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How to run 360-degree feedback in appraisals

There are benefits to incorporating multiple-perspective data into the standard appraisal process

Fair, consistent and constructive appraisals are of course very important. Regular summaries of how things are going provide vital clarity on progress and potential. They allow the manager and employee to explore the working relationship, the role, and the future of both the work and the employee’s career. So how can 360-degree feedback help with this?

As an employee you may experience work in many different ways, but the context and frame in which you place your job will determine whether it feels worthwhile. Being clear on your manager’s expectations, priorities and standards is important and having an inspiring long-term career goal will ensure you are motivated. A good appraisal can ensure these pieces are in place and an experienced manager can usually do a reasonable job of covering these points.

But how well does the manager know the employee and their work? How closely have they observed them in operation? How well have they understood their employee’s true impact on others in the business and/or customers? Do they know why they are doing things as they are and how they might do things better and easier? How clearly can they see their potential and the full range of possibilities for their future?

A manager will usually only know how well the employee manages their particular relationship and how they behave in team meetings and other observable settings. While the manager’s perspective and judgement is very important, it is always limited. This is where a multiple-perspective approach through 360-degree feedback can help. But you do have to be careful how 360-degree feedback is implemented as reviewers may hesitate to be totally truthful and open with their opinions.

Here are some key points to consider:

  • Don’t expect as big a range of ratings as you might get from a development-focused 360 as employees naturally hold back from giving a detailed critique. You are more likely to get a broad sense of whether they are respected or not, and only serious specific issues may be raised.
  • Provide opportunities for comments as much as you can – at both question and competency/value level and with open questions. People will only write what they are prepared to write but the subtleties and what is missing may tell you more.
  • Make sure you include a forced choice/ranking portion to your survey so you will always get useful insights. Seeing which competencies are seen as weakest by all the reviewers can be very useful even though you may not get a robust assessment of how strong or weak they are.
  • Ask reviewers to evaluate aspects that may indicate true opinions indirectly, such as potential to progress, ability to grow etc. You may need to be somewhat creative to extract the real gems of insight.
  • The choice of reviewers becomes more critical when 360 is used as there may be a perceived and/or real bias. This can be automated as part of the 360 process with responsibility falling to the manager or HR.
  • Ensuring confidentiality and data privacy is crucial for any sort of honest and open participation so it should be very clear exactly how exposed reviewers’ ratings and comments are. Making sure there are a minimum of three people in the categories of 'direct reports', 'colleagues' and 'others' is a useful baseline position of exposure. If reviews are missing, then categories should be combined to ensure anonymity is maintained.

360-degree feedback has been considered best as a developmental tool with a place as far away from appraisal as possible, but multiple perspectives will still feed into the appraisal; even if indirectly. The ideal way to proceed through this minefield is to be clear exactly what the primary purpose of your 360 is and to design the tool and process to suit this objective. Be clear and bold, get expert advice, and work for stakeholder buy-in. Your 360 will then provide real value to the behavioural awareness and cultural development of your organisation wherever it is positioned.

Elva Ainsworth is CEO of Talent Innovations

Further reading

Selvin Brown: UK must adopt 360-degree inclusion

Cappelli: No one-size-fits-all approach to performance management

Rewriting appraisals at the Home Office

Eight ways to fix the appraisal process