360-degree feedback is systematically collecting opinions about a person’s performance from a range of sources, including peers, direct reports, the boss – even from people outside the organisation like customers or suppliers.
The goal is to create a panorama of how the person is perceived by others, a map of perceived strengths and weaknesses that becomes a launch pad for continuous development and supported coaching.
Senior executives may benefit most. The higher up the leadership ladder a person climbs, the more isolated they become from constructive commentary that trusted colleagues provide in the day-to-day performance of their job.
As Harvard Business School’s Robert Kaplan says, “By the time you become a senior executive, most (if not all) of your colleagues are probably subordinates. You may be “overseen” by a board of directors or a very senior boss, but these people are unlikely to closely observe your daily, operational behavior.” Getting perspective on your strengths and weaknesses becomes harder.
Phil McCredden, leadership coach and director of Ecclesia Leadership in Victoria, says 360-degree assessments “are simply models and tools to get conversations going.” He is talking about the conversations that can be the most difficult to have. The very conversations that may prove to be the most important.
The 360-degree feedback tool provides a model, a framework and the language to talk about potentially subjective and high-emotion issues.
“The 360 tool provides a model, a framework and the language to talk about potentially subjective and high-emotion issues,” he explains, “the kind of things that people find difficult. 360 assessment becomes a vehicle for people to step back and look objectively at how they are seen. Development happens after that.”
McCredden has been coaching leaders since 2009. He has recently been using the Learning Practice Inventory (LPI) 360 to assess and develop people at the senior executive level.
Focus on strengths
A successful 360-degree assessment process is a positive experience, says McCredden. “The starting point is always that good leaders are on a journey of continual improvement,” he says. “Any leader, no matter how exceptional, can always improve.”
Katie Mach, a Leadership Consultant with TalentPlus writing in Inc.com, agrees. “Leaders are not made great by an absence of weakness. Instead, the key to optimising human potential is through development activities that highlight each person’s unique genius and celebrate that remarkable contribution.”
TalentPlus has evolved a 360-degree feedback process that excludes negative feedback. They believe that negative criticism risks being counter-productive on the basis that it promotes emotional reactions, reduces performance and can cause resentment of the person who provided negative comments, however well-intentioned.
Context is king
The LPI 360, as McCredden implements it, does not exclude negative feedback. However, all feedback is considered in context. Before the process begins, it’s important to start with the company’s context – which critical skills are important for the role, what culture is the company is seeking to create, and how well the individual fits with these.
Input from peers, bosses and other colleagues is also considered in context. Feedback is enriched by the overview and the patterns that emerge, rather than by individual criticisms or points of view. “There is always context around the results. When we pool information, we don’t take one person’s view. It’s a balanced view of the world, from a range of perspectives,” says McCredden.
Assessment is not development
Assessment is just the starting point. Leadership development, or, ‘how can we help this person improve?’ is what matters to most organisations. The bulk of the development work happens after the assessment process.
The LPI 360 tool that McCredden has been working with relies on the knowledge and skills of a third-party consultant, he says, to bridge the gap between data gathered at the feedback stage and developing a meaningful plan for improvement.
McCredden recommends that companies contract an external consultant who knows and understands the 360-degree feedback tool and who is experienced in interpreting what is being said. This has to then be translated into the next phase: meaningful goal setting and support through mentoring or one-on-one coaching and finally, evaluation of progress.