360° Feedback – The Basics

360° Feedback is an organizational assessment and development process in which an individual obtains, from a variety of sources, information on how s/he is performing as a leader in the organization. This information comes from people with whom the individual works or interacts regularly and usually includes direct reports, colleagues, the person’s manager, and the person’s own self-evaluation. This person may also seek information from internal and external customers and vendors.

In the 360° Feedback process, a manager distributes questionnaires to the people with whom s/he works regularly, asking them to rate him or her on a number of leadership and management behavior, competency or value issues. The manager requesting this information never sees the completed questionnaire because they are sent by those completing them directly to an independent computer center where they are analyzed and summarized to create a personal report for the manager. In the personal report, the manager can see how many people expressed satisfaction or dissatisfaction on specific issues, but the people’s identities are not revealed. So, the process is confidential.

After receiving and reviewing the report, the manager ideally meets with an outside consultant or an internal coach who reviews the information with the manager and helps the manager understand the data and develop an action plan to address the issues needing development. The next step is for the manager to implement that action plan. I cannot stress enough the importance of following up on the feedback report.

I recommend that the manager, as soon after receiving the feedback as possible, conduct a group meeting of colleagues and a group meeting with direct reports. The purpose of the group meeting is twofold. First, this meeting provides an immediate response to those who have taken the time to complete questionnaire. They know you have received the information and they want to know your reaction to their input. Secondly, the manager is providing for all, the same message of his reactions to the feedback and how he plans to follow up on the information provided.

It is in the group meeting that the manager thanks those attending for the time they spent filling out the questionnaire, emphasizes its confidentiality, and shares what the report showed were his strengths and his areas for development. Then the manager lets them know that he wants their suggestions on how to improve in those areas on which he has chosen to work. Also, to let them know that he wants to meet with each of them individually for their suggestions and that he plans to continue those one-on-one meetings throughout the year.

Following the group meeting the manager begins the first in a series of one-on-one meetings with those who completed questionnaires. I recommend that these meetings begin as soon after the group meetings as possible. Those who have completed the questionnaires now know that their manager has received his feedback report and they want to know his reaction to that feedback. At this meeting the manager has the opportunity to repeat the importance of the confidentiality of the process and to obtain specific suggestions from individuals. It is also at this meeting where the manager demonstrates how open he is to listening to and following up on the feedback of others.

At the conclusion of this first one-on-one meeting I recommend that the manager schedule another feedback follow-up meeting in two weeks. My recommendation is that you have your first follow-up meeting in two weeks for three reasons. First, you will be demonstrating to the other person how important these meetings are for you. Second, you are telling that person how much you value his or her opinion and suggestions for improvement. And third, you are establishing a format for a new way of relating with those you work with daily. You are asking them to observe you regularly and share with you information that will help you improve your leadership skills and work with them more effectively.

At the conclusion of the two-week meeting, schedule another follow-up meeting in a month, six weeks, two months or whenever you believe is appropriate to maintain effective communications with each person you work with regularly.

The frequency of subsequent meetings will depend on the current relationships you have with the people with whom you plan to meet. There are two major factors that determine how often you have to meet to establish effective communication. The first factor is how effective your communication is with that person now. The second factor is that there may be some specific issue or concern that the two of you have to resolve.

It is important that you have meetings with each person at least quarterly. Don’t let more than three months go by without having a meeting specifically devoted to discussing how you can improve your working relationship. The key is to do everything you can to create an environment in which the other person feels comfortable sharing information with you.

The Importance of Following Up

Organizations that invest in the 360° feedback process want to see a positive return on their investment. They look to this process as a means to help their managers identify behavioral issues that get in the way of effective leadership. Their expectation is that the managers will use the information to make personal behavioral changes that lead to increased effectiveness and productivity in the organization. Too often, organizations will terminate their participation in the 360° feedback process because many of the participating managers fail to follow up on the feedback they receive.

