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Responding to 360 Degree Feedback

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We all need feedback and we need better feedback more frequently – who could argue with that? But what do we do with the feedback we get?  And how can we as managers and leaders create a better culture and environment where our people can get more benefit from their feedback?

In another great article from HBR, Sheila Heen and Debbie Goldstein provide some very useful tips for individuals who are faced with unexpected feedback.

The advice is to take time to reflect on the feedback, get more specific information from the feedback giver so that you can understand the context better, and ask for further feedback to get perspective. The writers also advise getting feedback for the future (Marshall Goldsmith calls this ‘feed-forward’), with specific actions to take, or to avoid, in order to make a positive change based on that feedback.

But the advice reminded me of some key observations and best practice that I have made over many years of working in the area of feedback, in particular, multi-level or 360 Degree Feedback.  360 Degree Feedback is particularly valuable when you are building a consistent set of skills or behaviours across a group, or in an organisation, and the HBR advice applies equally when you are using 360.

Reflection

The HBR article advises the person who’s had some unexpected, or negative feedback to first ‘do nothing’.  This is because our immediate reaction will be to reject or dismiss the feedback; it’s a natural response, particularly where it relates to our ‘blind spots’.

Therefore as a manager working with a person who has had feedback they don’t recognise or agree with, it’s really important, you give them time to reflect and take it in.  And giving people time to reflect is one of the most difficult things a manager can do – everyone is under pressure to deliver and achieve. So making time to sit with the person, work through their feedback report, if it’s a 360 feedback, and help them to understand the overall message of the feedback, is really critical.

Specific, context-rich feedback

The writers in HBR talk about how feedback is often phrased in a vague, generic way, for instance ‘Be more creative’, or ‘Needs to communicate better’.  The person getting the feedback won’t know what the actions or behaviour were that prompted this feedback, so they need to get more information, by asking for examples and specific instances.

In 360 degree feedback, the equivalent is asking colleagues to rate and provide feedback on vague and very subjective questions, like ‘Is a good communicator’ or ‘needs to be more extrovert’.

We have found that the more specific you can make your 360 Degree Feedback questions, the more the person getting the feedback can understand and therefore use their feedback to improve and develop.  We recommend using simple sentences with just one action or behaviour, that can be easily observed and therefore understood, by the person giving the feedback, and the person receiving it. So instead of asking if someone is a poor, effective or brilliant communicator, break down the communication into specific skills, such as ‘Gives constructive feedback’, ‘Asks colleagues for feedback’, and ‘Responds positively to feedback’.

Is there anything valuable in the feedback?

This goes back to reflection.  The article advises that the individual searches for some nugget of truth, and this is an area where a manager can really help that person develop.

When using 360, I advise clients to look for key, consistent messages coming from groups of colleagues, and where there is a consistency of message, these are the areas to concentrate on – this includes strengths and positive messages, as well as feedback on development areas.  I always issue a ‘health warning’ about outlying ratings or single rater comments that are not backed up by the data, or by other raters.  However, a good conversation about the feedback can also include a consideration of outliers, as there may be some truth behind them too, but these must be balanced against the consistent messages.

‘Feed-forward’

There’s a big benefit in including a ‘feed-forward’ element in any 360 feedback exercise, as this gives the person receiving the feedback an opportunity to use their identified strengths, put some development actions in place, and look forward with a hopefully positive view.

Including summaries like ‘Start, Stop and Continue’ within a 360 is a great idea: colleagues have the opportunity to identify very specific actions to start and continue doing (i.e. a positive view), giving the feedback receiver context rich actions to put in place.

So by providing a feedback mechanism that helps feedback-givers to be more specific about their feedback, and giving feedback-receivers space to reflect and discuss their feedback, the 360 tool is a great way to help people respond and act positively to suggestions and observations from their colleagues.

 

HBR: Responding to 360 Degree Feedback You Disagree With. Sheila Heen and Debbie Goldstein