323 — Managing 360° Feedback — The Cultural Approach

People can only do their best when they know where they stand with their work group. Honest interpersonal feedback tells people what’s really going on.

Two Areas to Improve Feedback

Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. It’s the situation that mostly tells people what to do. While people never have all the information about the immediate situation or problem, you can do a lot to help people make better decisions. This background or contextual information about problem situations covers two general areas:

    1. Interpersonal Relationships — how people are experienced by others, and the effect they have on others and on other departments.
    2. Operational Areas — information on new products, strategies, customers, politics, other departments, company-wide initiatives, finances.

This article looks at the first area, Interpersonal Relationships.

People Don’t Always Know What’s Going On

Most people try to do the right thing, fitting into situations as best they can. But they can’t properly fit in to what they don’t know. Work situations are mostly filled with directives from above, requests from below, customer orders, new products and sales initiatives, inter-departmental requests, and the usual steady stream of incoming problems. This information is not calibrated and finely tuned. It is usually messy. To complicate things, people add their personal filters, politics and needs.

Despite this ordinary chaos, work situations are fortunately kept on track through constant feedback from systems and people. Unfortunately at the interpersonal level, this feedback is often unreliable. Work associates may be reluctant to say what they truly think, or discuss how they experience others, or the effects people have on them or their work groups. When a person responds, even with the best intentions, to this incomplete information, his or her actions often miss the mark. How can we properly respond to what we don’t know?

To improve this, some companies use a formal process that gives people more candid, accurate and constructive information about how others experience them. With better information, people do a better job. They also improve their chances of achieving their personal career goals.

What Makes Good Feedback?

A good feedback process assumes that people are always trying to do the right thing, but don’t always have accurate information about their situation. This is the cultural or systems view. It is different from traditional employee evaluations that assume a person has a problem and should be told how to correct his or her behavior. That is an inaccurate and unscientific view of a person. Unlike equipment, a person does not have broken parts that need repair.

The best feedback process gives each person in the team more accurate information about his or her work situation — in this case from close work associates. Ideally the feedback also builds team support for each person and strengthens team relationships. Here’s one method we have used with great success in many companies. Plan to set aside a couple of hours for this exercise. Explain to people ahead of time what will happen.

The Formal Feedback Process

    1. Gather together as many of the work team as you can — ideally 6 to 12 people. The first time you try this you might include only the immediate work team — not inviting clients, subordinates, upper-level managers, customers, or people from other departments. Invite these “outsiders” to a future session after the team members are more comfortable using the feedback process.
    2.  Ask each person to take ten minutes and write on his or her individual notepad two things about each other person in the room:
      • What one thing does that person do that you really like, that helps you and your team do its job well? This is something you want that person to keep doing.
      • What one thing would you like that person to do that would help you and your team do even better? This might be something the person does now and you would like more of it, or it might be something quite new.
    3. When they finish, invite one person to stand at an easel pad or board. This person will be receiving feedback about themselves from each person in the room. One-at-a-time, everyone in the room now gives that person their answer to the first question for that person. The person writes just what they say — no abbreviations, no comments. Then everyone in the room gives the person their answers to the second question. Again the standing person writes what they say on the flip chart, with no comments from anyone.
    4. When the standing person has finished writing what everyone said, he or she is invited to comment on what they have written, i.e. what he or she heard from the group, or anything it suggests to them. He or she might ask a clarifying question, but not get into a discussion. No one else talks at this point. Then the person sits down.
    5.  Have each person in the group do this. No one should be left out. If the person is in the room they get feedback — including the most senior manager (but not an external facilitator, if one is used).

Do a Plus Delta on the meeting. This might take some time and should not discuss specific individual comments.

Results

When people have a more accurate picture of their situation they make better decisions so performance improves. The change is usually immediate and significant. This process also builds teamwork so cooperation across departments also improves, often dramatically.

You might repeat this “360 degree” feedback process every three or six months. Though uncomfortable at first, everyone soon feels more at ease giving and receiving feedback. Then they can expand the group to include subordinates, upper-level managers, customers, or people from other departments.

cc 323 — by Barry R. Phegan, Ph.D.

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