Ideas & Debate

Making 360-degree appraisals beneficial

wellness

360-degree appraisals provide feedback to employees not just their supervisors. They can be horizontal, among colleagues who work together at the same level, and/or vertical, from those at lower levels commenting on their bosses.

Sounds like a good idea, yes? After all, each one of us can benefit from holistic feedback to become more self-aware, more in touch with reality, so as to understand where we can improve our performance. Right?

Sure. Except that many organisations that have introduced side-to-side or bottom-up assessments have suffered negative unintended consequences.

Indeed my first experience of formal 360-degree appraisals was with a global multilateral institution whose Kenya director would cry on my shoulder about his supervisor being completely disinterested in what he felt many of his staff unreasonably needed him to do and not do in order to assess him positively.

It provided an easy opportunity for disgruntled staff to get their own back on him if he had made tough – but in his view necessary – decisions about an issue. And instead of appreciating his resistance to taking the easy way out by being unduly nice to his staff merely to gain popularity and higher ratings, his boss would just condemn him for the negative reviews.

It is such risks that make me wary about recommending 360-degree feedback to all and sundry. I am more likely to if an organisation enjoys a particularly healthy culture of high trust all round, and where all levels have been prepared for handling such a sensitive subject in a constructive way.

As a first stage, I often suggest that such feedback be provided between teams rather than individually – like between levels, departments and functions.

Another question that arises is where extremely low ratings, accompanied by highly negative comments, are made about some receiving their 360-degree appraisals. Should they be shown the precise content of such feedback?

Might it lead them to have their self-confidence and self-esteem battered, and even to overfocus on the likely sources, however anonymously the responses will have been submitted?

Would it be less disruptive for whoever is discussing the feedback with them – whether their supervisor, the HR function or an external coach – to merely offer a sufficient flavour of what has been provided, before turning to how they can deal with the issues expressed by changing some of their attitudes and behaviours?

Either way, adequate reference should also be made to positive feedback that will have been provided.

If the ones who’ve received particularly harsh feedback should perhaps not be shown the whole ugly picture, is it OK to share the full story with those where more positive views were expressed about them? I don’t think so. Let there be a consistent approach.

Whether an organisation’s appraisal system includes 360-degree components or not, it is vital that all involved – everyone who appraises and all who are appraised – are engaged in sessions to help them understand the purpose of such exercises, i.e performance improvement, personal development and career planning, all within a coaching culture.

Not an occasional parental lecture to one’s children; not tick-in-the-box annual compliance with having “done” appraisals and pleasing the folks in HR; not just a way to negotiate a salary review or a promotion.

I long ago ceased being surprised by how in very few organisations do appraisal systems add value. On the contrary, too many are but a disruptive, time-consuming nuisance, harming rather than enriching relationships of mutual trust and respect.

Adding the 360-degree component requires yet more focus on purpose, yet more time to plan and implement, yet more continuous follow-up. If appraisal systems work well they are extremely valuable, making everyone feel good about contributing to each other’s learning and growth.

So I am a passionate advocate for them, including the collection and sharing of broader feedback. Plus, I should add, at the highest level, among boards of directors and with CEOs – often the ones who least dare apply such treatment to themselves.

So, does your organisation’s appraisal system help you as an individual move forward, and is this in alignment with the progress of the whole entity? And is your culture robust and honest enough to handle a 360-degree component? These are mission-critical questions that must not be avoided.