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Your ultimate guide to 360 degree feedback

19 min read
360-degree feedback is a way for managers to get a fuller picture of someone’s strengths and weaknesses. Instead of a two-way conversation, where the manager reviews the employee, this helps widen the lens and reduce manager bias.

What is 360-degree feedback?

360-degree feedback – also known as multi-source or multi-rater feedback assessment – is a mechanism for gathering feedback.

This feedback process uses multiple raters, such as peers, direct reports, and managers, as well as self-evaluation.

360 feedback helps employees to receive confidential and anonymous feedback from the people who work around them.

Performance or development?

360 feedback can be used for both performance management and development programs. However, there is considerable controversy over whether 360s should be used for performance evaluation as well as development or reserved purely for development.

Some argue that using 360 feedback for evaluation will ruin its proven value for development because raters will be less candid, ratings will be less accurate, political forces will be at play, and recipients will be less accepting of feedback. Other problems can arise if 360s have administrative consequences like implications for pay or promotion.

Who can give an employee 360-degree feedback?

360 feedback should be given by those who work directly with the person who’s receiving the feedback. This can include supervisors, colleagues, direct reports, customers, and vendors.

Assessments vary according to an employee’s placement within the organization. Some 360s target HiPOs (high-potential employees) or C-level leadership and executives, whereas others may target the grassroots level (e.g. field employees), managers or frontline leaders, or mid-level management (e.g. Directors or VPs).

The 4 roles to be filled in every 360 review

In any 360 review, there are 4 main stakeholders. First, there’s an administrator who runs the process. Then, there’s a reviewer that gives feedback, and a subject that receives feedback. Finally, there’s a manager who helps the subject utilize the feedback and improve their job performance. Here’s a guide to the 4 roles and what’s expected of each.

The administrator

Main objective: To help the subject of the review get the most from the 360 Feedback process. As an administrator, you’re not helping managers succeed, or organizations prove high employee engagement. You’re squarely focused on improving employee performance.

Remember this is not a performance review, but a way to identify personal development opportunities for employees and turn people into top performers.

Key actions:

  • Communicate the 360 Feedback process and its benefits
  • Make sure the process is clear and understood by other stakeholders in the 360 process
  • Conduct the survey and gather feedback – online surveys are the quickest and easiest way to do this
  • Sit down with managers to explain the results and how they can be acted upon
  • Talk to the subject about their feedback and explain how it can lead to future development
  • Provide a development plan to subjects, or work with managers to create one

Who normally fills the role: It could be someone from human resources, a third-party that specializes in running 360 Feedback programs, or software that means a company can run an effective self-service 360 Feedback process. Managers shouldn’t take this role, as it’s a conflict of interest with their role as a reviewer and manager.

The subject (aka participant or ratee)

Main objective: It’s less an objective and more of a guiding principle: as a subject, this whole process is intended to help you improve, so take on feedback with an open mind, whether it’s negative or positive.

Key actions:

  • Select reviewers – usually, that means at least 1 manager, 1 peer and 1 direct report
  • Complete your self-assessment
  • Take on feedback as just that – it’s neither right nor wrong, but just how others see you
  • Choose how you’ll act on the feedback – it’s up to you to what extent you change or continue what you’re doing
  • Focus on your positive feedback while also looking at how you can improve on some things
  • Work with administrators to create a development plan
  • Speak with your manager about your feedback

Who normally fills the role: Anyone in a company could be reviewed, but you might not be doing a company-wide 360 review, or maybe not include your senior leadership team.

The reviewers (aka raters)

Main objective: Give honest and constructive feedback to whoever you’re assigned to review. Keep it professional and think deeply about how your feedback can help one of your colleagues improve, whether they be a peer, direct report or manager.

Key actions:

  • Review the questions you’ll be asked to answer about a colleague
  • Give feedback on the people you’re assigned to review
  • Raise it with the administrator if you’ve been assigned someone you don’t know

Who normally fills the role: In theory, anyone can be a reviewer – but who a subject can select will depend on their role. For example, a junior sales rep can’t ask their CEO for feedback; they’ll be limited to managers 1 or 2 levels above them. Most companies will ask a subject to select between 3-10 reviewers, or an administrator will assign them.

The manager

Main objective: Give feedback as one of the subject’s reviewers, but also ensure that the subject gets the most from the process and uses the feedback to develop. As a manager, you’ll be working closely with the administrator to create development plans for your team members. And after the 360 review process is done, you’ll be the one giving continuous support and coaching to turn underperforming employees into good ones, and good ones into great ones – thus enhancing their employee experience.