The most powerful part of the 360° feedback process is addressing the issue, “Now that I have my feedback, what do I do with it?” It is well documented that the more frequently individuals follow up with others on their feedback, the more they improve their behavior and the more they are perceived as improving their leadership effectiveness. Also, those who do not follow up on the feedback they receive are most likely to get lower ratings the following year. However, many people are reluctant to go to others and ask for suggestions on how to improve their working relationships.

The main reason why managers are reluctant to follow up on their feedback is fear. The manager doesn’t know what questions to ask or how to ask them, how to respond when someone does provide additional feedback, when someone doesn’t provide additional feedback, or when someone gets angry. In addition, the manager may be sensitive to the possible thoughts of the person being asked and his or her reluctance to respond for fear of retribution, hurting the feelings of the manager or being a naysayer.

When you distributed your questionnaires to the people you asked to participate in this effort, you initiated a process that still doesn’t exist in many organizations. In spite of the increasing number of organizations implementing this kind of feedback process, there are still many that do not have a communications process in place where people ask, “How am I doing as your manager, how am I doing as your colleague, what am I doing to help in your work, what am I doing to get in the way, what changes can I make so our working relationship is moiré effective and productive?

The biggest mistake you can make make after receiving feedback from others is not following up on that feedback. Your direct reports, colleagues and others have spent considerable time and energy completing the questionnaire and they are looking forward to hearing directly from you how you are reacting to that information.

Also, the questionnaires provide at best, general information about the rater’s issues with you. It’s important for you to speak directly, one-on-one, with each person and ask for his or her suggestions on how you can improve. You can then identify specific issues for each individual and work on those issues throughout the year.

The challenge for you in seeking feedback is to create an environment in which others feel comfortable sharing information. In such an environment both the individual and the organization benefit.

By following up on their feedback, you receive more specific information on how you are doing. Also, you are making a significant step in opening up communications in your organization. If you demonstrate that you sincerely want additional information and you are receptive and positive when receiving it, that is a giant step toward creating an environment in which people feel comfortable sharing information. In such an environment people who may think of complaining about your behavior or a troubling issue may begin to question the extent to which s/he is contributing to the problem or may have a solution to it.

Initial Group Meeting

You received your 360º feedback report, reviewed it, discussed it with your feedback consultant and now you want to follow up with those who completed questionnaires for you. The first step in this process is to have a group meeting with all of your direct reports and a similar group meeting with all of your colleagues with whom you work regularly. This is a critically important meeting because it is your first opportunity to demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in their feedback.

The purpose of the group meeting is to give everyone the same message at the same time. You want to thank them for taking the time they spent filling out the questionnaire, emphasize its confidentiality, and share what the report showed were your strengths and your areas for development. Then let them know you want their suggestions on how you can improve in those areas on which you’ve chosen to work. Also, let them know that you also want to meet with each of them individually for their suggestions and that you plan to continue those one-on-one meetings throughout the year. Schedule your group meeting as soon after you receive your 360º feedback report as possible.

Here is a suggested script for your group meeting:

I just received my personal feedback report and I found it very valuable. First of all, I want to thank you for filling out the questionnaire. I have no idea what your individual responses were because it is all highly confidential, but I do have a summary of the results in this report. The report shows I have strengths in the areas of (insert here the two or three issues on which you received the highest scores) and I am pleased to see that. Also, there are areas where I need to develop, and the areas I have selected to work on are (insert here the two or three issues on which you received the lowest scores).

I am developing an action plan to accomplish this, but I need your help. I want to meet with each of you, one-on-one, on a regular basis, so you can give me specific suggestions on how I can improve in these areas. Also, throughout the year I would like you to monitor my progress and tell me how you think I am progressing on my plan. I’ll start these one-on-one meetings today and hope to complete the first round of meetings this week. If you have suggestions or comments you’d like to raise now, I welcome them. Also, I’ll be glad to answer any questions you have about the multisource feedback program. If not, then I’ll see you in our one-on-one meeting.

