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New In The Controversial 360-Degree Feedback Debate


July 17th, 2019

- Updated on

August 26, 2019 - 4:14pm
There are no new ideas. Or are there? 360-degree feedback in the corporate environment has been examined and debated for decades. There are many camps that have reliable research and statistics that prove their value. Read on to join the dialogue today and find out what the experts think of the latest theories.

The Evolution of 360 Feedback

Recent thoughts proffered by Marcus Buckingham, head of People and Performance Research at the ADP Research Institute, have been published widely in print and video.
“Managers today are bombarded with calls to give feedback – constantly, directly and critically. But it turns out that telling people what we think of their performance and how they can do better is not the best way to help them excel and, in fact, can hinder development." Marcus Buckingham  
Buckingham's view has challenged the 360-feedback philosophy that has dictated performance reviews in many companies in America; as well as executive and leadership coaching techniques, as you'll learn in the following clip. 
During a recent AJO Coaches Forum, coaches and corporate clients discussed the implications of Buckingham’s theory to their work. The discussion was lively and robust, with everyone having strong beliefs in all camps. Clearly, Buckingham’s theories beg for more exploration and exchange.
AJO's Coaches Forum June 2019


Does Feedback Change Performance?

“Various thoughts have been around for a while, but new perspectives, such as those of Marcus Buckingham, have given coaches the impetus to re-evaluate our programs and offer different theories to our clients,” says Annmarie Fairweather who co-led the discussion with Leanne Leonard.  

Annmarie Fairweather at AJO Coaches ForumAnnmarie Fairweather has held broad and progressively responsible corporate roles in Talent Management, Learning and Development, and Operations in the global travel, leisure, and hospitality industry. An accomplished leader, she has led strategies, practices, and programs with teams of up to 100 associates to address the needs of thousands of corporate associates, and managed and franchised hotel professionals.

The Three Truths

The team went on to discuss the basic principles, or “The Three Truths” proposed by Buckingham, which are:
  1. The Source of Truth Humans are unreliable raters of other humans. One person is not THE source of truth about another.
  2. How We Learn Learning is less a function of adding what isn’t there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing and refining what already is there.
  3. Excellence Excellence in nearly any endeavor is almost impossible to define.

Leanne has been an executive coach and Human Resources consultant with AJO for more than 10 years. Prior to her work as a coach, she held progressively responsible senior HR business partner roles in large global organizations leading teams of up to 65 HR associates. She and her teams drove strategic enterprise-wide programs to increase organizational performance and employee engagement in domestic and global markets.

“These are three truths that Corporate America and many coaches and executives rest their foundation on. Coaches do the 360-assessments, interviewing leaders across the company, but to relate back to Buckingham -- are we all the source of truth about that person? -- asks Leanne.

1. Theory of the Source of Truth – I am a source of truth about you.

Are employees, and are leaders, unreliable raters and is it useful to have subjective feedback on how employees are perceived?
 AJO's Coaches suggested that an individual may believe something about a person is true, but that may not be the universal truth. It may be a perspective, not necessarily accurate. Most times this is a feeling or a reaction to a person, not an objective view. 360 feedback is usually more critical, as opposed to what resonates with the individual.
Buckingham’s article states,
“Just because I’m your boss or senior leader, does not mean my perception is the truth,” continues Leanne. “The perspective of you is my truth, not THE truth. One boss hates you, the next job the boss loves you…that is the theory of truth.”

Coaching Ideas IconWhat are the Implications for Leadership Coaching?

There is no single source of the truth. Instead of taking the “correction” path, we are talking to the individual to find out what they perceive, what is their reaction to other peoples’ experience and what do they want to do about other peoples’ perceptions? The coach is there to facilitate and guide the individual to help them achieve their goals, be that success as defined by the organization, getting along with a boss or coming to another conclusion.
A major influence in this process is the perception of someone’s actions versus their intention. An employee might see their intentions as good and actions as productive, but a coworker might see them as destructive. Leadership coaches are engaged to help individuals change, but the choice is theirs to make. These factors need to be explored.

