360 degree feedback can sometimes be referred to as 360 appraisal so the intention behind this article is to explore whether or not 360 degree feedback can be used as part of an appraisal process. For the sake of clarity, when we say appraisal, we are referring to the (usually annual) performance review process.
Using 360 degree feedback as part of the performance review process carries pros and cons. First the pros:
The major advantage of using 360 degree feedback as part of the appraisal process is the inherent benefit of using 360 degree feedback in the first place. 360 degree feedback is highly effective when it comes to providing someone with feedback on how others see them. It is a great way to ‘hold up the mirror’ and it is this that raises self-awareness and results in people being more likely to take the feedback on board and actually do something with it. As such, using 360 degree feedback as part of the appraisal process can be an effective way to communicate messages such as “see, it’s not just my (the manager) view, others are seeing the same things”.
Another benefit of using 360 degree feedback to support the appraisal process is where the appraisal contains an element of development planning. 360 degree feedback data can be used to identify what specific developmental actions someone needs to take. The nature of 360 degree feedback means that those actions are also measurable – repeating the 360 process will provide an indication of how much change the individual has demonstrated over time – and this can be useful for subsequent appraisal reviews.
Now the downsides.
By definition, the performance appraisal process is designed to provide an evaluation around an individual’s job performance. There are a number of issues with this when it comes to using 360 degree feedback to do this.
An individual’s performance in their job could actually be impacted by things outside of their control. It is possible to have someone who hasn’t delivered their objectives (Coronavirus anyone?) even though they consistently demonstrate all of the behaviours being measured in the 360 part of the process. More worryingly, people can deliver on all of their performance objectives whilst not demonstrating any of the important behaviours. It’s easy to imagine a manager who rules like a dictator in order to deliver short term performance for their team, but operates in a way that is undesirable from a cultural perspective.
360 degree feedback relies on input from other people in addition to the individual’s manager and this can lead to all sorts of complexities. We would argue that the only person best placed to comment on an individual’s performance is their manager. We would suggest that an individual’s direct reports are not always best placed to say how ‘good’ their manager is when it comes to their job performance. Similarly, where feedback is sought from colleagues, they often don’t see enough of the individual to rate their ability.
Using 360 degree feedback as part of the appraisal process can lead to some critical biases:
- The first one is obvious. Just imagine you work for someone and you have a particular dislike of them. It would be easy to provide overly negative ratings when completing the 360 feedback questionnaire about them. This could then lead to further issues as when the manager sees the results, they may be inclined to go on a witch hunt to find out who rated them that way (it does happen, we have seen it!).
- Conversely, where staff have a negative relationship with their manager they can often feel intimidated completing the 360 questionnaire as openly as they would like and they can feel that the safest thing to do is provide ratings that are more positive.
- Managers themselves might be tempted to influence the outcome of the process. We see managers do this in two ways. Firstly, they can try to manipulate the output by only choosing raters they feel will give them positive ratings. This is why rater choice is important, but that’s the subject of another article. Secondly, managers can try to influence their individual raters by either coercing or threatening them.
- Similarly we have seen the manager of the individual going through the process provide more positive ratings than they would like. This is driven by managers simply wanting to avoid the potential for conflict during the appraisal discussion.
The consequence of these biases is that they undermine the whole process as the feedback becomes useless.
Finally, delivering 360 degree feedback requires skill. Arguably, the same skills required to deliver performance feedback, yet most will agree that managers are pretty poor at delivering feedback at the best of times. Adding 360 data into the appraisal mix is usually only likely to result in an even less effective feedback discussion.
So, to answer the question, should 360 degree feedback be used as part of the performance appraisal process? Our view is the downsides far outweigh the benefits. We would strongly advise that 360 degree feedback be positioned as a developmental process which is separate to the performance appraisal. By all means use 360 to complement the development planning part of the appraisal process, but we would advise shying away from using the 360 data itself to inform the performance evaluation part of the process.