At this point stop and see if there are any questions or comments. More than likely there will be none. Most of the people in your audience are waiting for some indication of how you will respond to feedback before they offer it. They are waiting for someone else to break the ice.

Conclude the meeting by letting everyone know that you will be setting up one-on-one meetings with each of them in the next day or two and that you want to continue these meeting periodically throughout the year. Next, go back to your office and begin scheduling those appointments.

The above is a suggested script for you to use in your group meeting. Modify it to meet your needs. Make it yours. The more it sounds like you rather than a textbook script, the more credible you will be to others. At each meeting you will receive additional information that will help you improve your working relationship with each individual. At the same time, because you are demonstrating your willingness to be open and responsive to feedback, it’s more likely that your direct reports and colleagues will be more open and responsive to your constructive criticism and your suggestions for their improvement.

Finally, and most importantly, you are working to create an environment in which people feel comfortable sharing information. You want people in your organization to be willing to speak up, to offer constructive criticism as well as new ideas and project suggestions for improvement, all critical to the success of any organization.

First One-on-One Meeting

You have met with your direct reports as a group and now you are in your first one-on one meeting with one of your staff people. This is the second most critical meeting in the entire follow-up process. It is important that you continue to demonstrate how open you are to listening to and following up on the feedback from others. At the end of this meeting the person with whom you are meeting will leave with an understanding of how receptive you are to receiving feedback from others and will have formed a decision of how much to share with you in the future.

If, in any way, you indicate that you are not accepting of an individual’s comments or suggestions, if you begin to deny and defend yourself, if you attempt to explain away that person’s concern or what that person says that you did, you run the risk of losing his or her candor.

You may use a modification of the same script you used in the group meeting, thanking them, emphasizing the confidentiality, and reviewing your strengths and areas for development.

Then you may wish to continue with this script:

As I mentioned in the group meeting, the areas I have selected to work on are (insert here the two or three issues on which you received the lowest scores). I would appreciate any suggestions you have that will help me be more effective in these areas. What suggestions do you have?

Then, let the conversation go on from there, wherever it will go. What the person tells you will be his or her issue with you, and it will become the issue you want to work on with that person. Write down comments and suggestions as the person provides them. The message you are giving is, “Your ideas are important enough to me to write them down and work on them”.

Accept the fact that some of the people with whom you will meet won’t say anything until they feel comfortable enough sharing information with you. They may be afraid of what you’ll say, afraid that you’ll retaliate in some way, or even afraid that what they say may hurt you. They might say something like, “I can’t think of anything right now”.

First of all, accept what they tell you. In fact, they may actually feel that way. Either they’re pleased with your working relationship, or they’re not pleased but have no suggestions at this time. Don’t press them. You may not learn anything until the second or even the third meeting. They’ll talk when they feel safe in that conversation with you.

Try not to look at their comments as accusations. They are sharing their perceptions with you, and their perceptions are real and true for them. Don’t get into a debate on an issue. You don’t have to agree with them, but you do have to recognize that their perceptions are valid to them, and they present issues you have to address. If you are uncomfortable with what they’re saying, ask them to tell you more about it, or ask for suggestions on how to address the issue. The more they talk, the more you will understand what they are saying, and the better able you will be to identify what you can do about it.

If someone does blast you, understand that he may have to get rid of his anger before he’ll respond to your request for suggestions on how you can improve. It’s best to just let him vent, let him get it out. If it gets too ugly, or you feel yourself getting angry, or you’re running out of time, let him know that you want to continue the discussion and set another time to meet. Just make sure you keep the appointment you make.

You have to let people know that you are sincere, that you’re really interested in improving your leadership skills and your working relationship with them, and that you want their suggestions on how to do that.

The issues and concerns may, and probably will, vary with each person you work with. What you want to do at this first one-on-one meeting is to identify the issues for each person as well as suggestions for improvement. At the end of the meeting, you may wish to summarize by saying something like this:

I have written down the issues and concerns that you identified, as well as your suggestions on how I can improve. I want to meet with you again in two weeks. Between now and that meeting, please observe how I do in the areas that we have discussed. Then, when we get together two weeks from now, you can report what you have observed, and we can discuss further ways I can continue to improve.

