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By Jack Zenger & Joseph Folkman
Too many companies don’t take the 360-degree feedback process seriously enough. Often it goes like this: After shopping around and deciding on a 360-degree feedback instrument, talent professionals administer it to the colleagues of the leader who is being evaluated.
After aggregating the data, those same professionals send a summary report to the leader, who reads through it with some interest and puts it away. Sometimes, the review is never discussed again.
The outcome? Little, if anything, changes. The mindset of the leaders who receive the feedback report isn’t altered. In most cases, the process doesn’t do any damage, but it’s a missed opportunity—for both the leader and the company.
Organizations that take the process more seriously get much better results, of course. The 360-degree feedback instrument itself may be exactly the same, but the way it’s administered is completely different. This approach stands in contrast to what we’ve described above—and it is what we strongly recommend.
Here are some of the key differences:
- The leader helps choose who among his colleagues should respond to the survey;
- The leader personally communicates with those respondents, asking them to provide their candid observations;
- The report is presented to the leader, either in a group setting or in a one-on-one coaching conversation;
- The leader is provided with context and guidance to help understand the data;
- The leader also receives a customized set of developmental recommendations to help him create a personal development plan;
- There is follow-up from the talent professionals to ensure accountability.
There are many reasons to follow a process that looks more like this one. In our 30 combined years of helping organizations and leaders implement 360-degree feedback instruments, we’ve seen the following benefits of using this process.
People with little self-awareness are often puzzled by the behavior of others toward them. They might wonder, “Why do people nw ot include me in their casual conversations?” or “Why was I not chosen to lead this project?” When a 360-assessment is carried out as described above, the leader is able to compare his self-ratings to the ratings from others. Having ratings from multiple people provides greater evidence that this is much more than just one person’s opinion. Combined with accountability, this evidence serves as a strong impetus to change.
Reiteration of important messages
Leaders who go through a serious 360-degree feedback process will often reflect on a comment or piece of feedback and say something to the effect of, “I’ve heard that before. My partner has told me that, but I didn’t think it was that important.” But when a dozen or more people collectively observe that the leader isn’t a good listener, for example, the message is louder and clearer. The 360-degree feedback process underscores the seriousness and credibility of the feedback. The anonymity of the process, meanwhile, results in far greater honesty and candor.
Increased likelihood of change
Improving your leadership effectiveness requires behavioral change. A 360-feedback process, when done right, greatly increases the chances that change will occur. When a leader finds out that others don’t see him as he intends to or wants to be seen, he has a simple choice. Either he redefines how he sees himself, or he changes his behavior. For example, if others tell me that I’m rigid and don’t listen to a different viewpoint, the next time I’m in a discussion about a controversial topic, I’m more inclined to catch myself and listen. And if I continue to argue and hold tight to my views, I’ll be faced with the realization that the others’ perceptions of me were correct.
There’s also an increased likelihood of change if several leaders go through this process together. Social reinforcement makes it easier for everyone involved to be more receptive to new ideas and feedback. This is the same reason that working with a coach can help a leader to change; the coach holds the leader accountable for his commitments to change his behavior, and follows up to see if he did.
Links between business outcomes and leadership behavior
Another motivation for leaders to change their behavior is seeing the impact on measurable outcomes, such as employee engagement and effort. When people understand that altering the way they lead can result in better performance, they’re much more likely to follow through.
For example, the best 360-degree feedback assessments measure the current level of engagement and commitment of the leader’s direct reports. When the connection between one’s behavior and an important metric like engagement is made visible, leaders can better comprehend the consequences of their actions.
Performance improvement beyond a single leader
When leaders improve their effectiveness, it doesn’t just benefit them or their direct reports. Other people throughout the organization benefit, too. We’ve seen that as one leader improves, others are motivated to do the same, creating a ripple effect that lasts over time.
In fact, all levels of leadership in an organization are influenced by the collective capability of the top team. We’ve seen in our research that if the top team scores just above average in overall leadership effectiveness, each successive layer below them will have lower scores. In contrast, if the top team has aggregate scores at the 80th percentile, it creates an “updraft” in the organization, and scores are higher at every level. This, of course, means that investing in leadership development at the top can pay big dividends. What better influence can a senior team have on a company than to make clear that members of the top team are collectively working on becoming more effective in their roles?
Companies have continued to use the 360-degree process through the years because it works. But for it to have the outcomes we’ve outlined above, it has to be implemented in a way that engages individuals in the process so they are compelled and motivated to become better leaders. When leaders learn through feedback that others’ perceptions of them are different from their own, identify a weakness to fix or a strength to build, or understand how their leadership is affecting the productivity and engagement of their direct reports, they can use—and act on—that information, improving themselves and the company in the process.
Jack Zenger is CEO of Zenger/Folkman, where Joseph Folkman is president.