Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

How many psychologists can dance on the head of a pin? By David W. Bracken, Ph.D.

with 4 comments

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Welcome to a new blog focused on issues that are of most interest to practitioners in the area of 360 (Multisource) Feedback!  It is my hope that this will create a forum for practitioners to discuss, debate and propose solutions to the myriad of challenges that confront us as we try to create sustainable behavior change and sustainable 360 processes.

I am putting together a CE workshop for the 2011 SIOP Conference in Chicago with Dr. Carol Jenkins of Assess-Systems, whom I had not had the pleasure of meeting prior to this. In the course of getting to know and work with each other, she commented something to the effect of, “This is your life.”  Taken out of context, it sounds a little strong, but her point (I think) was that I am very interested and invested in this topic, in her view. To a great extent, that is true, though I hope it isn’t “my life” per se. I do many other things in my professional life, but it is true that 360 is my passion.

I am not quite sure where this passion comes from.  It is in part due to having a background in employee surveys, assessment centers, and performance management, all three of which have some elements that come to play in many 360 processes. I also had the opportunity to work with Marshall Goldsmith early in my career (and his as well) in the mid-80’s where I saw the potential power of the process in shaping a culture (newly formed BellSouth) and shaping a manager’s effectiveness (my own, as a participant in the process).

So why do a blog now?  For starters, I have been on an involuntary, unexpected hiatus from consulting for the last year or so, and now am working on a couple 360 projects with OrgVitality. These engagements have reinvigorated my enthusiasm for helping clients create change in their leaders and, in turn, their organizations by implementing effective 360 systems.

I also am frustrated by the general lack of forums for discussing these issues. Dale Rose and I have hosted SIOP discussion hours the last two years that were well attended, but waiting for SIOP to roll around is not totally satisfying. SIOP also has had very few other sessions on 360 in recent years, which is something of a paradox for me given its prevalence in organizations. There have been a couple of good books in the last few years, and Dale and I have coauthored an article that should be published before long, but it is so much more gratifying to engage the professional community in a dialogue. As you will see below, even a starter list of topics can be substantial and hopefully worthy of further discussion.

I was additionally motivated after listening in to a teleconference recently by a very reputable practitioner/consultant on the topic of why 360’s often aren’t effective.  While he had many good points, I didn’t agree with a number of his solutions. Not that MY solutions are necessarily right or even the best. But I do think about these issues probably as much as anyone these days.  The fact is that there are very few absolutes in 360 feedback and the many challenges it creates, and that is what makes it so interesting and frustrating at the same time.

The breadth of questions and issues raised in designing, implementing and nurturing a 360 process is, in part, reflected in The Handbook of Multisource Feedback (Bracken, Timmreck, and Church, eds., 2001) and its sheer size.  At well over 600 pages, over 30 chapters and 55 contributors, it attempted to address many topics from many different viewpoints. When speaking about The Handbook, I have been known to quip that “55” must be the answer to, “How many psychologists can dance on the head of a pin?”,  given how many professionals (not all psychologists admittedly) were willing and able to contribute to that project.

The Appendix to The Handbook contains a set of recommendations for designing and implementing 360 processes authored by Carol Timmreck and myself. The title indicates application to decision-making uses, but our intent was to emphasize the importance of the decisions when used for decisions, such as succession planning, staffing, high potential identification and development, and performance management. We strongly believe that any 360 process should strive to follow these guidelines since it seems pointless to invest the time and effort if the resulting data is seriously flawed.

Even after almost 10 years since The Handbook was published, debates rage on about some very basic and important questions regarding 360 processes. The fact is that no two 360 processes are the same. With well over 100 conscious (and unconscious) decisions that need to be made in design and implementation, 360 processes can have dramatically different outcomes (read ROI) depending on what is decided (or ignored).

Here some possible titles for future blogs that might pique your interest:

There is no such thing as “development only”

I’m going to my lawyer

This is not a test

Sometime uncertainty is the key to success.

Worst may not be first

Is your 360 valid?

When the inmates run the asylum

When coaches go too far

360 Raters: Pros or cons?

To thine own self be true? (value of self ratings)

Who is the customer?

The devil is in the details

Ipsative vs. Normative rating scales (“we don’t care how good or bad you are”)

Some rating scales are better than others

That darn Achilles’ heel

Are self ratings worth the effort?

Hope to hear from you! Feedback is always welcome.

©2010 David W. Bracken

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Written by David Bracken

August 9, 2010 at 2:15 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I think the term is a bit of a misnomer – 270 would be closer to the mark.

    I wish that I was merely being pedantic though, I think from the get-go 360 efforts have two inherent flaws.

    – By using the 360 terminology of circles, an impression is given that there is completeness and that once this is done there are no further things to discover. As the original JoHari framework went, there is an entire quadrant that neither the onlooker nor the subject are aware of. Even if regular 360 scans are done to accommodate for change and growth, this quadrant remains somewhat opaque.

    – The selection of onlookers is critical to validity just as much as any sample of a population would be, and few HR organizations have the technical statistics skills to mount either a rigorous sampling process, nor use the non-parametric statistics needed for small sample sizes and populations where Normality cannot safely be assumed.

    I think that 360 efforts are certainly worthwhile, but I suspect that most are at best going to be sadly incomplete, and at worst, systematically biased.

    In the same metaphor, a circle is a two-dimensional section, and we are dealing with entities that occupy three physical dimensions and one temporal. We would be drawing lines on the ground and calling it a house with a roof that would keep next week’s rain off our heads!

    Matthew Loxton

    August 9, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    • This is a great example of the kind of dialogue I am hoping to create, i.e., some different perspectives! While I am familiar with Johari, it hadn’t occurred to me that 360 is referring to that kind of perspective per se, though the concept of Blind Spots comes directly from that model. I also hadn’t thought much about sampling or non-parametric statistics; if I understand the point Matthew is making, I don’t think of 360 as trying to generalize to a population beyond those who know the subject well. A good 360 would include a significant number of coworkers who have sufficient knowledge to provide reliable ratings (including all direct reports, for example). As he notes, many processes fall short of even that goal by requiring only 3-4 raters per rater group.

      David Bracken

      August 10, 2010 at 2:11 am

  2. When we add customers to the rater mix, we are getting closer to the full 360 degrees of feedback. As Dave states, all direct reports should be included as raters, as should the boss and at least four peers. Some 360s also allow other rater groups such as superiors (2nd level supervisors) and a general “others” category for anyone else, including family members. But from a practical standpoint, the number of valid raters is limited to those who work directly with the ratee and know him or her fairly well. For 360s that are primarily developmental in nature, that’s why in makes sense for ratees to select their own raters.

    John Fleenor

    August 10, 2010 at 3:02 pm

  3. 270? 360? How many degrees in a partially incomplete sphere? We just be as complete and integrated as we can be. The possibilities change in any given implementation. Ultimately, the goal is not complete coverage, but useful information to drive individual development, organizational effectiveness, and all-around learning.

    “360” is catchier than “multi-source feedback,” and any loss of precision may be a worthwhile sacrifice. On more snarky days, I might shoot for something called an “intravenous feedback drip.”

    Scott Brooks

    August 16, 2010 at 4:50 pm


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