360 Degree Feedback is idiotic (if you want it to be)

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A recent article in Forbes had above title (but without the bit we added in parentheses), so naturally it piqued my interest which is what such provocative titles are designed for.

I often find in articles which take an extreme position on a particular topic or organisational practice, it is because the author has had a poor experience; that appears true here too.

Their experience of 360 feedback was where it’s use was for performance review and promoting people; whilst 360 feedback can inform these processes, such purposes can lead to abuse of something primarily designed to raise an individual’s self-awareness and assist in their personal development.

It isn’t really suited to evaluate or pass a verdict; as well as creating anxiety in the recipient, the feedback provided by respondents often misses the mark as they are more concerned of the consequences for the individual, as opposed to writing good quality feedback which is genuinely helpful.

If we want 360 degree feedback to benefit both organisations and individuals, we have to stay true to the purpose it was designed for; it’s no use saying the hammer we have is bad at banging screws into the wall!

Where I do find myself in agreement with the article, is where it broadens out it’s perspective to the concept of building trust and relationships in an organisation – the author argues that with high trust and good quality relationships, we can talk to each other, offer feedback, give context, etc – we don’t need to wait a year to give feedback in a 360 feedback programme.

This is true and desirable, but these wishes, and a having structured 360 process, are not mutually exclusive – good quality written feedback, brought together into one report, and shared with the recipient during a face-to-face debrief where they can pause and reflect, is simply another means to the same admirable end.



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My son’s school report

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No, I’m not going to actually tell you the content of my son’s school report! It was fine and other than him feeling it was ok to open it before sharing it with us the process was all good.

For those of you without children at school, school reports now contain a lot of numbers. After many years of confusion, my wife and I recently got the hang of whether a 4a was better than a 4b and then they changed the system to something called APS … no idea what it stands for. So, Euan (my son) has been targeted for the year with moving up at least 5 APS points in each subject.

So, let’s say in Maths he was 28 last year, then his target would be at least 33. And in this report we are told his current level – let’s say it is 32.
And we get a grade for Effort and a grade for Organisation. No words.

We have a lot of data in the school report. We get 3 of these reports a year and we get one parents evening where we have 5 minute appointments with each of his teachers.

5 minutes after reading his report I could give you the gist of it but I couldn’t remember one number. I know roughly the grades for effort and organisation but couldn’t remember which ones applied to which subject. Its not that I don’t care it is that there was an overwhelming amount of data.

But I remember the conversations with most of the teachers (the ones I can’t remember are the ones where the teacher concentrated on the scores/grades and national averages for those scores) from his last parents evening two months ago.

If you ask most parents what they hope for for their children at school it is that they enjoy it. Yes, we hope our children do well and we support them in getting the best out of themselves but every parent went to school once and so all of us want to know “do they have friends, are they engaged, do they contribute, are they happy”. If a teacher told me “Euan is doing really well; he tries his hardest, works well with his school friends, and always engages with every lesson” then I can’t ask for much more. I can then review the data in that context and it could suggest to us areas he needs help with. But the data alone tells me very little.

What interested me most in our conversation with Euan is that he is engaged with the number. He wants to be a “33″. I do wonder whether the system is starting to train children (future employees) to go for the target rather than focus on the actions that lead to success.


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Feedback: how to turn towards the sunshine

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It’s a pleasure to share some insights this week from one of our associate coaches, Emily Taylor, of Green Grass Coaching, who specialises in career and development coaching; in this post, Emily suggests a way in which we can review feedback that accentuates the positive:

When I was a child I had an autograph book. Apart from once queuing (with some trepidation) to get Darth Vader’s signature, it was mainly full of messages from friends and family. My Grandma’s message to me was this (apparently an old Maori proverb):

Turn your face towards the sun and the shadows will fall behind you”.

I was struck by its optimism and ever since then the idea of having a positive outlook has always stayed with me. I have come to see how the more you focus your attention on the positive things, the more likely you are to notice them. I also recognise how appreciating these can help you to see further positive possibilities and even create more ‘sunshine’.

I am interested in how people apply this concept in their working lives; how we use the idea of focusing on the positive in order to develop performance (in individuals, teams and businesses) and how we use it to guide our decision making.

Long after my Grandma wrote this message, I came across the theory of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a method of problem solving pioneered by Cooperrider & Srivastva, Case Western Reserve University in the 1980s. The essence of this approach is a belief that the questions we ask are never neutral; they help us to move in the direction where we focus most persistently. Rather than looking at ways to ‘fix a problem’ (asking questions about what isn’t working well, what is wrong or weak) this approach looks at how to ‘accelerate or enhance’ by asking what is good or working well in order to discover new or untapped opportunities.

The slant of the question influences our perceptions, feelings and motivation to change….

