Using structured feedback from others to help managers develop

In this short article we will talk about why we use feedback tools for structured feedback and how they should be used.

Why feedback tools?
Most people these days are familiar with 360° degree feedback tools or instruments where a person’s manager, peers/colleagues, subordinates and maybe even internal or external customers provide feedback on their perceptions of the person’s behavior against a standard set of behavior or skill descriptors. But why do we use them?

Self-Awareness.  We have different levels of awareness of our behaviour and its impact on others. We have different levels of conscious awareness of what is driving our behavior. So it can be very valuable to have feedback which helps us to reflect on and question our own behavior, it’s impact and our drivers for behaving these ways. Greater self-awareness enables us to have greater conscious choice over how we want to behave and impact others.

The beauty of 360° or 180° feedback instruments is that they provide us with a rich vein of feedback in a relatively neutral and objective form that we may not otherwise receive. In the ideal world every person will be getting regular objective feedback from their manager, colleagues and subordinates. But sadly this flow either never happens or is interrupted by work priorities, fear of causing upset or hurt, distance or some other factor. A structured instrument provides a vehicle for gathering feedback and channeling it to the individual.

Objective Feedback.  One of the difficulties of feedback from one other person whether it is a boss or a colleague is that it can often be subjective and reflects the particular interests of that person. So we are unsure how much weight to give it and maybe wondering if there is an ulterior motive for the feedback. The advantage of a 360° instrument is that it is bringing together the opinions and  perceptions of a group of people around the person and therefore it has the power of being more objective than single individual opinions. But be careful because it is not a scientific instrument and it is gathering perceptions. And while we like to think it is objective it also needs to be taken and reflected on carefully in order to extract the gems of feedback that help us draw conclusions and develop.    

How to use them?
Any feedback tool is typically gathering quite sensitive information about an individual. So there are some ethical considerations that are important in applying these tools.

Ownership. Who will see the report? Is it for the individual alone or is he or she mandated to share it with their boss? I have come across many different opinions and behaviour on this point of confidentiality. For some organisations the report is the property of the individual and confidential to him or her. The contents are for increasing personal self-awareness and only for sharing at the discretion of the individual. For other companies the report is a piece of information that is important for the company and should be available to the manager and/or recorded on the HR information systems. The latter in particular where the 360° feedback forms part of an annual assessment process.

Either approach is okay provided that all participants are clear on the way the report will be processed and handled from the outset. The purpose and way the system will operate needs to be clear for all from the beginning. Then there are no surprises.

Respondent Group Selection. Another factor that crops up is who decides on who is invited to give feedback. Most organisations leave this to the discretion of the individual person to decide who around him or her to ask for feedback. Although some organisations may  have concerns that the person invites friends and people who are likely to give unchallenging and watered-down feedback. To guard against this and ensure that the process is used properly – (in other words give as objective feedback as possible so that I can assess my strengths and identify things I may need to do differently) – the individuals must be fully and carefully briefed on the purpose so they see the benefits and importance of different perspectives and potentially challenging feedback. Managers interfering in the choice of respondents  can undermine the benefits of the process and disable it from achieving its objectives.    

Maturity.  A key point to keep in mind when deciding to use a 360° process is what is the maturity of the relevant populations in giving objective feedback and are there any cultural factors that come into play.  If the organisation is not used to having objective feedback processes or applying 360° processes  you may find that some counterproductive behaviour goes on.  One typical example I have witnessed in a number of cases is that the chance to give feedback through a 360° process is used to attack or denigrate the person receiving the feedback. It is the chance to get back at the person for perceived past injustices. Alternatively another behavior to watch out for in an immature feedback environment is that the respondent rates the person as perfect on everything. This latter behavior I have also witnessed from some country populations especially when the population is in a subsidiary country and not the headquarter country.

De-briefing. Critical to the success of the 360° process is that there is a well-managed process for providing the feedback to the individuals. It is important that the individual receives guidance on how to interpret and use the feedback. We always recommend that before a person concludes and acts on the feedback he or she validates it by having discussions on what he or she is concluding and planning with trusted others who know them well on the job.

PPI Toolbox you can tap into
At PPI we have developed a range of 360° tools. Some we have developed for specific leadership programs to provide feedback on specific the specific leadership behaviour expected in the specific client organisation. Some we have developed to provide feedback on specific skill sets such as coaching or internal consulting.

Read more in PPI and 360° instrument validity and Objective Feedback - 360° and 180° Tools.

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About the Author

Gerry Buckley

Gerry Buckley

Gerry Buckley is a Managing Partner of Performance Plus International (PPI) and a founding member of the PPI Network. He has a depth of experience in management development and training built up over many years, initially in Ireland, then in Africa and for the last 25 years in Europe based in Belgium.