Question: Should we resuscitate or kill a 360-degree feedback process?

Last year, the leadership team in our firm "hacked" a 360-degree reviews implementation by reading popular literature.

It is an experiment that didn't go too well. Personal issues being exploited, confidentiality being make a long story short, it was one of the reasons for us to hire a senior HR professional from a larger organization who has actually facilitated the process.

Now, she and I are discussing whether the damage is too deep for us to even attempt the cycle this year. Should we wait a couple of years before having a fresh start or not at all?

Your advice will be most beneficial.

10 Expert Insights

When it’s done well, 360 program allows all your team members to improve in key areas that might be limiting their upward career path or actually causing major conflict within a team.

When it’s done poorly, 360 program creates mistrust, anger, conflict and can leave a team with lower morale than when you started the exercise.

If you fail to implement a successful 360 review program first time round, people will always view it with caution and be reluctant to use it to it’s fullest potential in the future. This in turn can slow down organizational development and success. One seriously failed HR initiative can have a massive impact on other organizational initiatives.

Get Rid of the Performance Review! It destroys morale, kills teamwork and hurts the bottom line.

Performance improvement is each individual's own responsibility. You can only make yourself better. The best you can do for others is to develop a trusting relationship where they can ask for feedback and help when they see the need and feel sufficiently valued to take it. Getting rid of the performance review is a necessary, and affirming, step in that direction.

Under the circumstances, I think the 360 process used before is tainted and you should wait a year or more before re-instituting. But I would not give up on the kind of feedback that a good 360 process can uncover.

To begin the rehab, I would have the top 3 executives go through a 360-like process but with two changes from the norm. First, build a customized set of leadership dimensions or attributes or behaviors -- whatever you want to call them. To build this leadership matrix, involve at least the top two layers of leadership. You can do this in workshop sessions, or surveys or a combination.  I'm betting trust and communication will emerge as very strong values / attributes.

Second, have the 360 performed using an interview process where an outside professional interviews the feedback-givers. He or she would collect ratings data and more important, insights and examples. Confidentiality is of course essential. What the outsider can do is glean context and insights from the interviews, and also intuit where other agenda may be distorting the process.

Finally, it would be important, as an act of trust, to have each leader conduct a debrief with his or her feedback-givers. In this way, everyone can see that the process was constructive and the results are transparent. Such sessions need to include a couple of areas that the leaders are working to develop, perhaps a few ways the colleagues can help, and finally, sincere appreciation for taking the time to participate with valuable insights.

Let me know if you want to discuss further. I have designed 360s for organizations who want a customized leadership blueprint.

First, I would consider what your objectives are in doing a 360-assessment.  While implementing the process correctly can give you excellent feedback about leaders, the real key is what do you intend to do with the results?  If a system is not put into place to use the data in a beneficial way, then the whole exercise will be called into question.  Typically this would involve having people identify key strengths and development needs, have them build and implement professional and personal development plans, and be held accountable for the outcomes.

The larger question though, is about the damage that was created during the last implementation.  I am guessing that there was a serious breach of trust in the organization.  Maintaining strict confidentiality and respect for personal issues should be at a minimum, integral to the process.  Once trust has been violated, it is difficult to get back.  Thus if you haven't addressed these issues head on, there is a high likelihood that responses to a 360 will tainted.  

Before you even consider trying another 360 process, I would look at where the culture stands now, what relationship exists between leaders and employees, and what steps need to be taken to restore trust.  Then consider what part a 360 assessment may play in helping to create an open, honest and transparent workplace where people share feedback as a way of improving individual and organizational performance.  However, until trust is restored,  I would be skeptical about the usefulness of the responses.

The 360 degree feedback process is one of many tools for helping people improve their performance by being more aware of the relationships they have with others in the organization.  As others have stated, the tool is not the problem.  The problem is the way it was used.  As opposed to other less exposing ways to help employees, 360s need quite a bit of ground work with everyone involved so all participants operate with the right intent.

Now that the result of this process has injected new problems into the work environment, you will probably have to suspend the use of the 360 until you are able to convince everyone to adhere to the ground rules.  During this time, you might even explore other evaluation tools to see if there's a better way to help employees understand the impact they have on co-workers, bosses or subordinates.

Employees have to know that feedback is designed to help them become better performers by helping them eliminate behavioral or emotional irritants that get in the way.  If they think these tools are being used in any sort of negative way, the participation rate will deminish. Until you are successful at gaining credibility with everyone, this latest problem may cast a shadow on just about any performance feedback tool you introduce.

