Most employees are curious about what their coworkers think of them. But what happens when you actually receive their disarmingly frank feedback—in writing, with your boss privy to their complimentary and unflattering evaluations? It can be a real wake-up call, as David Bakke, an editor at Money Crashers, a personal finance website, discovered.
For Bakke, like a growing number of employees nationwide, his job performance review wasn’t the standard private, behind-closed-doors meeting with his boss. Today, companies increasingly call on co-workers, customers and even subordinates to provide “360-degree feedback” to gain more accurate readings of employees’ performance lags. “Just about all Fortune 500 companies now use 360-degree surveys,” says Manuel London, dean of the College of Business, Stony Brook University, and coauthor of Maximizing the Value of 360-degree Feedback: A Process for Successful Individual and Organizational Development. Meanwhile, countless smaller organizations are following their lead.
Bakke felt confident heading into the meeting to discuss his 360-degree survey results. He considered himself to be a strong editor who admittedly did struggle with consistently meeting deadlines, which he viewed as “being rather loose.” Imagine his shock when he discovered his supervisors were far more dissatisfied with his deadline difficulties than he realized, and his freelance writing team criticized his editing as too heavy handed. “I immediately got to work on improving my performance,” Bakke says. “The last thing I wanted to do was lose my position.”
When 360-degree reviews are done well, they provide employees an opportunity to improve job performance. As a result, “companies can get more self-aware, emotionally grounded employees who are in charge of working on their management style and making it better,” says Deborah Keary, SPHR, vice president of human resources for Society for Human Resource Management. The net gain? “Higher employee engagement and better management communication,” she says.
But there’s a downside risk. When done poorly, 360s can fuel mistrust, anger and conflict within the workplace and undermine employee morale. “It can backfire,” warns London, who stresses the importance of constructive—not destructive—feedback. He says employees also need positive guidance on how to turn the survey results into behavioral changes that boost job performance. “If that doesn’t happen, people can be crushed by the feedback,” he says. “Or they may ignore the feedback, making it a wasted effort.”
To reap the most benefits from 360-degree reviews, follow these ground rules. If your organization chooses a do-it-yourself approach versus hiring a consultant specializing in 360-degree feedback, the first step is to develop the survey, which both numerically ranks an employee’s performance in key areas and elicits comments, which are kept confidential. Next, decide who will provide feedback—people above, below or on the same level of the org chart who are sent an email asking them to participate. The email contains a link to the survey, which is posted on a website. “Have enough people so it’s anonymous,” Keary advises. “The boss usually isn’t anonymous, that can’t be helped.” After surveys are completed, the numeric results can be tallied, using free software such as SurveyMonkey, software developed by your IT department, or by hiring a research survey company, which can produce customized reports.
For a more informal approach, Scott K. Edinger, president of Edinger Consulting Group and an expert in organizational performance, recommends asking team members, colleagues and a supervisor four simple questions: What are my strengths? What are my fatal flaws? Which of my strengths is most important to my company? Which of my strengths is most important to you?
Next, your company must decide who will give the feedback, which may set off emotional fireworks. To defuse the conversation, Edinger says an employee’s supervisor should not break the news. Instead, he recommends using a human resources specialist or leadership development coach who understands the survey’s strengths and weaknesses.
There are two schools of thought on whether employees should preview the survey results before the meeting. London recommends the preview approach, which allows the presenter to begin the meeting with the question, “What did you think of the results?” On the other hand, Keary believes it’s best for the employee to be presented with the results in a fair and balanced way during the meeting to avoid them jumping to—and sticking with—negative conclusions, and making up their minds about what the results mean before they can be discussed. Companies can decide which approach works best within their workplace dynamic.
Edinger stresses that it’s important for organizations to keep in mind the 360 “is not a silver bullet.” “The information should only be used for development purposes, and not for promotions, raises or performance management because it’s only anecdotal data,” he says.
And what should you do if you’ve been 360’d? “Brace yourself and prepare for the inevitable desire to reject, ignore and disagree with things you don’t like,” Edinger says. “Not every bit of feedback is valid. But you should take a look at the overall messages and feedback and ask yourself: ‘Are there consistent themes in the way I behave?’ ‘Are there consistent themes in the way I respond?’ Where there are consistent themes, that’s where you want to pay attention.”
After Bakke received his 360-degree review, he sprang to action. “I reached out to all the writers I work with to let them know that I’d be doing a better job of trying to keep my edits in line with their messages,” he says. “And I’ve implemented many time management strategies to meet my deadlines.” While he admits, “the results of my first 360-degree review weren’t what I expected,” he knows he’s already reaping the benefits by boosting his job performance. And who knows? Maybe that next performance review will come with a raise.
Lori K. Baker is an award-winning journalist who specializes in human-interest profiles, business and health. Her articles have appeared in dozens of national and regional publications, including Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, Wild Blue Yonder, Arizona Highways, Vim & Vigor and Johns Hopkins Health.