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July 2, 2014

360-Degree Feedback: How to Avoid Failure With This Method

One of the most popular approaches that companies use to increase employee engagement is a 360-degree feedback program. The idea is that instead of just getting feedback from your direct manager, you get feedback from every direction. This includes a person’s manager, their peers, and for managers, the people who report to them, too. The goal is to provide additional feedback that will let both employees and managers improve, based on feedback they would not normally hear.

These 360-degree programs are so popular they have been joked about in Dilbert cartoons. Unfortunately, these employee engagement efforts often fail, backfiring and creating conflict and mistrust rather than their intended results. Here are some common reasons these programs fail.

Vague questions

At some companies, the questions for the 360-degree program seem more like a personality test, than something that actually talks about employee performance. It’s less threatening for people to fill out a questionnaire like this, but it can’t really lead to any actionable feedback or employee improvement. 360-degree feedback questionnaires should be strictly focused on matters related to the company and its employees. Make the test anonymous, and leave room for employees to express their thoughts, too. At the end of the survey ask them to write three suggestions to make the work environment more pleasant. You’ll be surprised with the answers.

Personal comments

Some 360-degree programs go awry because people use this forum to make negative personal remarks, rather than keeping things professional and businesslike. When somebody gets these comments, they may be upset and angry about it. Unlike management, staff employees have not been trained in providing performance feedback, so it is important to tell everyone what is expected beforehand.

Leaders don’t participate

If the CEO and other top management do not participate in the process themselves, it sends a clear signal to everybody down the line that they do not view this as important, useful, or valuable. If they don’t take it seriously, then other people won’t either. Business owners should get more involved in the process. They should encourage employees to be honest when filling out an employee engagement survey.

Emphasizing weaknesses over strengths

A key reason for doing this review is to uncover areas for improvement, but it is important to keep it balanced, and recognize employees’ strengths as well as their weaknesses. If the reviews are overly negative, then you will not have a good reaction about the process from employees. Be sure to include some praise for strengths, too.

Feedback is never acted upon

All of the feedback in the world is not going to help if there’s no action plan created as a result. The only way to get useful results from a 360-degree feedback is to create an action plan for every employee that incorporates the results of their review. Many companies don’t even use the feedback resulted from 360-degree feedback surveys. If the changes required are substantial and they’re not willing to do something, the evaluation becomes useless.

No periodic follow-ups

At some companies, an action plan is created with the results of the 360-degree review, but then there is no follow up after that. Creating a plan is one step of the process. After that, you need multiple follow-ups to see how things are going, and what progress is being made.  Ideally, this should happen at least quarterly.

Lack of confidentiality

When employees are asked to provide feedback on their managers, many of them are concerned about confidentiality. They are worried that any negative comments they make could be read by the manager, who might hold it against them when it’s time for their own performance review. You need a solid plan for ensuring confidentiality, and you need to communicate it to employees. The only way companies can persuade employees to be honest when filling out an engagement survey is to make the questionnaires anonymous.

360-degree feedback programs fail because companies don’t know how to retain employees. Forcing them to answer 30 questions after their shift is not a really smart way of boosting company productivity.  These surveys should have a maximum number of 15 short questions. It’s equally important for a business to have a competent HR department to assess company problems, provide solutions, and increase output.


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William Taylor is the writer of this article. He is a regular contributor to many sites and mainly focuses on business-related topics like small businesses, entrepreneurship, negotiation, leadership, employee retention, etc. He loves to read books and play with his pet in his spare time.

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