I agree. Hold off at least a year using the current 360 degree approach.

However, if you have the capability with an Employee Portal, consider using a quick survey tool, and ask the appropriate level of employees, or ALL employees - to respond to a few questions about what type of PERFORMANCE process makes them most comfortable. Then move forward.

Also consider supplementing any feedback with an INTERNAL social media tool, that allows colleagues to comment on each other's performance - as desired. Similar to twitter, these apps are available for corporations to use. If used properly, they provide immediate feedback - "kudos" and suggestions for improvement - direct to an employee - from his/her peers. Until you begin a more formal Performance mechanism, it might be helpful.


As powerful as a good 360 is I concur you need to wait if that is the type of tool you want to use. What is the true objective of using the 360?

A way to really help develop your people is during their annual review have them develop a goal, something they would like to achieve in the coming year. Review it together and both sign-off on it and then use that as the reason to have quarterly visits to see how they are doing on their goal, their perspective and then yours. Once they see you arr working to help them the trust level will return.

I think you have some work to do on two fronts - you have a trust issue that will need to be repaired, but you also have a decision-making issue that needs some attention.  You seem to have fallen prey to applying solutions when you haven't clearly identified the problem.  I'm guessing that someone had the idea to do 360s without a clear understanding of why, so you went the easy route and found that it did more harm than good.

It is so easy to do that these days; we've all done it. There are solutions everywhere promising astounding results, however unless the solution is exactly the right one to solve the real problem, the outcome is iffy, at best, and could be dangerous.

Recent research in neuroscience tells us that attacks on status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness (David Rock's SCARF model) generate a reaction in our brains that is as powerful and biologically similar to physical pain.  As an organization, everything that gets done gets done through and by people, so why would we ever embark on a process or program without being as sure as we can be that, whatever impact it has on the people, it will also have an outcome in solving a critical business problem.

That said, I would suggest approaching your trust issue as a real business problem, doing good research to understand exactly why it exists - beyond the obvious, because if there weren't already a crack in the organizational relationships, you most likely wouldn't have felt the need to take on 360s. Get to the root cause - is it leadership effectiveness? Does your rhetoric match your actions?  Do your processes align to the culture, and is it the culture you want?

Once you have identified the root cause, you can not only begin the search for the right solution, but you have your measurement indicator that will tell you if the solution solved the problem.

The problem isn’t with the 360 itself it’s with the way it was implemented. The new problem is distrust in the environment, not just around 360 but most likely it has generalized into leadership development.

Over the next year focus on rebuilding trust – provide people an opportunity to air concerns, provide suggestions and ask questions. Really listen to them. Demonstrate changes throughout the system that shows you’re listening and making changes that create a safe and supportive culture. Then institute the 360 on a much smaller scale (initially) with outside consultants who have an easily recognizable reputation for their ethics and professional practices.

It’s good that you brought in a HR professional. This is just one of the fall outs that can happen when you are in fast growth mode making fast decisions and taking less than clear actions without all good intel. As a leadership team, take full responsibility for what happened and be sure to link the new hire of the HR professional to reviewing all existing HR practices, setting clear standards in place and overseeing all professional development. In the same announcement explain the value of the 360 and plant the seed for a future use.

There are three assumptions with 360s that are often flawed.

1. The best way to gain candor is with a witness protection program.

2. When names are disconnected from comments, the feedback recipient will be unable to recognize their source and will be uninterested in responding directly.

3. The feedback will be recognized and perceived by all as an opportunity for professional growth and development

I recommend that you examine these assumptions before moving forward again.  Should you find that these are flawed in your situation, ask yourselves "why?" and consider alternatives.  

Remember, just because you CAN doesn't mean you SHOULD.   Make sure that you are addressing your underlying challenges and not just symptoms.

For more, read:

When done well, 360-degree feedback can be effective as a form of feedback because it is considered to produce less defensiveness on the part of the focal person because frequent suggestions from surrounding parties might be more accepted. However, the feedback has to be genuine and trustworthy.

On the other hand, such feedback can also undermine open communication within the company because its effectiveness is based on confidentiality. Ironically, it may thereupon dampen a more engaging dialogue between the parties whereby people might learn to share some of their concerns openly. The ensuing conversation may include an inquiry about others' hopes and feelings leading to a more mutual solution to the problems at hand.