Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Maybe Purpose Doesn’t Matter?

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While there are many discussions and debates within the 360 Feedback community (including one regarding randomizing items currently on LinkedIn that I will address in a later blog), probably none is more intense and enduring than the issue of the proper use of 360 results. In The Handbook of MultiSource Feedback, a whole chapter (by Manny London) was dedicated to “The Great Debate” regarding using 360 for developmental vs. decision making purposes. In fact, in the late 90’s an entire book was published by the Center for Creative Leadership based on a debate I organized at SIOP.

I have argued in earlier blogs and other forums that I believe this “either/or” choice is a false one for many reasons. For example, even “development only” uses require decisions that affect personal and organizational outcomes and resources. Also, even when used for decision (including succession planning, staffing, promotions, and, yes, performance management), there is always a development component.

One of the aggravating blanket statements that is used by the “development only” crowd is that respondents will not be honest if they believe that the results will be used to make decisions that might be detrimental to the ratee, resulting in inflated scores with less variability. I would say that, in fact, that is by far the most common argument for the “development only” proponents, and one that is indeed supported by some research studies.

I have just become aware of an article published 3 years ago in the Journal of Business and Psychology (JBP) relating to multisource feedback, titled “Factors Influencing Employee Intentions to Provide Honest Upward Feedback Ratings” (Smith and Fortunato, 2008).  For those of you who are not familiar with JBP, it is a refereed journal of high quality that should be on your radar and, in full disclosure, a journal for which I am an occasional reviewer.

The study was conducted at a behavioral health center with a final sample of 203 respondents. The employees filled out a questionnaire about various aspects of an upward feedback process that was being implemented in the future.

The article is fairly technical and targeted toward the industrial/organizational community. I have pulled out one figure for the geeks in the audience to consume if desired (click on “360 Figure”) . But let me summarize the findings of the study.

The outcome (dependent variable) that was of primary interest to the researchers is foreshadowed in the title, i.e., what factors lead to intentions to respond honestly in ratings of a supervisor (upward feedback).  The most surprising result (as highlighted in the discussion by the authors) was that purpose (administrative versus developmental) had no predictive value at all! Of all the predictor variables measured, it was the least influential with no practical (statistical) significance.

What does predict intentions to provide honest feedback? One major predictor is the level of cynacism, with (as you might guess) cynical attitudes resulting in less honesty. The study suggests that cynical employees fear retaliation by supervisors and are less likely to believe that the stated purpose will be followed. The authors suggest that support and visible participation by senior leaders might help reduce these negative attitudes. We also need to continue to protect both real and perceived confidentiality, and to have processes to identify cases of retaliation and hold the offending parties accountable.

The other major factor is what I would label as rater self confidence in their ability as a feedback provider. Raters need to feel that their input is appropriate and valued, and that they know how the process will work. They also have a need to feel that they have sufficient opportunity to observe.  The authors appropriately point to the usefulness of rater training to help accomplish these outcomes. They do not mention the rater selection process as being an important determinant of opportunity to observe, but that is obviously a major factor in ensuring that the best raters are chosen.

One suggestion the authors make (seemingly out of context) that is purported to help improve the honesty of the feedback is to use reverse-worded items to keep raters from choosing only socially desirable responses (e.g., Strongly Agree).  I totally disagree with practices such as reverse wording and randomization which may actually reduce the reliability of the instrument (unless the purpose is for research only). For example, at our SIOP Workshop, Carol Jenkins and I will be showing an actual 360 report that uses both of those methods (reverse wording and randomization). In this report (that Carol had to try to interpret for a client), the manager (“boss”) of the ratee had give the same response (Agree) to two versions of the same item where one was reverse scored. In other words, the Manager was Agreeing that the ratee was both doing and not doing the same thing.

Now what? The authors of this study seem to suggest that situations like this would invalidate the input of this manager, arguably the most important rater of all.  Now we could just contact the manager and try to clarify his/her input. But the only reason we know of this situation is that the manager is not anonymous (and they know that going into the rating process). If this same problem of rating inconsistency occurs with other rater groups, it is almost impossible to rectify since the raters are anonymous and confidential (hopefully).

This is only one study, though a well designed and analyzed study in a respected journal. I will not say that this study proves that purpose does not have an effect on honesty. Nor should anyone say that other studies prove that purpose does affect honesty. To be clear, I have always said that it may be appropriate to use 360 results in decision making under the right conditions, conditions that are admittedly often difficult to achieve. This is in contrast to some practitioners who contend that it is never appropriate to do so, under any conditions.

Someday when I address the subject of organizational readiness, I will recall the survey used in this research which was administered in anticipation of implementing an upward feedback process. This brief (31 item) survey used for this study would be a great tool to assess readiness in all 360 systems.

One contribution of this research is to point out that intention to be honest is as much a characteristic of the process as it is of the person. Honesty is a changeable behavior in this context through training, communication, and practice. Making blanket statements about rater behavior and how a 360 program should or shouldn’t be used are not productive.

360 Figure

©2011 David W. Bracken

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