Ensuring the effectiveness of the 360 degree feedback process

"360 Degrees of Success" - by Liz Fletcher

When successfully implemented, 360-degree feedback initiates and facilitates a vast positive change in individuals and organisations alike. Improvements are circular in nature; as management effectiveness is enhanced, work relations improve which leads to increased productivity and more proficient customer service. Implementing a successful feedback survey certainly is not difficult but the key to success is often overlooked. Success in 360-feedback lies in the implementation of the process - getting it right at every level, from the consideration of what it entails, to its design and through to actual survey launch.

 

Such is the impressiveness of the feedback system that over 90 percent of Fortune 1,000 firms have utilised some form of multi-source assessment. However almost 50 percent reported unsatisfactory experiences. Yet those for which the process has worked report substantial improvement. Countless case studies illustrate that the source of this discrepancy in success lies in the implementation of the process. For example owing to the nature of the feedback process, some users have tried to ‘game’ the system. One investment management organisation (cited in Edwards & Ewen, 1996) found that the results of a feedback survey multiplied rather than reduced errors. Respondents had tried to use the process to assist associates, harm others and had even co-operated in collusion and because no safeguards were in place to prevent this, the process was
rendered ineffectual.

 

This article expounds the key factors involved in ensuring the effectiveness of the 360-degree feedback process, beginning with the cultural environment needed to provide optimum benefits to individuals and the organisation as a whole, progressing to the actual design of the assessment, followed by its implementation and finally the development of goals from the results.

 

To maximise the benefit of instigating a 360-degree feedback survey an organisation must have a philosophy of continuous improvement and growth. An organisation’s core values should be reflected in the survey process, making the survey itself an indicator of what qualities ideal employee candidates possess. Thus even at the beginning of the implementation, by taking part in the rating process individuals can be motivated to improve their performance. It is imperative to the success of the process that individuals feel a strong sense of support within the organisation, allowing that motivation provided by the feedback survey results to continue. At every step in the process encouragement, support and facilitation must be given to the users. They need to appreciate the value the survey has, not only for the organisation but also for their individual self-development.

 

Comprehensive communication with participants is therefore vital. All those involved must be fully aware of the purpose of carrying out the feedback survey as well as what it entails. Objectives must be made explicit and expectations of project outcomes informed and realistic. To minimise bias and maximise accuracy in responses employees should be aware of the context of the survey. In one case study a hospital undertook a multi-source assessment without giving staff prior training or fully briefing them on what to do with the results. Consequently employees rejected the results, as well as the survey, because they did not understand why the change in assessment procedure had taken place. Ultimately surveys must be undertaken deliberately, with the full consent of every individual, whose participation is made on a purely voluntary basis. Individuals must be given the opportunity to raise any concerns or questions they may have. Finally, before a survey is initiated a consensus of at least 80 percent support must be reached.

 

If correctly implemented 360-degree feedback provides the most reliable and valid feedback information that it is possible to obtain. The aim, then, is to maximise the reliability and validity of the feedback survey. As was mentioned above, safeguards need to be instigated to ensure fairness and to remove predictable sources of error and obvious biases such as friendship, competition and collusion.

According to Nowack (1993 cited in Garavan & Flynn, 1997) there is no evidence to specify the ideal number of raters, however consultants usually suggest between four and ten. A minimum number of raters should be set to maintain anonymity: if there are too few they may be identified by the recipient. London et al. (1990) argue that what is of greater importance is who the raters are. Those who interact most frequently with the employee undertaking a survey will be able to give meaningful feedback on them. Peers with different relationships to the employee, and thus likely to be able to give constructive criticism, should be included. Managers undertaking a 360 degree feedback survey have been found to choose their immediate subordinates as raters, however direct reports, peers and supervisors, and possibly customers/clients, should also be included.

 

Reliability is found when possible errors in ratings are minimal. Errors can occur when items to be rated are too vague and raters do not understand exactly what it is they are rating, or, again, when different raters interpret the meaning of a single item differently, leading to ambiguous results. Errors can also occur when raters let their emotional state or situational factors influence their judgement.

