Implementing a 360 Degree Feedback Program

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

Recently two different clients came to their coaching calls upset. They worked for very different organizations, but both had received the results of feedback surveys without any support or private debriefing session. Both were discouraged. They shared their reports with me and asked for help.

A Client That Saw the Glass Half Empty
One client’s report actually indicated a lot of improvement and some very good results in developing teamwork in his group. However, he focused in on the responses to questions that called for negative information, such as frustrations on the job.

He seemed to disregard the responses to the question “What is working well in your group?” He also failed to notice that when asked the neutral question “Is there anything else you would like to share?” quite a few respondents volunteered comments like “I love my job,” “This is a wonderful place to work,” and “They are doing a great job and it’s appreciated.”

With that client, I simply read out loud about half of the positive comments in the survey. As he listened, he began to relax, and realized that perhaps he should review the responses again, with a different focus.

A Client Who Didn’t Know What to Do
The other client received some pretty consistent feedback indicating that she had some issues to work on. She knew she had challenges with a couple of “difficult” employees, but the consistency of responses gave her a wake up call. She began to consider that she might play a larger role in the problems than she realized.

This client felt discouraged because she just didn’t know how to improve the situation, especially in so many different areas. As a very conscientious employee, she had already been doing the best she knew how.

I pointed out to her three skills that we could work on together. I shared my reasoned opinion that, as she mastered those three skills, most of the other areas for improvement would naturally resolve themselves because they were related. The work ahead still daunts her, but she regained hope as we discussed a plan.

These two stories illustrate some of the risks involved in conducting a feedback survey without adequate advance preparation or post-results support for the participants.

Guidelines for Successful 360 Degree Feedback
Here are some guidelines for instituting a successful feedback program.

1. Explain the purpose of the survey in advance, and provide opportunities for questions and reassurances. A couple of appropriate purposes might be (i) to identify individual strengths to capitalize on and individual areas for further development, and (ii) to identify subject areas that warrant additional firm training.
2. To minimize participant anxiety and maximize cooperation, avoid administering the survey near performance review or bonus time or during predictable periods of high workload.
3. Design the survey to measure the important competencies and behaviors that lead to the achievement of the firm’s goals. Research-based surveys are already commercially available to measure certain competencies, such as the behaviors that result in effective leadership. Multiple choice questions are easiest to score, but include a few open-ended questions, as well. They allow raters to give specific examples or raise issues not otherwise addressed.
4. Tying survey results directly to compensation or other rewards can “put teeth into” the firm’s initiative on improving leadership, management, mentorship, communication or other “soft skills.” Such efforts can backfire in the highly competitive environment of a law firm, however. Supervisors may subtly (or not so subtly) pressure subordinates to give good reviews, or friends may collude to rate each other highly. When the firm frames the process as a self-development tool only, it may encourage more candid feedback.
5. Implement mechanisms to assure that the feedback benefits the participants as a professional development tool. Give careful thought to who should have access to the results. Widespread results sharing could cause embarrassment and defensiveness, which would hinder development efforts. For maximum safety for participants, the responses could be gathered confidentially by an external provider, with each participant seeing only his own report. For mid-level security, the responses might be shared only with the human resources professional or practice group leader, and the respective individual recipient.
6. Help the participant recognize and understand differences between his self-perception (based on his self-rating in the survey) and the perceptions of others. Also provide benchmarking data, such as the average score for all other participants in the survey, or national averages for this industry.
7. Repeat the process (perhaps six months or one year later) after implementing training or other development programs. This gives the participants the opportunity to demonstrate progress. This is especially important for those who were disappointed by their first round results.
8. Don’t just focus on negative results. Capitalize on the strengths revealed in the survey by assigning important duties to those who exhibit capability in that arena, rather than on the basis of seniority, revenues produced, or other measures not specifically tied to the necessary competencies.

Examples of Survey Questions
If you have never participated in a 360 degree feedback survey, you may be wondering what kind of questions are involved. Typically the survey will describe a behavior or competency (or group of competencies), then allow the rater to rate how frequently the subject engages in the described behavior (never, seldom, frequently, always) or how accurately the trait describes the subject (strongly disagree, slightly disagree, slightly agree, strongly agree).

Here are a few sample measurement questions gleaned from different surveys:

1. Keeps focus on fixing problems rather than finding someone to blame
2. Places a premium on collaboration, cooperation, and contributing to other’s success
3. Considers the impact of actions and decisions on others before implementing
4. Actions and behaviors are consistent with words
5. Deals on a timely basis with issues that need to be addressed
6. Encourages open and candid expression of ideas and opinions
7. Is flexible in dealing with changing or new circumstances
8. Effectively uses available technology to increase efficiency
9. Analyzes data to determine the root causes of work process and procedure problems
10. Clearly communicates critical job task expectations and measurement standards

Would 360 Degree Feedback Benefit Your Firm?
Do the above rating statements describe behaviors that would improve the productivity and morale of your firm? Would it be valuable for people in your firm to see how their behavior is perceived by others on such standards? If so, a 360 degree feedback survey may be useful for your firm. If, however, members of management and other leaders do not acknowledge the feedback they receive, and take some public steps to improve on any poor scores, the survey may cause more problems than it solves. Don’t ask unless you are prepared to listen!

© 2008 Debra Bruce


2 Responses to “Implementing a 360 Degree Feedback Program”

  1. CK on May 27th, 2011 12:43 pm

    Do you know of a good 360 that is customized for lawyers who are Senior Leaders ?

  2. Debra L. Bruce on May 30th, 2011 12:53 pm

    I’m not aware of a 360 instrument customized for lawyers. Unfortunately, I have not seen 360’s used all that widely in law firms. There are a number of companies that develop customized 360s, however, based on the competencies that the organization wants to measure and encourage.

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