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360 Degree Feedback Surveys: The Most Important Things to Know

360 Degree Feedback Surveys: The Most Important Things to Know

While 360 degree feedback surveys have increased in popularity over the past few years, they are not a new development. In fact, the origins of a multi-rater survey go back more than 60 years. As early as the 1950s, organizations explored the idea of soliciting feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of managers and leaders from employees and others who interacted with them in the work context. It wasn’t until the 1990s — when new technology made it easier to collect, sort, and aggregate data — that the use of 360 degree surveys gained wider use.

Although 360 degree surveys have been adopted more widely in the past 25 years, there is still debate about how the data generated from them should be used. Originally conceived as a solution for developmental purposes, some organizations have begun using them for decision-making purposes as well.

In this post, we’ll examine the advantages of 360 degree surveys, the criteria for developing an effective survey process, and some of the pitfalls that can impact their effectiveness.

Advantages of 360 Degree Feedback Surveys

At its best, a 360 survey is one of the strongest methods for helping people improve and develop as professionals and leaders. Here are just a few ways 360 surveys can impact employees and their organizations. 

Provides Detailed Information about Strengths and Development Needs

The multi-rater input is an opportunity for the subject to get feedback from all the constituencies with whom an individual works. The data provided by 360 surveys is very powerful because it represents multiple perspectives (managers, direct reports, peers, other stakeholders) and, if well-designed, the results provide rich behavioral information about an individual's capabilities – including what they can leverage as strengths and what they need to improve. In addition, 360 results can help to further illuminate the data collected in employee census surveys on the actions being taken by managers and senior leaders.

Communicates Behaviors that are Important for Organizational Success

When aligned to the competencies important to the organization, 360s also communicate to participating employees the behaviors they need to exhibit to move the organization in its intended direction. In other words, how they need to perform to drive organizational success and achieve individual professional goals.

Indicates Overall Leadership and Organizational Health

Aggregated 360 results can provide leaders with additional information about the overall health of the organization from a capabilities perspective. While engagement surveys do some of that as well, understanding where managers are in terms of their need for additional development is also an important health indicator. 360s provide an aggregated view of the capabilities needing development (e.g., communication skills, strategic thinking) across the organization so that training or other learning interventions can be used to increase overall competence. 

Helps Organizations Evaluate and Develop Talent for Succession

As organizations continue to struggle with retention in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to plan for succession and have the right talent available and prepared to step into key roles. Feedback from 360 results can give organizations insights about their current “bench strength”: how many leaders are ready for a promotion now versus in two years and what is needed to develop their capabilities. The survey results also provide useful developmental information to individuals interested in next-level roles. 

Like all surveys, 360 degree surveys succeed or fail on the strength of question design. Download our free People Analytics Playbook to learn what you should be asking in your surveys — and how.

Elements of Effective 360 Degree Survey Design

Effective 360 feedback surveys have several important design criteria:

  1. Ensure you have a strong sense of how the survey will be used and who will be evaluated before developing or choosing established 360 content. 360 behaviors and competencies should align with the level of the role being evaluated (e.g., front line leader vs. senior leader), and depending on its purpose, the job function (e.g, sales professional). Keep in mind that while the majority of 360 processes are used to evaluate leadership, there are many situations where it can be used for non-leadership roles. In all cases, it is important to align the 360 content with the competencies required for success in specific roles as well as in the organization. 

  2. Ensure that all 360 survey items are:
    • Clear – Employees understand the meaning and generally interpret the item similarly. Keeping the reading difficulty level low and writing shorter items can help in this regard.
    • Single Focus – Avoid items that deal with two or more topics or have more than one meaning (e.g., “Provides regular development feedback to employees and promotes the right people into key positions”). Raters will be confused and the feedback will be ambiguous.                  
    • Behavioral and actionable – Items should be written in a way that makes them observable to raters, meaning they can see the participant performing the behavior (hint: items should start with a verb). The derived feedback from the item could therefore drive meaningful change in behavior.
  3. Include only the most critical competencies and behaviors. Some organizations attempt to include all their organizational competencies, which can significantly impact the length of the survey. Lengthy surveys can lead to two problems: 1) rater fatigue as raters become disinterested, resulting in reduced response rates and incomplete and/or inaccurate feedback (especially if raters are providing feedback to several people); and 2) feedback reports become overwhelming and difficult to interpret.

Potential Pitfalls of 360 Degree Surveys

While 360 surveys can be very useful and effective for providing feedback, the accuracy and effectiveness of the tool can be compromised by the following:

  1. Poorly designed survey content – As noted previously, there are important criteria to ensure that surveys are of high quality and will yield the intended results. When participants and raters are confused by the content or find providing ratings difficult, the feedback will also be confusing, inaccurate, and not very useful.
  2. Poorly designed survey rating process – If participants feel the results could hurt them professionally (usually because of poor clarity on how results will be used), they may not buy-in to the feedback process and results. If raters feel their anonymity and confidentiality could be compromised, they might not participate or they might rate target participants differently from their true perceptions of the individual’s capabilities. If rating instructions are unclear or non-existent, the potential for 360 rating errors increases. Such errors include rating leniently by providing only favorable ratings across the survey, as well as the halo effect that results when applying a universal positive or negative impression of the participant across the survey, rather than rating each item and competency independently.
  3. Failing to provide post-survey support – In some 360 processes, participants receive their results report and little else. Failing to provide support in the form of debrief and action planning meetings with managers or coaches can lead to potential misinterpretations of the results and, more importantly, a lack of accountability and actual development.

Guidance for Effective 360 Degree Surveys

Whether your organization is considering using 360 surveys for managers, leaders, top talent, or other employees, creating the best survey content possible is critical, for the reasons previously stated. In addition, being clear on the purpose of the survey and communicating the rating process and purpose to participants and raters will enhance participation and accuracy in ratings. Finally, at a minimum participants need to know how to interpret their results, what to do with them, and how to act on the feedback. Structured guidance from HR, managers, and/or coaches can play a critical role in the tool’s overall effectiveness.

Need help developing an effective 360 survey?

At Perceptyx, helping companies identify barriers to improvement is our goal. With custom surveys, an advanced people analytics platform, and expertise in all aspects of survey design, strategy, and communication, we can help you create effective 360 degree feedback survey programs and identify what you should be asking employees to improve the experience in your company. Get in touch and let us show you how.

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