As well as ensuring that the survey is reliable, specific steps can be taken to improve the validity of the results. It is important that the content of the survey has more than face validity. Feedback results themselves can reveal the extent to which the survey is valid. Results can prove validity into two ways, ipsatively - when behaviour change is observed over time, and normatively - when results are compared with those of other people in similar positions. Ipsative evaluation of behaviour change is likely to make the results of further surveys less positive and more critical of the person being rated as raters’ evaluation skills mature. Thus inter-rater scores become more consistent indicating efficient evaluation and high levels of inter-rater reliability. A secondary test of ‘empirical fairness’ should be undertaken to ensure that no protected status group receives significantly different results. Similarly, results must have what is known as ‘eyeball validity’; they should be seen as objective and on target for each individual.

 

Research has found that the type of scale used to rate targeted behaviours affects the validity of the feedback survey process. Standard Likert Scales of 1-5 ratings, ranging from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree,’ usually have a mid-point of ‘neither agree nor disagree.’ Within the context of trying to determine raters’ opinion, it is futile to include this mid-point as it gives raters an opportunity to evade the question. However if raters feel they do not have appropriate observational data to make an informed rating the inclusion of an ‘insufficient data’ category is necessary. At Getfeedback, research was undertaken to establish the validity of different scales. Results show that 1-4 scales are more efficient than 1-9 scales. An investigation is currently underway on a new type of 4-point scale on which 1 is equivalent to strength, 2 equals proficient, 3 signifies development need and 4 denotes non applicability. At present evidence suggests that senior management prefer this scale and that inter-rater reliability is higher in surveys using the new 4-point scale.

 

The feedback process at getfeedback.net is such that the kinds of errors described above are highly unlikely. User surveys (as cited by Edwards & Ewen, 1996) have found that computer based surveys are preferred to paper surveys on a ratio of 24:1. Computer surveys are perceived as faster, easier to use and more anonymous, which has the cumulative effect of increasing response rates and respondent honesty significantly. Also narrative responses are found to increase four to six times on computer based surveys when compared to their paper equivalents. Computer surveys allow follow up with non-respondents whilst enabling other safeguards that are impractical with paper surveys to be implemented. At Getfeedback there is no risk of collusion; raters remain completely anonymous and results are kept strictly confidential. As all surveys are standardised and thoroughly tested no fault can exist in the instrument itself. Survey results are collated, analysed and presented clearly and accurately with the benefit of narrative description to aid interpretation.

 

At the survey report stage it is imperative that recipients are provided with professional support to facilitate comprehension and positive interpretation of results. Recipients are at liberty to share whatever information they feel is relevant with supervisors in order for a joint effort to be made towards a development plan. If a development plan is put into action in the work place and targeted behaviours are practised and expanded, the 360-degree feedback process will have been successfully implemented. It is of interest to note McCauley and Moxley Jr (1996) findings that there are three occasions when a manager is most receptive to feedback; soon after a critical transition in job, when they feel somewhat overwhelmed by their transfer; when they feel unchallenged by their current position, and when their career is in danger of failing.

Overall the feedback process improves the reliability and validity of performance information, which is invaluable data for both organisations and the individuals involved. If all of the above are taken into full consideration any user will benefit from the process. 360-degree feedback enhances information quality by providing specific performance feedback, which targets development areas, enhances self-knowledge and provides strong motivation for performance improvement. Long-term assessment allows the measurement of training effectiveness and supports a philosophy of continuous learning and improvement. ‘When implemented with sufficient rigour’ the feedback process ‘holds promise to provide higher quality information about individual performance than typically exists today’ (Edwards and Ewen, 1996). Levels of satisfaction with single-source assessment are typically 10-35%; however consistent reports for multi-source processes show levels of 75-95%. There is undoubtedly a positive correlation between the effectiveness of the feedback survey process and consequent levels of satisfaction. Ensure the success of the process and one ensures high-level satisfaction.

 

References

Edwards, M. R. & Ewen, A. J. (1996) “360-Degree Feedback: Royal Fail or Holy Grail?” Career Development International, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp 28-31

Garavan, T., Morley, M. & Flynn, M. (1997) “360 Degree Feedback: Its Role in Employee Development” Journal of Management Development, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp 134-147

London, M., Wojhlers, A.J. and Gallagher, P., (1990) “A Feedback Approach to Management Development” Journal of Management Development, Vol. 9.

Mc Cauley, C. D. & Moxley Jr, R. S. (1996) “Developmental 360: How Feedback can Make Managers More Effective” Career Development International, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp 15-19.

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