That’s really too bad, because it’s actually pretty easy to do 360-feedback well. Done well, it can be the best tool you have for improving your performance and getting ahead. (And yes, using 360-degree feedback to develop your subordinates is a good idea, too.) Here’s how to do it well:

Follow the Four Commandments. Leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith has developed what he calls the Four Commandments of 360-degree feedback, and they are well worth following:

  1. Let go of the past
  2. Tell the truth
  3. Be supportive and helpful—not cynical or negative
  4. Pick something to improve yourself—so everyone is focused more on “improving” than “judging”

Disconnect 360-feedback from reviews or compensation. Unfortunately, some employees see a 360 as a way to reward their friends or punish their enemies. One way to reduce this problem is to separate the results from performance reviews or compensation in any way. Simply use them as a tool to get feedback and improve performance — you’ll reduce the odds of vindictive behavior.
Don’t limit 360-feedback to lower levels. In our experience, 360s are used less often the higher up you go in an organization. But unless you believe that people learn everything they ever need to know early in their careers (and we don’t), the need for feedback does not diminish. 360 feedback is valuable for lower-level supervisors but essential at the highest levels.
Explain the process before you start. It isn’t helpful when a 360-degree evaluation form simply appears in someone’s in-box. When that happens, people are uncertain about what it is, how it will be used, or what’s expected of them. People are in a better position to provide valuable feedback when they are well-informed up front. Take the time to outline the process and, yes, sell the value. After all, if the feedback they offer results in real behavior change then all employees stand to benefit from the process.
Keep it confidential. To give honest feedback, people need to be sure that their comments will be kept confidential. When it comes to keeping thing hush-hush most companies resemble swiss cheese, so don’t be surprised if people are initially skeptical of the process.
Provide structured feedback and action plans. This is our biggest complaint about how 360s are handled in most companies: It’s all about data collection and very little is done about changing behavior based on the feedback. Put your emphasis on improvement and it won’t be feedback at all — it will become feed-forward.

Real World Example

One of Marshall Goldsmith’s favorite examples of how to use a 360 is how he changed his own behavior. “How do we stop making destructive comments? That was my problem several years ago,” he says. “I had my staff do a full 360-degree evaluation of my behavior. The feedback said I was in the 8th percentile on ‘avoids destructive comments’–meaning that 92% of the people in the world are better at it than I was. I had failed a test that I wrote!”

“So I talked to my staff. I said, ‘I feel good about much of my feedback. Here’s one thing I want to do better: Quit making destructive comments. If you ever hear me make another destructive comment about another person, I’ll pay you $10 each time you bring it to my attention. I’m going to break this habit.’”

“This policy was in force in our office for several weeks. And it cost me money. But eventually I brought up my score to the 96th percentile.” 

Boss’s Tip of the Week #39: 360-Degree Feedback: How to Get the Truth (and Improve Your Performance)
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