Key actions

  • Give honest and constructive feedback – but feedback you’d feel comfortable giving at any time of the year
  • Team up with the administrator to create development plans for your team members
  • Put a plan in place to help your team members make the most of their 360 Feedback
  • Keep giving continuous feedback and coaching after the 360 review has been completed

Who normally fills the role: The subject’s direct line manager.

How to implement a 360-degree feedback system

A 360-feedback assessment is designed to work within a training and talent management program that is meant to grow and develop your people.

However, it’s important that it’s customized to suit your company’s specific set of needs. The primary purpose of 360s has always been employee development, but there is an increasing trend of companies using 360s within performance review systems.

Be wary of isolated metrics

360s should not be used as an isolated metric in talent management conversations. They are most useful as one input among others. This means they’re best used as a way to provide additional and critical context to objective performance metrics.

Step 1: Have a clear vision across the organization

Having a clear vision and direction for the organization helps everyone to work towards a common goal.

This clear vision should be understood and shared broadly and also aligned to business priorities and goals for the organization.

You can then translate this into leadership competencies and behavior statements. These will help you to capture the organization’s unique needs for both current and future success.

Step 2: Communicate effectively

360-degree feedback is only effective if everyone involved thoroughly understands the process.

When communicating to raters and those being rated make sure to include:

  • The purpose of the 360 feedback assessment
  • Confidentiality guidelines
  • How the data will be used
  • What behaviors will be rated

Raters should be provided guidance on how best to tailor feedback based on their own experience with the person they’ll be rating.

It’s important that they’re guided not to let one experience overshadow all others, and that they provide specific examples on what the person they’re rating does well – as well as what they could do differently.

Consider including in the survey invitations an outline of the process timeline, who to reach out to with questions or concerns, and expectations for next steps.

You might also want to consider structured training for each of these groups: rater training, subject/participant, HR partners.

READ MORE: Who you should ask for 360 feedback

Step 3: Help employees to choose raters

The right people, or ‘high-quality raters’ are those who can provide meaningful feedback based on quality interactions.

High-quality raters will be those who can provide meaningful feedback based on quality interactions.

Making sure that raters have worked closely enough with the individual being assessed will help to:

  • Ensure the person who’s being rated can be confident in the feedback being provided. Plus, they’re more likely to act on the feedback if they have trust in their raters’ credibility and motives
  • Give enough detail in their feedback for it to be meaningful

In most cases, subjects should be able to choose their raters, but should do it in collaboration with their manager or someone from HR.

This will also help lay the groundwork for the development conversations to follow.

Questions for employees when choosing their raters:

  • Has this person had ample opportunity to observe your behavior and/or work closely with you?
  • Do they understand the expectations and nature of your work?
  • Do you feel comfortable discussing feedback with them?

Set minimum and maximum expectations for the number of raters. There should be enough raters to protect the confidentiality of their feedback. But balance this with the time involved – the more raters involved in the 360 evaluation process, the longer it will take.

Step 4: Make sure you’re asking the right questions

An open-ended question asking for opinions of an employee’s performance – both good and bad – isn’t helpful. It’ll give you an unorganized cacophony of data. There are better ways to ask.

Every organization has unique characteristics, a distinct culture, and a wide variety of leadership needs.

It’s crucial that the content in the 360 should be aligned with how leaders are evaluated (from a broader performance perspective).

As well as the knowledge, skills and abilities required for the employee to meet their objectives and priorities – it’s also important that their strengths and weaknesses complement the larger growth and development model across the organization.

READ MORE: What to ask in 360 feedback: Example questions and free template

Step 5: Send, monitor, and nudge

Use your 360-degree feedback tool to send the 360 assessment to each participant.

Monitor to see how the process is going. Make sure to give a deadline that’s realistic, but still keeps it front of mind. If lots of people are having difficulties or aren’t on board you may have to revisit step 2.

Step 6: Share and plan

Share the resulting feedback reports with employees and help them create a plan of action for improvement. Ideally, this will be done with their manager who can talk them through their ratings and what they suggest next steps should be.

It’s important that these 360-degree feedback sessions are kept positive. They shouldn’t be an opportunity to berate, but rather a chance for the employee to learn and grow.

Pros and cons of 360-degree feedback

When done effectively, the benefits of 360-degree feedback include:

1. Increased employee self-awareness

This is (usually) a good moment for most employees. In day-to-day work we don’t often share positive feedback with our colleagues or say why we value them – 360 Feedback is an opportunity for just that. It can give employees a real boost to see that their work has been recognized by peers, direct reports and managers, as they might have thought it wasn’t that noticeable.

