360 degree feedback, do we rely too much on artificial openness?

I’ve lost count of how many 360-degree feedback reports I have debriefed, it must be several hundred. In 2012 alone I provided feedback to 70 people from one organisation, but I’m increasingly concerned about the need to hide behind anonymity. What are the implications to organisational culture of the over reliance on 360s?

These thoughts were highlighted while facilitating a workshop for MBA students who were offered a 360 by the business school as part of their development. Free from their workplace, a number of the students shared their experiences of 360s they had undertaken with their employing organisation.

Rendered Concept of a 360 degree feedback.

The anonymity of 360s provides freedom to be open and direct. The confidential nature of the feedback and the free flow comments included in the 360 report, enables people to say things that they would not normally say and overcomes the reluctance to provide feedback face-to-face. This may be for a number of reasons:

  • Fear of entering the zone of uncomfortable debate.
  • Fear of damaging a relationship.
  • Fear of a defensive response.
  • Fear of reprisals and career limiting retaliation, etc.

The 360 process attempts to overcome these fears. People can assess their boss, give them a score and add a comment, knowing that anonymity provides a safeguard. This is a strength. But is this an overplayed strength that actually becomes a liability? Do we rely too much on 360s and the creation of artificial openness?

The MBA students I spoke to at the recent workshop mentioned annual 360 assessments undertaken within their organisations. Some of the students felt that feedback was stored up until ‘360 time’. Instead of enabling openness and the flow of feedback, the 360 created a barrier and a time lag.

Also, I remember a very tricky 360 report that I debriefed that provided some very low assessment scores, accompanied by negative and even insulting comments. This was a complete surprise to the person receiving the feedback. I hear about examples of cyber bullying on social networking sites, and this 360 experience seems similar to cyber bullying, as the bullies experienced freedom and increased power through anonymity at the expense of another person.

360s are now widespread, and I wonder what the growth in popularity says about the nature of organisational culture. One hypothesis is that some organisations do not have cultures that support open and honest face-to-face discussions needed to provide feedback on performance and behaviours. This void has been plugged by 360s. However, this may be papering over the cracks and not addressing the elephant in the room.

I wonder if the use of 360s would not be so widespread if organisations more readily enabled people to speak their truth, and to see feedback as a gift. This would certainly reduce the fears associated with open communication. Also, what if organisations valued more the balance of support and challenge and so constructive debate and positive tension is used as a resource to create awareness and as a catalyst for change?

This is not an attack on 360s; I value the process, but this is recognition that in isolation they are not a panacea. This is simply a comment on the fast pace working environments we operate in, and the need to find quick fixes, which has been done by 360s. But maybe our attention is focused in the wrong place. Let’s move our focus away from the process of 360s and switch to face-to-face dialogue. Investing in creating the conditions and up-skilling people to provide high quality feedback in the moment every day, is a better investment to create sustained individual and organisational change.

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