As technology continues to increase connections within the workplace, more and more organizations are embracing tools that allow them to provide better insights into the workplace. One of the most popular practices is multi-source feedback that gathers information from a diverse range of voices within an organization. Also known as 360 degree feedback, this methodology is a valuable tool for modern employee development.

What is 360 Degree Feedback?

As the name suggests, 360 degree feedback provides a comprehensive view of an employee’s behaviors based on the perspectives of peers, direct reports, and supervisors. This multifaceted picture helps employees to see how their actions and work habits are regarded by others. The overall goal of 360 feedback is to provide clear examples of strengths as well as insights into which areas need additional development.

Since the feedback is coming from multiple sources, it’s easier to identify trends and habits over time. Dismissing unpleasant feedback from a single person is much easier than waving aside concerns raised by several people. Since the people providing feedback interact with the employee on a regular basis, their comments are based on behaviors they actually see and experience first hand.

What 360 Degree Feedback is Not

Although 360 feedback focuses on performance, it is not a scoring system that judges performance quantitatively. While it can incorporate some kind of rating to measure the extent to which certain behaviors are being used, the process is focused on also providing a qualitative perspective. Simply sending out a survey that asks respondents to rate performance or select predetermined options that describe their colleagues cannot be considered high quality 360 feedback.

On the other hand, 360 feedback is not a free response exercise that allows respondents to simply talk about whatever they like. Since the goal of this feedback is to provide guidance for future development, every question must be carefully formulated to address very specific issues and behaviors.

Organizations therefore need to be very careful about how they implement 360 feedback. While it can generate valuable information that can improve employee development, there are a number of pitfalls that can easily undermine the process. Since poorly designed 360 feedback can cause long term damage to organizational culture and morale, it’s worth taking a look at a few of these pitfalls and address how they can be avoided.

Pitfall #1: Unclear Purpose

Poor communication inevitably leads to problems. In the case of 360 feedback, if the people providing that feedback are not entirely clear on why they’re being asked to give it or how they’re supposed to give it, the resulting data will be inconsistent at best. The feedback process often requires an investment of time, so many employees might not even bother to complete it if they don’t see the value of doing so.

Ideally, leadership should indicate what it hopes to accomplish by soliciting feedback. Perhaps there are specific issues or behaviors that need to be addressed or additional information is needed to refine employee development programs. Whatever the end goal, employees should understand why providing feedback is a worthwhile investment of their time and effort.

This pitfall is best avoided by taking the time to explain why 360 feedback is being implemented before the process actually begins. By setting expectations and showing how everyone can benefit from the resulting information, organizations can secure employee buy-in from the onset. After the process is underway, regular communication that reinforces the value of feedback can serve to remind everyone of the goals it was designed to achieve.

Pitfall #2: Lack of Follow-Up

Although 360 feedback produces a great deal of information, all of it will go to waste without effective follow-up. Many organizations spend a great deal of time and energy accumulating data on performance, but then fail to present it in such a way that can lead to productive change. Simply making 360 feedback information available to employees who want to review it isn’t enough. The results need to be presented in dedicated meetings that go over the results and explore potential solutions for areas that need development.

After an initial review, additional follow-ups are required to assess how much progress is being made towards achieving behavior-related goals. These meetings provide an opportunity for valuable two-way communication, allowing employees to seek clarification and guidance as well as highlight areas of improvement and ongoing concerns. Taking active steps to develop these recommended plans of action based on 360 feedback will ensure that organizations are getting the most out of the process.

Pitfall #3: No Confidentiality

The nature of 360 feedback can put respondents in an awkward position. If they don’t know whether or not their feedback will remain confidential, they may not answer questions honestly. This can be especially difficult when providing feedback about supervisors because people may fear some kind of reprisal if they make negative comments. The fear of generating bad will and conflict among colleagues is a powerful motivator that can distort the comprehensive picture that 360 feedback aims to provide.

To address this problem, organizations need to be extremely clear how confidentiality and anonymity will be protected and who, if anyone in addition to the recipient, will see the results. These decisions need to be applied uniformly, leaving as little up to the respondents as possible. Simply providing the option to remain anonymous, for example, places too much pressure on respondents. They should be thinking about how to provide the most honest and accurate feedback, not worrying about how many of their colleagues chose make their comments public.

Pitfall #4: Tying Feedback to Performance Appraisal

While it’s certainly possible to incorporate 360 feedback into performance appraisal, doing so without significant forethought could potentially be disastrous. When employees know that their responses could make a difference between a colleague getting an promotion or a raise, they may not provide the most honest feedback even if they know it will be confidential.

Focusing too much on the results of 360 feedback for appraisal can create a distorted picture of performance. In many cases, people providing feedback on colleagues are not in a position to fairly or accurately evaluate how effectively they do their job. Whether this is due to a lack of expertise, experience, or information, allowing these responses to affect performance evaluations is potentially unfair and counterproductive.

If an organization decides to incorporate 360 feedback into its appraisal process, it must be very careful to define what role it will play. Ideally, 360 feedback should provide developmental information to an employee, not be used as a performance metric. Used in combination with a performance appraisal system, 360 feedback can offer a more well-rounded picture of how an employee might change behaviors that affect performance.

While 360 feedback is a powerful tool, organizations must be very deliberate in how they go about implementing it. There are many potential pitfalls in the process that can undermine the overall goals of soliciting feedback in the first place. By being aware of these problem areas and taking active steps to account for them, organizations can ensure that they’re getting the most out of this valuable approach to feedback.