The Relevance of 360 Degree Feedback

While Jack Welsh may deserve his fair share of credit for implementing the 360 Degree Feedback mechanism for the first time in his pioneering initiative at GE, the history of this feedback mechanism dates back all the way to the first world war and to the American Army. While the Americans did not think the subordinates deserved a place in the feedback process, the Germans tweaked it to include supervisors, peers and also subordinates during the second world war.

The conditions in which this feedback mechanism was born was rather dark, and the first time Mr. Welsh used it in GE, was to justify the firing the bottom ten percent of the workers from his company. As a capability development tool, one may be compelled to cast aspersions on its overall effectiveness. However, the corporate world of the 80s and the 90s lapped this new development in Human Resources with a rather positive outlook. It actually sounds pretty awesome on paper, develop the strengths of the people rather than punishing them for any weaknesses, perceived or otherwise. But, has the mechanism coped well with the drastically changing times?

The intrusion of technology in our way of working and the recent pandemic which has changed the rules of the game completely; pose potent challenges to this mode of evaluating an employee’s performance.

The broad idea behind a three sixty-degree feedback mechanism is to arrive at an overall picture regarding the employee performance taking inputs from key stakeholders. Now the catch lies that this system works well to identify the developmental needs of an employee, but it may be not an accurate indicator of achievement of performance objectives.

Let us discuss the process in a little detail to argue better regarding the merits and de merits.

The multi rater performance system is known as several different names like full circle appraisal, multi-source feedback, group performance review, 360 Degree performance appraisal, all round or 540-degree feedback, using different data collection methods across the organization. It is still a matter of debate whether there is any significant correlation between performance evaluation and 360 Degree Feedback. It has been observed that appraisees who scored high on feedback may not be high rated performers and vice versa.

The counter arguments and proponents of the system claim that there is a significant correlation between the two.

It all depends on how the process is used and to what means?

There are several methods in which data/information is collected for the 360 Degree. Most organizations have developed their own mix of methods over the years, but some most common ones are:

Questionnaires: Often paper based, they consist a list of questions regarding pertinent skills required to perform the role effectively and either have a point based rating or written answers provision. With the use of technology, this process has been simplified greatly and is the go-to method for a large number of organizations. Questionnaires can be emailed, and all stakeholders can respond in their time without having to be geographically located in the office.

Interviews: Interviews are structured around the established performance measures required for the job and the extent of those skill displayed and mastered by the appraisee. A structured interview like BEI or Behavioral Events Interview can provide valuable qualitative data otherwise missed in a questionnaire method. There are several manners in which these interviews can be conducted, over telephonic calls, group interviews or one on one. This method may prove significantly conducive to the new remote working setting. With video calls, interviews can be conducted conveniently and confidentially. Amongst all these methods, the group interviews are considered the least reliable because of the lack of objectivity. Another requisite is that the facilitator conducting the interview needs to be trained to be able to structure and guide the interview in a manner that objective analysis can be done.

Informal methods: Some other methods may include asking for feedback over emails, which may sacrifice quality at the altar of convenience.

To be able to draw any benefit out of 360 Degree feedback method, the appraiser or the assessor needs to be adequately trained and tools of assessment like questionnaires need to be designed carefully with performance parameters and competencies clearly explained and defined across scales.

While the subscribers of the 360 Degree feedback extol its virtues because of multiple stakeholders evaluating the appraisee, it may also prove the kryptonite of this method.

It is difficult to ascertain that increasing the sources of feedback may also increase objectivity and fairness in the quality of feedback. More participants can also mean greater discrepancies. The reliability and validity of feedback weighs heavily on the kind of participants invited to participate in the process. It also determines whether the feedback will be accepted by the appraisee or not, which at the end of the day is integral to proceed with the development objectives and identifying required capability building initiatives.

The reception of 360 Degree Feedback depends on several factors like age, gender, educational and socio-cultural backgrounds. If the appraisee rejects the feedback or is not convinced entirely it may result in halfhearted attempts to work towards bridging the identified developmental gaps. The effectiveness may also depend on the personality types of the appraisee, people with external locus of control may be more receptive of the feedback than the others. An alpha personality type may not accept any bit of the feedback and question the validity.

What challenges will the remote working pose to this mechanism?

In the current pandemic way of life where teams are working and collaborating remotely, this feedback mechanism and its acceptability will be shrouded in doubt if not done in a detailed and objective manner. The new way of working and its limitations and disadvantages should be kept in mind while developing the questionnaires and assessment tools. The appraisers need to be sensitized to accommodate the change in working condition (even domestic and technology related challenges the appraisee must have faced during the course of work) while providing feedback. The human aspect will have to take dominance over the technical performance aspect of the job. A teammate filling in for another member needs to weigh more than it would in ordinary circumstances. A balanced and fair approach will ensure that this mechanism delivers the same effective results as it would otherwise. However, it is only fair to add that this applies to even other feedback systems and appraisal methods.

The sheer magnitude of this process can be daunting for the managers, not to mention the time involved to collate the information and create individual reports.

There are strengths of this system which should not be overlooked either like the ability to evaluate one’s boss is empowering. Peer evaluation provides a certain sense of reliability in the whole process which makes accepting the feedback easier. A 360 Degree feedback system not just identifies strengths and weaknesses but also helps in identifying the blind spots previously unknown. Along with this it provides a legal protection to both organizations and employees in case of breach of contracts and litigations.

To conclude, the multi-point feedback system when implemented for developmental program may yield desirable results. As a performance evaluation tool, it may have its limitations.

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