Why 360 Reviews Seldom Work

imageFor those of you unfamiliar with the term “360 Review” let me explain. A 360 review is a tool that companies use to evaluate their employees at various levels of the organization. A mid-level manager for instance will be provided feedback from their own direct reports, from colleagues at a similar level within the organization and from their direct supervisor. They may or may not receive feedback from others higher within the organization as well.

The idea is to get a well rounded “picture” of the person from different levels of the organization. A person who interacts well with people above them in an organization may be a horrible boss to those below them. That’s why a review from just one part of an organization provides an incomplete view. You need feedback from all around an organization, hence the term “360.”

Once this complete picture is developed the individual being reviewed should have a good idea of their strengths and weaknesses, other people’s perception of them, and a good understanding of where their developmental opportunities are.

The key words in that previous sentence are “should have.” The concept of 360 reviews is great, the execution seldom is. In fact, the execution of these types of reviews is almost always lacking. They nearly always fail to accomplish the intended objective. 

They fail for two primary reasons. First, many people will not provide honest, open, and sincere feedback. While nearly every company claims that the feedback is anonymous it too often isn’t. Either the person being reviewed figures out where the feedback came from by what was written or the review is so bad that the Human Relations Department gets involved and inadvertently “exposes” the reviewers. 

When word gets around that one person’s feedback wasn’t in fact anonymous then it is assumed that nobody’s feedback is anonymous. From that point forward all 360 feedback is tainted… and far less valuable. 

In a very unscientific survey I asked about 30 people from a dozen or so companies if they believed the 360 review process was truly anonymous in their organization. The answers ranged from “they hope so” to “absolutely not.” Not one could say with certainty that their name wouldn’t eventually be attached to the feedback they provided. Not one said they would provide completely open and honest feedback either.

The other primary reason 360 reviews fail is that way too often the person being reviewed has no real interest in getting better. They claim to want to get better and are even willing to get better so long as they don’t actually have to change any of their behaviors. Unfortunately getting better means something must change and if it is you who needs to get better then you MUST accept some change in your life.

Thankfully there are some people who really do want to improve themselves and they will use what they can from the feedback to actually try to improve. But in an environment where the quality of the feedback is suspect even they will take it with a rather large grain of salt.

All change is hard but personal change is the hardest of all. When the change is driven by perceived negative feedback it can be nearly impossible to change. That’s why feedback from a 360 review so seldom leads to real change; the person being reviewed too often perceives even well-intended comments on improvement opportunities to be negative feedback. 

There are certainly other issues with the 360 review process but those are the big ones. Once broken the 360 review process can be nearly impossible to fix.

Just so we’re clear, I am most certainly NOT an HR professional. I can’t say with certainty that there are better developmental tools available than the 360 review. I just know that without a doubt that there needs to be. 

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