The Challenges of 360-Degree Feedback

22 February 2023  |  Mark Smith

The 360-Degree Feedback process, which involves receiving feedback from multiple sources such as co-workers, subordinates, and superiors, can be a valuable tool for personal and professional development. However, it can also present some challenges that organisations need to be aware of in order to maximise its benefits.

A poorly implemented 360-Degree Feedback process can suffer from:

  Unreliable Ratings — Artificially high ratings can cause skepticism among senior management, undermining the credibility of the feedback.

  Limited Differentiation — Low differentiation between feedback can make it difficult to prioritise development goals and identify areas for improvement.

  Limited Impact — The feedback may create more excitement initially, but the lack of sustained development activity suggests a limited impact on employee growth.

•  Decreased Engagement — Repeat usage of 360-Degree Feedback may result in feedback that is similar or even worse than the original, causing a decline in employee engagement with the process.

•  Ongoing Debates — The ongoing debates about the scale, timing, and purpose of 360 Degree Feedback can become tiresome and detract from its overall effectiveness.

To help address these challenges, here are ten practical ideas:

Use relatable language

Your 360-Degree Feedback process might not be as effective as it could be due to its use of overly technical language. Think about it – 360 feedback is meant to be used by anyone, not just trained professionals. That’s why it’s important to use language that’s easy to understand and relatable. Instead of using academic terms, opt for simple, everyday language that gets straight to the point. Statements like “Cuts to the chase,” “Gets things done,” and “Walks the talk” will be more effective in eliciting meaningful feedback than complex, flowery language.

Remove positive bias

To help users understand the significance of a low rating, it’s important to address the issue of “positive blindness,” where people have become insensitive to unacceptable behaviour due to years of only being exposed to ideal behaviour. Using fully anchored scales to define each rating value is expensive and not always effective, as feedback providers often don’t read the anchors. A more effective solution is to use common Likert-style scales, but provide examples of behaviour that would warrant the lowest rating through pop-ups or other tools. This approach has been proven to increase understanding and lower average ratings by up to 0.7 on a 6-point scale.

Review survey length

To improve engagement, keep your questionnaire short. Look at the ratings of the first and last ten questions. If they are significantly different, the questionnaire may be too long, and participants may get tired or bored. A questionnaire with over 40 questions is likely to cause fatigue, and over 70 questions will likely result in disengagement.

Define, don’t describe

To improve ratings, the scale should be clearly defined rather than just described. Instead of a simple description like “To what extent do you AGREE that…,” the statement should specify the definition of the scale, such as “Rate each statement based on the extent to which you agree it describes the subject’s characteristic behaviour” or “Rate each statement based on the frequency with which you observe the subject displaying the behaviour.”

Set expectations

Explain to feedback providers their expectations in the process. They need to understand the importance of their role in providing high-quality, objective feedback that accurately reflects the strengths and limitations of the participants. Providers should avoid guessing and aim to be as impartial as possible. This process is critical to improving organisational performance, and providers should view it as such. 

Prevent negative influences

Ensure that the 360 degree feedback process does not negatively impact the ratings. The use of this process for assessment or development may vary based on the organisation’s goals and processes. The way the data is used and the understanding of those providing the feedback can affect the validity and usefulness of the data. A successful approach is to use the 360 degree feedback mid-assessment cycle and keep the detailed feedback confidential. The recipient should develop a defendable development plan, and their manager should be equipped to test its robustness without directly referencing the 360 degree feedback scores.

Don’t use norms

Comparing individual feedback to a group norm can be confusing and distracting. It’s more important for individuals to focus on their own strengths and limitations and how they can improve in the face of upcoming challenges. Comparing feedback from one period to another can also be dangerous, as organisations using 360 degree feedback effectively may see decreasing ratings over time as raters become more confident in providing accurate feedback.

Use real-time feedback

Performance appraisals often have inflated ratings, but web-based 360-degree feedback tools can monitor the quality of data and provide real-time feedback to improve the accuracy of the ratings. This can reduce overall averages and increase differentiation in the data, providing more useful information. It also helps feedback providers improve their skills in observing and assessing others.

Target specific areas for improvement

When receiving feedback from a 360-degree feedback process, it’s not necessary to retake the entire process to see if targeted improvement activities were successful. Instead, use shorter, targeted feedback processes to explore the impact on specific areas that were worked on. This will provide fresh and useful feedback, and save time compared to retaking the entire feedback process. Focus on the behaviours that people are trying to change, as it’s not possible to change many behaviours in a short period of time.

Maximise the benefits of 360

Exposing fewer people to the process and investing more heavily in each participant is the key to making 360-Degree Feedback a useful and effective tool for development. Provide one-to-one skilled facilitation and follow-up for each participant to get the most benefit. Don’t waste time and money if you can’t provide proper support.