At this point, ask if there is anything else to discuss, again express thanks for sharing their suggestions and then set the date for the next meeting in two weeks.

You may wish to explain that the reason for the next meeting in two weeks is to show how important these meetings are for you, that you value his or her opinion and suggestions for improvement, and that you are establishing a format for a new way of relating with those you work with daily.

The Two-Week Meeting

It has been two weeks since your first one-on-one meeting with this person. At that meeting you may have received some suggestions, maybe not. Your purpose in this meeting is to follow up on your first meeting, ask for additional suggestions, and continue to demonstrate your openness and your willingness to listen to and follow up on feedback from others.

If, in the first meeting, this person may have offered no suggestions, responded to your request with something like, “I can’t think of anything now.” At this meeting you may want to begin with, “At our last meeting you indicated that you couldn’t think of any suggestions for me. At that meeting I shared with you the areas that concern me and asked you to observe me in those areas and let me know how you saw me handle myself in those situations. What did you observe and how did I do?

You may receive another “I can’t think of anything now” response. More than likely this person still does not feel comfortable enough to share information. Again, don’t push the issue. Instead, offer the person another opportunity to observe you in action and give you feedback. An example may be, “Tomorrow we are both going to be in a meeting to discuss our progress on the Walton project. One of the issues I am working on is being less controlling and domineering in such meetings. I would appreciate your paying attention to how I handle myself in that meeting and talking with me about it after the meeting. Would you do that for me?”

A variation on this theme is to approach the person after a meeting or specific incident and observe, “That is one of the areas I have been working on. What were your reactions on how I handled myself and what suggestions do you have that will help me in this area?”

Or, at that first meeting you may have received a suggestion for improvement and, hopefully you have been working on it. At this meeting you may want to say, “The last time we met you suggested that I be more cognizant of the contributions of others and recognize them for their efforts. I appreciate your sharing that with me and I have been working on it. What have you observed in my behavior in the past two weeks?”

Listen carefully to the response, accept the feedback and, if necessary, ask for clarification and additional suggestions on how you can continue to improve in recognizing others. Again, you want to let this person know that you are serious about improving your leadership skills and want additional feedback at subsequent meetings throughout the year.

At the end of the meeting express your thanks again for the feedback and set a date for your next meeting in a month, six weeks, two months, or whenever you agree it will be appropriate for your next meeting. Once again, don’t let more than three months go by without having a meeting specifically devoted to discussing how you can improve your working relationship. The key is to do everything you can to create an environment in which the other person feels comfortable sharing information with you.

Frequency of Meetings

My recommendation is that you have your first follow-up meeting in two weeks for three reasons. First, you will be demonstrating to the other person how important these meetings are for you. Second, you are telling that person how much you value his or her opinion and suggestions for improvement. And third, you are establishing a format for a new way of relating with those you work with daily. You are asking them to observe you regularly and share with you information that will help you improve your leadership skills and work with them more effectively.

The frequency of subsequent meetings will depend on the current relationships you have with the people with whom you plan to meet. There are two major factors that determine how often you have to meet to establish effective communication. The first factor is how effective your communication is with that person now. Some people feel very comfortable communicating with you. They approach you at any time with issues that concern them. Similarly, you feel perfectly comfortable communicating with them. You may not need a formal feedback meeting with these people more than once a month or even quarterly. With others you may have to meet weekly or every other week until you feel you are communicating well and comfortably.

The second factor is that there may be some specific issue or concern that the two of you have to resolve. You may choose to meet once a week or even more frequently until that issue is resolved. Subsequently, you can meet every month, six weeks, two months, or whenever you deem appropriate to maintain effective communication.

It is important that you have a formal feedback meeting with each person at least quarterly. Don’t let more than three months go by without having a meeting specifically devoted to discussing how you are doing on improving your working relationship. The key is to do everything you can to create an environment in which the other person feels comfortable sharing information with you.

