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360-Degree Feedback Assessments: Why, When & How to Use Them Effectively


May 22nd, 2019

- Updated on

June 12, 2019 - 9:15am
According to the National Business Research Institute, 90% of Fortune 500 companies use some version of 360-degree feedback assessments for a variety of purposes including executive/leadership coaching, performance evaluation/appraisals, talent management and development, and succession planning. 
360 feedback graphicMany organizations with whom we work opt to leverage 360-degree leadership assessments as part of their executive coaching and leadership development programs for mid-level leaders through to senior executives. Chances are, your organization is one of them. Chances are you might be asking one of these questions when implementing a 360-degree feedback assessment program:
  • What is a 360-degree feedback leadership assessment?
  • How can 360-degree assessments support the development of leaders?
  • How do you implement an effective 360 feedback program?
  • How do you conduct 360-degree feedback process for leadership development? What are best practices?
  • Which is better – an online 360 survey tool or a verbal interview 360 assessment?
In this post, Bill Accordino, AJO’s VP of Talent Development and Linda Bodnar, AJO’s Executive Coach, weigh in on these and other important questions relating to the use this vital leadership development tool in your organization. 

What Is 360-degree feedback leadership assessment? 

A well-designed, research-based 360-degree assessment provides a leader with the opportunity to self-assess then compare his or her ratings with the strengths, weaknesses, and aspects of leadership versatility as rated by others in their sphere of influence. Although not always comfortable, this comparison can break through a leader’s blind spots, paving the way for professional stretching and growth.
When appropriately planned and implemented, 360-degree feedback programs can help new and developing leaders become more comfortable with feedback while also helping build team cohesiveness and supporting a culture of open communication among team members.

How can 360-degree assessments support the development of leaders?

Multi-rater assessments can add a rich dimension to leadership development initiatives. 360-degree feedback assessments, when well-managed and coupled with follow-up development planning and coaching, can provide deep insight into the leader’s effectiveness with supervisors, peers, and direct reports. 
In the high-potential leadership development programs, AJO has supported on behalf of our clients, the 360-degree feedback process is introduced early, serving as a foundational step for leaders to develop greater self-awareness.
Young leaders, in particular, often advance because of their technical skills. In many cases, the 360-degree process is the first opportunity to get feedback on the critical soft skills required for leadership success. The process allows participants to leverage the feedback to set personal leadership development goals, as well as to establish a baseline against which to measure personal progress throughout the program and beyond. The process is made all the more powerful when combined with executive/leadership coaching.   Feedback image

Leaders share their feedback on the 360-degree process: 

"The assessments were incredibly valuable as was the 360. Having diverse players respond with similar feedback opened my eyes to some of my challenges and reinforced some challenges that I knew existed. I am better prepared to self-manage as a result of leveraging this feedback and deploying specific tactics as a result."
"I improved team engagement with all of my members. I myself, by understanding my core value and getting 360-degree feedback from them including my boss, I could clearly acknowledge my strength and weaknesses and focus on my emphasis area."
"We placed a strong emphasis on listening skills and my Coach always demonstrates such excellent listening ability that just talking to her as often as I did provided a new model of "exquisite listening", all separate and apart from the specific feedback, real-time observations, and 360-degree feedback that I found very helpful."

How to implement an effective 360 feedback program

What does it take to establish a 360-Degree Feedback program and use these assessments effectively? Plan carefully before executing a 360-degree assessment program. 
It takes a thoughtfully designed instrument, adequate communication and training to set expectations and establish confidentiality standards to prepare raters and ratees. Optimally, additional follow-up support and coaching will be available for the leader. With these conditions in place, the leader can explore the meaning and impact of the feedback from each group of raters, determine and communicate development goals to key stakeholders, and benefit from coaching to effect the indicated needed changes.

AJO Executive Coach - Linda BodnarAn AJO Executive Coach Approach to giving a 360-Degree Feedback

Linda Bodnar, one of AJO’s longest serving Executive Coaches, shared her input on the value of multi-rater assessments for leadership coaching and development. Linda has extensive experience using 360-degree feedback and finds it invaluable in helping leaders to understand whether they are coming across to others the way they intend to and believe they are. 
In Linda’s experience,
“People often won’t tell leaders what they need to know regarding how they are perceived or experienced by others. Once they receive the feedback, leaders are often surprised that they have not previously heard about some of the issues raised.”  
The conditions of anonymity and confidentiality provide a safe environment for raters to openly share their impressions of the ratee without fear of misunderstanding or reprisal.

Establishing ratee and rater trust in the process is one of the most critical roles of a coach throughout the assessment, feedback and goal-setting cycle. 

