360-degree feedback survey and its issues

What is 360 degree feedback?

The 360 review allows one to assess an employee’s personal characteristics and professional skills, in most cases, it is a manager. This survey is unique as the employee is assessed by their colleagues, subordinates, and managers, thus obtaining a 360 degree view. This review is also called a feedback survey. For people participating in the survey to feel more relaxed and bolder in presenting their vision and opinion about a co-worker or supervisor, data is often collected anonymously. However, personnel management experts have noticed that 360 degree feedback is not very positively welcomed in organizations, although the benefits obtained from this survey are obvious and valuable when looking at the further development of the employee and the organization.

Maury Peiperl in his research, published in Harvard Business Review, presented insights into how evaluation by colleagues, subordinates, or superiors have negative side effects and named it the paradox effect.

The paradox effect in the 360 feedback survey

Managing an organization, department or team is not easy in any circumstances. Therefore, employee evaluation is often a challenge. Often, such assessments are perceived personally by each employee and naturally cause resistance.

The 360 survey involves more than 2 people, unlike the traditional assessment where the supervisor evaluates the subordinate. And these participants are at different levels of subordination, hence certain paradoxes are encountered. And if we get to know these paradoxes, we will be able to reduce the resistance of participants, and thus conduct the survey more effectively and obtain a better quality result.

Maury Peiperl identifies 3 inescapable paradoxes in the process of the 360 degree feedback survey:

  • The Roles paradox – an employee cannot be a peer and judge at the same time
  • The Group Performance paradox – focusing on individuals puts the whole group at risk
  • The Measurement paradox – the simpler the assessment rating, the more difficult it is to apply

 The Roles paradox

The 360 degree survey involves those employees who collaborate closest with the assessed person and know him or her best, i.e. the survey includes people surrounding the assessed person from all sides (360 degrees). Those participants include the evaluated person’s superior, co-workers, and subordinates. Peers tend to feel uncomfortable because they don’t want to give negative feedback, fearing it will damage their relationship or even hurt the person’s career. It may also distort the situation of promotions or demotions, i.e. some will be undeservedly promoted, and others undeservedly punished. Subordinates also fear that negative feedback about their supervisor will have a negative impact on their future work. Therefore, the received feedback is often too good. There is another category of co-workers who critically evaluate the person and make overly dramatic reviews. So, in all cases, feedback will not reflect reality. The role paradox arises when colleagues and subordinates are torn between supporting and evaluating. Their natural inclination is to give advice and encouragement, but they were asked to evaluate colleagues’ performance.

The Group Performance paradox

Work is organized in teams in many organizations. This working principle is extremely effective as members cushion each other’s weaknesses and capitalize on each other’s strengths. It is often said that the strength of any team is its diversity. Maury Peiperl in his research noticed that groups or teams often resist 360 degree feedback. The main reason is to choose one person from the group and evaluate him or her. A team feels strong when they work in unison, and a 360 degree survey requires peer review, which undermines team integrity. Even more surprisingly, low-efficiency teams reacted very negatively to giving feedback to one of their colleagues. And after conducting the survey at the initiative of management, the group continued to ignore the results. Working in a team, employees identify with it and try to be evaluated not at the individual level, but at the team level.

Another situation is where a team is competing against another team and the 360 assessment is treated as a team vs team duel, i.e., which will perform better. Therefore, it is not worth expecting employees to misjudge a member of their team. And it will be difficult to trust the results.

The Measurement paradox

It seems logical that measurement and evaluation should be objective and simple. It’s like in school, those who pass a test well get a good grade, and if they do poorly, they get a worse grade. A simple rating (number 9 out of 10 or letter A, B, C) makes it easy to compare employees, their teams, and departments across the organization. Based on such data, management can see which areas of the organization are doing well and which need to be reviewed. However, it turns out that simple evaluation is frustrating for many for several reasons:

  1. It is not clear why such a rating was received.
  2. What to do with the received result? What are the next steps?

An objective and comprehensive assessment is good, but it is even more important to discuss the results with the employee and create a plan to improve areas for further development.

How to manage these paradoxes?

These paradoxes result from natural human inclinations – acting according to one’s own judgment; trying to maintain good relations with colleagues, etc. Therefore, changing these paradoxes, like human inclinations, is not easy. That is why the role of organizational leaders is extremely important – they can change the approach to employee assessment. It’s not uncommon for managers themselves to have a negative impact on the 360 surveys, simply because they don’t pay enough attention.

To obtain qualitative assessments and results, it is necessary to:

  • Prepare for the 360 survey – presenting such survey to employees, active participation, and support of managers
  • Determine the survey’s scope – not too many, but a sufficient number of participants for the reliability of the results
  • Establish the purpose of the survey – what is the organization’s purpose in this 360 degree feedback?

How to prepare for a 360-degree survey?

For the survey to bring the desired results, there must be trust in the organization – the so-called culture of trust. True, such a culture is not achieved in a day, month, or year, it is a long process. And continuous, correct, and targeted employee assessment contributes to this culture. If the organization is just starting the employee assessment process, proper preparation is a key step that will determine the success of the survey. Above all, managers must clearly communicate to employees about the survey, its goals, and its benefits.

In practice, the 360 degree survey is most often carried out among managers, in this way they can obtain feedback about themselves and develop their weaknesses, and further strengthen their skills. It reduces the stress of subordinates and at the same time becomes a role model.

To avoid the “role paradox”, it is worth choosing a 360 degree survey in which answers about the assessed employee are given anonymously. Colleagues and subordinates will feel more relaxed and secure knowing that their honest answer will not hurt their own careers or relationship with the person being assessed. Of course, you should not expect too much openness in the first survey done in the organization. However, by building a culture of trust and conducting regular feedback surveys, responses will become more open over time.

What scope of participants is needed?

A common mistake when trying to conduct the survey throughout the organization at once. It is important to understand that assessment creates some tension among employees and causes dissatisfaction. Therefore, it is recommended to conduct the survey in small groups and gradually.

When conducting a 360 degree feedback survey, it is recommended to select at least 4-5 participants- those are people who work directly with the person being assessed – their supervisor, co-workers, and subordinates. At first glance, it might seem the larger the scope, the more objective the results. However, this is not always beneficial, primarily because a survey takes time, so adding more participants to the survey will take more of their time. Secondly, it is important to collect answers from those who really know the person, and those people are typically not many in a team or department. And thirdly, one person is assessed in the feedback survey, but there could be conducted several or a dozen of such surveys at the same time, therefore the number of employees participating in the surveys will increase at least several times. It’s possible that the same participants will take part in a few at once, so don’t give the impression that participants must constantly fill in the surveys.

To reduce the “Group performance paradox”, first start collecting feedback from the team leader. Later, as team members become familiar with the process, it will be easier to transfer that assessment within the team.

When it comes to several teams competing, clear communication is important – it’s not about which team will perform better, but how each team will improve and be able to use the survey’s results to increase performance.

What is the purpose of a 360-degree survey?

You’ll probably agree that, in one way or another, employee appraisal is designed to increase efficiency and productivity. However, the process of the survey and the results achieved will depend on how the goal of the 360 degree review is formulated and communicated to employees. Organizations that have developed a culture of trust and commitment tend to focus on holistic growth and development. The goal of such organizations is the personal development of each employee. Regular employee evaluation and training are included in the incentive program and career planning steps. The assessed employee knows that he or she must do their homework before the next assessment. In such cases, the purpose of the 360 review is to improve the employee’s personal characteristics as well as professional skills. Do not forget to discuss the results of the survey with the employee being assessed and create a plan for further development, in such case you will solve the “measurement paradox”.