More than likely, when I suggest you conduct one-on-one meetings with your direct reports and colleagues throughout the year, I’ll hear you say, “That’s all I need, another meeting!” I understand that time is at a premium in the workplace today. However, I can assure you that these meetings won’t take as much time as you may think they will. That’s because the topic is very specific and the discussion will be very focused. You are describing what you want to do and you are asking for specific suggestions on how to do it. Once you receive the suggestions, you agree to work on them and then agree on a date for the next meeting. That process should take no longer than five or, at most, ten minutes.

Also, you will have a high return on your investment of that time. The bottom line of this process is that you are creating an environment in which people feel comfortable sharing information. In such an environment people will be more willing to ask you for clarification of assignments and come to you when they have issues they wish to discuss. You will also find yourself delegating more work as you get to know your people and their skills better. You will find that you are getting more of the work done in a shorter period of time.

Some Typical Responses

So, you are in your first one-on-one meeting with a staff person or colleague, you have thanked the person again for completing the questionnaire, stressed its confidentiality and their anonymity, reviewed the issues you want to work on and asked, “What suggestions do you have that will help me improve in these areas?” Now you wait, with bated breath, for a response. Let’s push the pause button on this scenario and look at some of the possible responses you may hear.

First, you receive no response. You get no suggestions from this person. Usually you hear it in the phrase, “I can’t think of anything right now.” You may wish to ask another question like, “What changes can I make so our working relationship is more productive?” If you still get no response, don’t push it. You may need to give the person some time before she is ready to share that kind of information with you. Conclude the meeting with something like, “I understand. I want to meet with you again in two weeks. You know the issues I am working on. Please observe me in the next two weeks and when we get together again I would appreciate your sharing with me your thoughts on how I handled myself in those situations.” Thank your colleague again, set a date for the next meeting and move on.

Second, you do get a response – a positive response such as, “Oh I think you are doing fine. I don’t have any suggestions at this time.” Acknowledge and accept that response. In fact, he may actually feel that way. Either s/he is pleased with your working relationship or s/he’s not pleased but has no suggestions at this time. Don’t press the issue. You may not learn anything until the second or even the third meeting. This person will talk when s/he feels safe in a conversation with you.

Third, you get a response that is critical of you. This is a response that will test your ability to accept feedback as constructive criticism. Believe that this person is sharing this information because s/he wants to help you, as you have asked, to improve in the areas you have identified. You may even want to say something like, “Ouch! That hurts a bit but I appreciate your sharing it with me. Do you have some suggestions on how I can handle such a situation in the future?”

The key is to go into these sessions with the attitude that you are seeking information that will be of help to you. Seek to clarify issues rather than be defensive or argue them. Avoid being judgmental. That will lead you to denial and attempts to explain away the issue. Others don’t want to hear that. You have asked them for their suggestions and you have to accept that the issues that they raise are real for them.

Finally, you may get an angry response from someone who has been waiting for an opportunity like this to unload all the frustrations that have been building up. It’s difficult to avoid getting defensive at this point. Basic psychology tells us that when we are attacked our two basic, instinctive responses are fight or flight. It takes considerable internal strength, and practice, to avoid either. You don’t want to fight or to run from the situation.

First of all, you may have to let this person vent, get it all out, before s/he will even engage in a discussion of the matter. Then, seek clarification; ask for more information and suggestions on how to handle such a situation in the future. If the discussion begins to get too ugly, or you begin to feel your anger taking over, suggest that you postpone the balance of the discussion to a future date when both of you have had a chance to think it over.. Let him know that you do want to continue the discussion and set another time to meet. Just make sure you keep that appointment.

Again, your bottom line is to obtain information on how you can improve your leadership skills from the people you work with regularly. For the organization you want to create an environment in which people feel comfortable sharing information. How you ask your questions and respond to the feedback you receive will determine the extent to which either of these goals is achieved.