2. Identifying strengths and weakness in employee skill sets in order to build on or improve upon them

If you only ask managers to review their team members, you’re left with enormous blind spots in terms of what that employee could improve upon. A manager gets one view of a team member – but they may be lagging behind when it comes to managing their team members, or interacting with peers. Using advanced AI technology, you can process a huge amount of company-wide feedback and get a detailed idea of strengths and weaknesses within certain teams.

3. It gives you a fuller picture of an employee’s performance

The biggest upside to 360 Feedback is that it gives you a broader idea of an employee’s strengths and weaknesses. As opposed to managerial reviews, this brings in feedback from many different angles, including peers and direct reports, and a self-assessment by the person being appraised. So if someone is great at managing their team, but less so at interacting with senior execs, this is proven out by the feedback they get from those groups.

4. It gives employees the opportunity they crave to give and receive feedback

In Qualtrics’ State of Play 2018 report into employee engagement, over half of respondents wanted to be surveyed at least once every 6 months. And 360 Feedback is one of the most comprehensive and rewarding ways of doing it – employees have a chance to express what they like and dislike about every group of colleagues they work with. And hear what they’re doing well and could improve upon.

When done poorly, some of the downsides of 360-degree feedback include:

1. It might not be very informed feedback

If you’re asked to comment on someone you don’t really know, most people’s inclination is to be positive, but usually not very specific. This can skew your data and give you a misleading picture of someone’s performance.

How to avoid: Limit who a person can select to review them, or have the survey administrator select the reviewers – this’ll ensure reviewers are people the subject work with, or have regular contact with.

2. Too much managerial oversight can deter truthful feedback

If it’s known that managers know who said what, people can feel less confident in giving truthful feedback. And even if their name and role might be hidden, there might be other telltale signs as to who gave the feedback. Or, they’ll feel as though they’re harming a colleague by simply giving feedback at all.

How to avoid: Think deeply about how you anonymize or attribute feedback and match it to your company culture. In Qualtrics, we make upward and peer feedback anonymous but all manager comments are attributable. There are even a few organizations where no comments are anonymous. However you could keep all feedback anonymous and inaccessible to managers. Alternatively, offer an aggregated view of the data, using AI text analysis, versus verbatim comments.

3. It can become focused on negative feedback

The flipside of people being too kind or generous is that some might take it as an opportunity to bear out grudges, or focus only on the negative. But it’s important to remember that 360 Feedback can show symptoms of a toxic company culture, rather than be the cause of it.

How to avoid: It comes down to the survey questions. Encourage constructive feedback and give opportunities to say what someone is doing well. It’s also about coaching: you should prep your team to use the occasion to give fair feedback but that helps the team grow. And if you still find that feedback is predominantly negative, or that people continue to attack others, then it’s a sign of a bigger issue – why does this toxicity exist and what can you do to remedy it?

4. Without senior buy-in, everything falls apart

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to a successful 360 Feedback program is senior managers giving half-hearted (or zero) support. If it’s led entirely by a single team or department, disconnected from the wider company and any rewards schemes, employees will quickly lose interest. 360 Feedback isn’t really 360 if it’s unevenly applied and disconnected from rewards schemes.

How to avoid: Don’t start a 360 Feedback program without senior buy-in. You need to have everyone’s involvement, from the CEO to a junior sales rep. It needs to be clear that this is a feedback program applied consistently and fairly, and that it’s linked to performance development and a rewards system. To win over senior managers, show how 360 Feedback helps companies review employee performance against core organizational values and competencies.

How to get the most out of 360-degree feedback

Keep it confidential

If employees believe their responses won’t be kept confidential, this can lead to issues related to honesty in giving feedback, increased fear of retribution, negative experiences, and/or organizational culture decline.

Ensure that confidentiality is built-in, maintained, and clearly communicated. Raters provide more useful feedback when they know they cannot be identified.

Carefully consider costs

This doesn’t just mean the monetary costs, but time commitment for your people too. Make sure that there are parameters around your process. This should include length of 360 assessment, and number of raters.

Don’t just listen, act

It’s crucial that feedback is actioned. An employee needs to be given resources to help them if they’re given poor feedback in a particular area.

A lack of follow-up around what happens after going through feedback means that the process becomes pointless. It will also damage future attempts at carrying out effective 360s as employees will be apathetic about how useful it’ll be.

Make sure that you can provide the resources needed in order to help support them if needed.

Get started with our 360-degree feedback tool