2. Theory of Learning – Learning is a process of filling up an empty vessel.

“When we coach, we tell our clients we’re going to give them tools and techniques to allow them to fill the void in their performance. We often point to the things they may be doing wrong or should be doing based on feedback,” says Leanne.
Buckingham disagrees and says that leadership coaches should be tapping into the patterns the individual currently has and add a few more ‘buds to the branch’ to let them resolve their issues,” she continues.
Most people know their strengths and weaknesses, and what motivates them. This theory forces coaches to contemplate limiting their feedback to only positive reinforcement of good behavior because focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning, it actually impairs it.
If we buy this argument isn’t positive feedback just as bias? Therefore, should we refrain from all comments both positive and negative? Can feedback be an effective two-way conversation, rather than a one-way delivery, that leaves people open to learning?

Coaching Ideas IconWhat are the Implications for Leadership Coaching?

The group acknowledged that negative feedback can start the amygdala hijack (an immediate, overwhelming emotional response with a later realization that the response was inappropriately strong given the trigger). Instead, participants suggested asking open-ended questions to get the truth from the individual. Right now, coaches tap into the patterns the person already has and 50% is about culture and the other 50% is the ability to correct, the team concluded. 
Other possible changes to tactics may be to modify 360-feedback questions; leverage strengths to help with focus areas; balance feedback with the environment, and identify gaps in learning but use a coaching approach.

3. Theory of Excellence – Excellence can be defined in advance.

Excellence is idiosyncratic and cannot be learned by studying failure. Is great performance universal, analyzable, and describable, and once defined, transferrable from one person to another, regardless of who the individual is?
“Marcus says this isn’t true. You can’t define excellence in advance. It is a byproduct of that individual being excellent in their own frame,” says Leanne. “A great example used in his article is comparing comedians. Bill Murray may be excellent, but does that mean that Sarah Silverman is not excellent?”
“Is he right Annmarie?” asks Leanne.
“I think he is right, but I take some exception,” says Annmarie. “Evidence of science can be used to form an opposing view. It’s important how you take the information and use the research to support an idea.”

Coaching Ideas IconWhat are the Implications for Coaching?

In the room, the debate among the coaches and clients began with vigor. Many corporate executives could benefit from understanding the various leadership coaching philosophies. “All these theories are based on documented research studies,” said Annmarie. “You can’t just dismiss them, but we do need to ensure we are using them in the context that best benefits those we are seeking to help. It can certainly improve service to our clients by providing a richer experience that helps them in understanding the various philosophies and successful application of strategies in their organizations.”  
Most agreed that excellence is subjective – dependent on the individual but in most cases measured by the organization’s definition. “Find their excellence through their strengths and encourage agility and flexibility,” said one team member.
Everyone agreed that results can be defined in advance, such as sales goals. But do aptitude and attitude impact the view of excellence? Excellence in one era of golf was driving a ball 340 feet. Today, 380 feet may be the definition of excellence. Is this innovation or excellence? And what happens when the golfer throws his club in despair? Does that impact the view of excellence?
Everyone’s excellence is different and that should be expected. “A CEO once told me that he would rather play with a team of four cohesive players than a team of five-star players,” said Leanne. “The four will succeed, on average, over time, over the five superstars. How you manage your resources is the secret sauce.”

The Bottom Line

“There is much to consider when we offer solutions that rely on feedback from others as a foundation for growth,” concluded Annmarie. “I hope we will all remain curious about how we can continue to advance our knowledge and skills to further help our clients achieve the best outcomes.” Bottom line is that we wanted to get everyone thinking and clearly we did.

Recommended Reading and References

Gail Petersen - AJO BloggerGail Petersen is an experienced communicator providing clients with strategic planning, writing and project implementation to engage and maximize the impact of messaging on target audiences. She practices and promotes quality written communications, mentoring and collaboration in all her projects. She lives in Easton, PA with her husband and two house rabbits; is on the Board of the Safe Haven Rabbit Rescue; is the grant writer for a dog and cat shelter and edits nonfiction books.