If our focus is largely on the less good or negative elements, will positive change and development always be an uphill struggle? Also, how many people can see or hear 10 great things and then feel deflated and fixated by just one perceived bad thing?

I am not suggesting that all negative elements be ignored, rather that the angle taken to review and evolve it can help determine the outcome. In fact, I have witnessed great benefit had by individuals who received apparently negative feedback and were inspired to make positive behavioural changes as a result. There were a number of ingredients that enabled this:

  1. the recipients were hungry to learn

  2. the person helping them review their feedback was skilled in coaching and asking AI questions to explore and discover meaning, value and potential

  3. the overall focus was positive and forward thinking

It is often this last point that really helps someone to galvanise their self-belief, motivation and action. For example, try asking yourself this positive line of inquiry in relation to your career:

  • What do I enjoy about my job – what inspires me?

  • What am I really good at?

  • What attracted me to the career I am in or the company I work with?

  • What are the possibilities for me to develop further or become more fulfilled?

  • If success was guaranteed, what bold steps would I take?

Asking these powerful questions can help steer you (and in this case your career) in the direction you really want to go. Think how much more inspired and proactive you are likely to feel using this appreciative route as opposed to “what do I hate about my job, what irritates me most, what am I least good at”.

When next reviewing your own feedback (or helping someone else to review theirs), try to focus questions on your strengths, what themes you are noticing, what assumptions you could test, where you add most value and how you could further apply this to benefit you/your customers/the business. Consciously frame questions with the possibility of positive change, learning and creating forward movement….and let any shadows fall behind you.

Emily Taylor, Green Grass Coaching


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The problems with feedback without context

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I am a fairly keen cyclist (a MAMIL – middle aged man in lycra). Like many cyclists I use www.strava.com to record my rides. Strava has rather taken over that world and provides you with a massive amount of data after your ride. Essentially it gives you feedback on the ride you did. As well as telling you general stuff like the average speed for the ride and how long you rode for, it will take sections of the ride (segments) and tell you how fast you rode it, how that compares to other times you rode that segment, and how it compares to others (everyone and your friends) performance on the same segment.

Anyone who uses Strava will tell you that this feedback can become obsessive. And it certainly motivates you at times to ride harder than you otherwise would have done. I’ll leave the question of whether it makes the ride more enjoyable for another time.

What really interests me is that sometimes the feedback Strava gives isn’t helpful at all. Sometimes you under-perform against your peers or your own previous efforts and sometimes you over-perform without any relation to the effort that you made. The issue is that Strava doesn’t have anything to tell you the context for your ride. At a simple level it doesn’t tell you

  • What the wind was like, for you or the others
  • Whether you were riding in a group or alone
  • Whether this was your focus for the ride

If you were a coach discussing the data from Strava with a rider then, before you leapt in to give your opinion, you would need to get this context. You may need to ensure the rider wasn’t overly critical of themselves, or you may need to ensure they weren’t complacent with a seemingly good performance. You would need to listen to how the rider felt during the ride, what they were looking to achieve, any obstacles they hit along the road. Only when this was complete would a real assessment be complete and some goals or targets for the future be based on useful feedback.

We receive a lot of data now. Our appraisal processes and feedback systems are full of feedback. But context is everything. And the person who knows the context best is the person themselves – although they may need a coach or trusted person to help them look at the data objectively.


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Annual appraisal & continuous feedback

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We are again in the midst of a popular time for annual appraisals at the moment; we see a sudden uplift in interest in creating efficient on-line performance appraisal processes.

As ever, we advise and guide clients as to what good practice looks like when conducting the annual appraisals, but increasingly we are having discussions around what should happen in-between the annual reviews….i.e. those 12 months from one review to the next…!

Not unsuprisingly, we suggest that there should be more frequent reviews over the course of the year, coupled with more forward looking conversations about what needs to happen in order for performance to improve.

Invariably for performance to improve, there has to be feedback; there has to be comment on how someone is performing in the moment, in order to raise their self-awareness and enable them to decide to do things differently.

If someone you were coaching was running a marathon and they wanted to achieve their best possible time, how often would you give this feedback? At the end of the race or as they ran?


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Busting Urban Myths – Feedback is a gift

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The 3 basic steps to 360 degree feedback success…it’s that simple!

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360 degree feedback can become complicated.  Often there are some tricky things to think through.  What is useful when you are putting together a 360 feedback project is to have some key points to focus on and to test your solution against.  Our three are:

  1. Ask the right questions
  2. Follow a well-structured process
  3. Have a great conversation around a great report

If you check whatever 360 feeedback process or service you devise against this list then you will do ok.  Are we asking the right questions?  Is our process well-structured?  Are the people involved going to have a great conversation around a great report?

Our free guide to the left of this blog expands on these – but don’t lose track of these simple requirements.


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