can a traditional 360-degree feedback process be positive?

01/10/2010

by carolyn mathews

Mention a 360-degree feedback process to those who have experienced it and you will likely witness the rolling of eyes, apparent cringing, or the telling of personal horror stories. This is what I witnessed almost across the board when I told people my dissertation topic. (For the record, its title is, “Enhancing the 360-Degree Feedback Process: A Strengths-based Approach.”) If you read this blog, you likely work in an upper-management/executive position within your organization. Just as likely, you have participated in a 360-degree feedback process, as both a rater for someone else or as the person being rated (the “ratee”). I have been through the process myself. So, it was with some trepidation that I signed up for the Center for Creative Leadership’s (CCL) Assessment Certification Workshop.

My trepidation was borne from my skepticism regarding the process, not from the assessment products offered by CCL. Research shows in many cases, 360s are mishandled from the start in terms of stated purpose, accountability, and psychometric properties. I am happy to report that CCL addresses all of these concerns in their training of consultants, coaches, and HR professionals. Indeed, according to a colleague in the class who experienced the CCL products and process within his organization, when CCL professionals are brought in to run a 360-degree feedback process, they emphasize and explain these elements before any assessments start.

Okay, so having established some 360 ground rules, we know to declare a clear purpose to all participants (preferably developmental as opposed to administrative). We also know that accountability on the part of the raters, the ratee, and the organization is crucial for employees to view it as something from which they will benefit. Further, we recognize that a psychometrically sound instrument, one that has been validated and reflects the organization’s values, strategies and goals, is crucial for the success of this process. But what is a positive psychology coach like me supposed to do with a process that traditionally focuses on deficits rather than strengths?

The 360-degree feedback process is often used as part of an annual appraisal process, and as such, there is a tendency for organizations and managers – and the ratees themselves – to concentrate on deficits while virtually ignoring strengths. Strengths represent what is “right” or going well for the employee. Therefore, we tend to pay little attention to these non-problems. Instead, there is collective focus on what’s wrong, also known as (with a positive spin) “room for improvement,” or “opportunities.” No matter what we call this deficit target, research by the Gallup organization shows that the greatest opportunities for success come not from focusing on what’s wrong, but by emphasizing what’s right.

Does this mean as managers, HR professionals, or coaches we must ignore a person’s lack of skills or behavioral concerns? I don’t believe so. The use of positive psychology in the workplace is not meant to suggest we can ignore problems in favor of the positive. Positive psychology in the workplace provides a holistic approach; one that asserts the “biggest bang for the buck” comes from the acknowledgment and use of strengths as a way to build creativity and collaboration, solve problems, and even address areas those “opportunities” for improvement.

So how can you incorporate a strengths-based approach into a traditional 360-degree feedback process?

Ongoing management: Address problem areas immediately, instead of waiting for this annual feedback process. This is the responsibility of management, and one that often slides further down the “to-do” list. No one likes to be the “heavy.” However, if issues are addressed when current, it will appear more relevant to your direct report than a mention months later in the comments section of the 360 questionnaire.

Before the 360-degree feedback process: Assure your team that the purpose of the 360 process is for developmental purposes (not administrative) and will be considered along with other information gleaned throughout the year.

During the feedback session: Use the feedback related to strengths to discuss how your direct reports can rectify problem areas. This helps align the solution needed for the organization with the person’s personal values, which may result in longer-lasting change. In addition, ask them to imagine ways that using one or two strengths exclusively may turn it into a weakness. A balanced approach is best.

After the feedback: Collaborate with your direct reports on their development plans, based in part on the feedback they received. Ask them to suggest goals that not only relate to the organization’s overall mission, but also will incorporate their personal strengths. My research shows an integral link between elements of positive psychology, positive organizational behavior, and a successful 360-degree feedback process. Adding a strength-based component puts that personal stamp on the goal, making it meaningful.

Ultimately, the 360-degree feedback process is an efficient way to track someone’s development, how well they play with others, and to help direct their developmental goals. And, it can be used in a way that emphasizes positive opportunities for success.

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