Why 360s don’t work: they aren’t designed to

There are a number of keys to getting 360 feedback to work. Source: Thinkstock

Achieving the desired behavioural changes that we know is possible from 360 feedback often requires doing less, not more, writes Marc Effron

Few talent management practices show as much promise and as few results as 360 feedback. As HR professionals, we faithfully believe that 360 feedback will help managers change their behaviours or at least increase their motivation to change. Unfortunately, those expectations are completely unrealistic. In fact, given the academic research on feedback, we should be surprised that today’s 360 processes work at all! The science says that:

  1. Feedback does not lead to change: There is no science that supports the suggestion that simply receiving feedback causes any sustained behaviour change. Instead, the research says that feedback often creates negative emotional reactions that inhibit change and in one-third of cases actually worsens performance.
  2. Gaps between self-perceptions and others’ perceptions do not motivate change: Many of us believe that when confronted with a gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us, we will try to close that gap. Wrong. The science says that when confronted with that perception gap we will diligently try to excuse it or explain it away.
  3. Comparison to norms isn’t helpful either! Data comparing you to other 360 participants (norms) doesn’t provide guidance or motivation for change. If you score below others, cognitive dissonance inhibits action. Being above the norm doesn’t yield any positive results either, just no negative emotions. The science is clear that we respond best when given information only about our behaviours, not when those behaviours are compared to others.

To make 360s work, we need to find the simplest, science-based way to help managers change their behaviours, and that means:

Make it simple and easy to use

  • Focus on the vital few: Help the participant to quickly understand their two or three priorities for change by clearly stating these in the report’s first few pages.
  • Don’t rate them; tell them how to change: Telling a manager that they scored 3.5 out of 5 on strategic thinking leaves them clueless about how to improve. Instead, include statements directly into the report that tell them exactly how to change that behaviour.
  • Don’t include normative data or self-ratings: It sounds like heresy, but the science described above is very clear. Don’t let the participant’s curiosity about how they compare to others get in the way of them actually changing their behaviours.

Drive accountability and transparency

  • Use transparency to drive accountability: A misguided orthodoxy in some HR circles says that we shouldn’t consider 360 behavioural data when making personnel decisions (promotions, assignments, etc). In reality, using behavioural 360 data in personnel decisions is the most powerful way to drive accountability for change. While managers may ignore HR’s requests to behave differently, knowing that their next promotion depends on it creates an entirely different level of commitment.

In those situations, the organisations have known how those managers have behaved for many years. They’ve been talked about behind closed doors, around the water cooler and have likely already affected organisation decisions, but now that they’ve been recorded on a few sheets of paper, they’ll be part of a more fact-based discussion.

Realising the true potential of 360 feedback requires doing less, not more. If we focus on the core science and make the process easy for managers to use, we’ll finally get the return on investment that we know is possible.