How to conduct 360-degree feedback process – A best practice

To conduct a 360-degree feedback process, Linda advocates the following:
  1. Introduce and explain the 360-degree feedback process to the ratee/leader. This usually consists of verbal interviews but on occasion could be an online assessment or both. Assure ratee that all information is anonymous and confidential. Feedback will not be shared with others except by the ratee if he or she so chooses. 
  2. Assist the ratee/leader to select raters and plan invitations for them to participate. Generally, 6 – 10 individual raters are optimal and include the manager/supervisor, peers, and direct reports. 
  3. If using an online assessment only, obtain and analyze feedback results. 
  4. If using verbal interviews, alone or in addition to online assessments, prepare open-ended questions related to the key business challenges and competencies for the role. 
    • Meet raters in person or via phone to obtain feedback. Assure rater that she will not share individual input that will tie back to the feedback giver. 
    • Record answers and probes for further information with follow-up questions. Interviews usually take about 45 minutes. 
  5. Compile feedback report, analyzing themes and trends in responses. Use the raters’ language to lend power and credibility to the message shared in the report.
  6. Meet with ratee/leader to share input from raters. Set up the discussion by establishing expectations. E.g., 
    “Some of your feedback will be no surprise, some will rub you the wrong way, some will be easy to hear, some will be easily addressed, and some will be issues that may take more focus and attention to address. Finally, other areas raised may be important but you will choose not to address them at this time.”
  7. Begin feedback session by sharing the business challenges that raters see them facing. Share strengths that were indicated. Ask ratee what resonates with them. “What are you happy to see here? What do you wish was here but isn’t?”
    • Discuss developmental areas, including those that relate to relationships and important traits and skills. 
    • Ask ratee/leader to think about the feedback and decide on 2 – 3 important areas that they would like to work on in the immediate future. 
  8. Within 2 – 3 weeks, meet with ratee/leader to establish a development plan, taking the role of scribe as the ratee/leader describes future goals in response to feedback, to allow them to think, reflect, ponder, etc. Assist with setting meaningful, measurable targets. 
  9. Establish ongoing coaching meetings to work on plan implementation. Work out a strategy for sharing results appropriately.

Pros and cons of online 360-degree feedback vs. verbal interviews

Linda prefers using verbal interviews because they offer the opportunity to dig deeper into a rater’s answers with follow-up questions. When interviews are conducted face to face, she can observe tone and body language, enabling the most accurate analysis of feedback. However, she sometimes uses a combination approach, conducting interviews and complementing them with an online assessment like the Leadership Versatility Index (LVI).   
According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, the LVI assessment goes beyond a traditional competency-based instrument to measure to what degree a ratee/leader exhibits the balance of  key success qualities between deficiency (too little), sufficiency (the right amount), and a state of overuse (too much) for each of the dimensions. Linda explained that the LVI results provide a fertile ground for coaching interventions.
Linda indicated that there is value in either approach to a 360-degree assessment, although her preference leans toward the verbal interviews or verbal interviews coupled with the LVI or other 360 tool. 
Bill AccordinoBill Accordino, AJO’s VP of Talent Development agreed with the combination approach. He stated,
“In a perfect world, a combination of 360-degree interviews supplemented by written online assessments is best. But, don’t let the perfect get in the way of the possible.”
The choice to arrange a set of verbal interviews versus written survey responses depends upon the situation. Here are a few of the advantages and disadvantages of each approach: 

Pros and Cons of Online 360-Degree Feedback vs. Verbal Interviews

360 Degree Feedback Conducted via one-on-One Interviews 360 Degree Feedback Conducted via Online Surveys
  • Avoids rater fatigue if there are many 360s to do 
  • Convenient for Rater- Easy to participate in a conversation with a coach 
  • Richer input. Allows for follow up questions - Deeper insights possible 
  • Easier to maintain rater anonymity
  • Relatively inexpensive 
  • Ability to include more raters- Unlimited raters
  • Standardized input – easier to score and pinpoint trends in responses; typically provides normative data
  • Proven questions enable trust in the instrument’s results. Research-based.
  • Limited number of raters possible 
  • Costlier than written assessments
  • Raters often don’t take the time to add written comments, so data is limited to quantitative ratings
If given a choice and if cost and culture are not barriers, then interviews provide detailed and nuanced content that may not surface in responses to a standardized assessment. Combining the interviews with a written assessment covers all the bases without adding significant cost. 
AJO’s Executive Coaches are certified in numerous online 360-degree feedback assessment tools and we can work with you and your team to devise and implement the best approach for your leadership development goals.

Kathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.