Why “360’s” Don’t Work

or Wake Up and Smell the Feedback

By Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

One of the latest innovations in corporate life is the "360-degree evaluation." Instead of a yearly evaluation written mainly by an employee's direct supervisor, feedback about a particular employee is gathered from those in positions above, below and at the employee's level in the organizational chart. The information is summarized and given to the employee, in order to help him understand how his superiors, subordinates and co-workers perceive him and his work style.

This is a step forward from the one-sided evaluation process that it replaces. Because the feedback comes from many sources, it has more credibility than in a traditional evaluation that represents one person's perceptions. It may benefit the employee, who will often identify one or several areas that need improvement, and it may benefit others in the organization who have difficulty dealing with the employee, as it provides an appropriate outlet for their negative feelings.

The most powerful benefits of giving feedback go virtually unrealized, because the entire process allows people within the organization to continue dealing with each other indirectly. Twenty years' experience working with companies and individuals informs me that indirect communication - and non-communication - are the main obstacles to organizational efficiency and high goal achievement.

Feedback Avoidance

As a business consultant and individual coach, one of the main advantages I have is that I am paid to tell the brutal, honest truth - in a way that can be heard and digested. Very few people want to hear the truth, especially if it tarnishes the image they have of themselves. Most of us live in mortal fear that others will disapprove of us, become angry with us, or think badly of us, and our social system of "polite behavior" operates to protect us from each other's negative feelings. It is possible, with commitment and training, to forgo the rules of politeness while remaining respectful of each other, and engage in honest and direct dialogue that benefits everyone - and the bottom line.

The "360," however, does little to promote such communication. It allows people to anonymously criticize others in the organization, while doing nothing to learn to work effectively with them. And, it does nothing to help the individual learn to accept feedback directly, openly and with gratitude. The whole process is done secretly, as if there is something shameful about needing to improve.

Each of us has habits, attitudes and behaviors that impede our effectiveness. We all operate with agendas that include increasing our power and importance, competing with others within the organization, and other non-collaborative goals. We can't help it: it's intrinsic to the human framework. And, we are almost universally unaware of those aspects of ourselves that get in our way, and make it difficult for others to deal with us.

"360" feedback can easily be rationalized and neutralized, since it is so diluted. Such feedback is divorced from the interactions that created the negative impressions. Without examples, and without ongoing dialogue to keep us aware of our poor communication habits, we lapse back into our "default settings" as soon as the 360 hardcopy is filed away.

The Next Step in Development

The solution to the limits of 360's is to alter the way individuals communicate within the organization. While this seems obvious, and a few organizations are attempting to do just that, it is much more challenging than it first appears.

Efforts to alter communication styles and "corporate culture" usually lack training in offering, accepting and utilizing direct, face-to-face feedback as events occur. Instead of speaking up, we continue to stockpile resentments, and our silence allows others to continue their ineffective habits. Our silence also keeps us from becoming a target of criticism - and the conspiracy of "I won't call you on your stuff, so don't you call me on mine" continues.

We are so steeped in the notion that criticism is an act of hostility, and we are so quick to rush to our own and others' defense, that we miss a tremendous amount of valuable information about ourselves, our products and our organizations. This incredibly valuable information is right under our collective nose, and we cannot see it.

Training to embrace feedback, and to offer feedback to others in ways that can optimally enhance their performance, must begin with the individual

Wake Up and Smell the Feedback