360° feedback

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Written by Colin Newbold on 1 August 2013 in Features

“Is it an isolated event or a way of life?” asks Colin Newbold

Between November 2012 and February 2013, my organisational talent development company TLC commissioned research into how 360° feedback (referred to in this article as "360") is being used inside the top UK law and accountancy firms1. Research from these groups was also benchmarked against a third group: The Sunday Times100 Best Companies 2012 (medium-sized).

My aim is to share some of the findings with you in this article and to offer you an insight into two pieces of our intellectual property (two golden nuggets) in an effort to promote best practice in 360° implementations.

During 21 years of running 360° surveys, we have identified a number of common faults with 360° feedback and many of these were found in the survey. They can be summarised as:

  • ineffective or flawed questionnaire
  • ineffective or non-existent awareness briefing
  • poor quality online tool (or a cumbersome paper-based tool)
  • low completion rates
  • ineffective administration
  • feedback linked to pay, rather than development
  • feedback delivered electronically to participant (without support)
  • feedback delivered first to participant's manager
  • ineffective feedback session
  • difficult-to-interpret report
  • lack of robust action planning
  • lack of follow through (poor availability of L&D resources)
  • no consequences for opting out/lack of accountability
  • no repeat 360 to chart progress.

The top 100 law and accountancy firms are more likely to carry out 360 than law firms ranked 101-200, but the prevalence of 360 is considerably higher in the Sunday Times list of the top 100 medium-sized companies to work for. The majority of those who were interviewed from the Sunday Times list believe there is a correlation between carrying out 360 and being voted/considered a great place to work, although some see it as only partly responsible.

In all sectors that participated, the main people who received 360° feedback were in senior positions. Law firms are the least likely to administer a 360 process throughout the organisation, whereas approximately half of accountancy firms and Sunday Times companies involved all their staff.

To a greater extent, staff development is the predominant reason given for doing 360 and, where performance appraisal is the given reason, the feedback is used to inform what development and training needs to be done.

On the whole, for those who carry out 360, the benefits outweigh any drawbacks. Even those firms who don't do 360 can recognise the value of the process, especially for development and identifying future leaders.

The majority of those who currently use 360 see it as a positive experience and believe it enhances performance and is a good way of capturing information for developing their people. Where satisfaction is not so high, reasons are around confidentiality, being time- and resource-heavy and a lack of consistent follow-up. Those who used an online system in general rated their experience of 360 higher than those who had either a manual or a non-automated process.

Most law firms who don't currently carry out 360 are considering doing so and would use it for setting objectives for business planning, development and to identify talent. Nearly two fifths of accountancy firms state that they hope to introduce it for development and to help managers give hard messages. Thirty per cent of the Sunday Times companies who don't currently carry out 360 said it's a possibility in the future, particularly once they've got other systems in place such as performance management.


We found a wide variation in implementation methods and I wonder if that has resulted in the very mixed user experiences with 360. It seems such an easy intervention to get wrong.

In an effort to promote best practice, I thought readers might like an insight into two parts of our process that we believe will contribute significantly to the results you get from 360.

Golden nugget 1

Many of the problems with the quantity and quality of feedback stem from poor awareness briefings. We believe this is also responsible for low completion rates and the pattern at which the completion rate grows over the survey open period: typically, the early adopters (possibly ESTJs2) get on to it straight away, resulting in 20-30 per cent completion after just five days; then, despite repeated reminders, there is a gap of about seven days, when virtually nothing happens, until a few days from the end, when there's a flurry of excitement resulting in completion rates of between 70 and 85 per cent.

During our research, we found a variety of methods being used to make participants and raters aware of what's coming. They ranged from no briefing at all (just a cold invitation email generated from the online tool) to group briefings. However, when we are able to run the awareness briefing methodology that we will share with you now, we see a much higher completion rate within the first five days (as high as 50 per cent) and then a steady rise day by day, reaching an average total of 95 per cent well before the close date.

So this is what we recommend for a first-time implementation: start by inviting all the participants in your cohort to a 75-minute, face-to-face group briefing. If it is impossible to do this, we recommend at least a video conference. As a last resort, you can use webinar technology.

Kick it off with an address by the most senior manager you can get to support you. If it's the CEO, so much the better! (Consider using this person on video if a physical attendance is impossible). This short session (aim for five minutes; they're bound to take a little longer) allows the senior manager the opportunity to stress the vision, mission and strategic objectives. We coach them how best to deliver this. The session should be uplifting and motivating and make the very important link to how the upcoming 360 project supports the strategy.

The next session is a ten-minute whistle-stop tour by HR or L&D through 360 - what it is, where it came from and how it will be used. Two key messages to get across in your session are the rules around confidentiality and what the outcomes will be. By outcomes I don't mean the 360 report and some kind of feedback event - that's a given. I mean the construction of an individual development plan and the subsequent actions that will take each participant from where they are now to where they need to be, so that, in one year's time when they complete their second 360, there is clear evidence of behavioural change for the better.

That means thinking ahead to what potential development activities you might be prepared to support and fund, eg classroom training and coaching. But please don't underestimate the power of work-based learning. Stretching assignments, action learning, mentoring and even coaching others can all be highly cost-effective development options.

The third session is from us. We discuss with participants who they should invite to contribute feedback (and why) and we get them to commit their choices to a proforma. The final session is when we coach them on how to invite their raters verbally: we encourage them to model their conversations on specific 'word tracks' like 'I'm asking you for your generosity...', 'Please can you provide examples where you think I'm being the best I can be as well as examples where you wished I was different', 'In your examples, can you describe what I do (or do not do) or say (or don't say) that leads you to your rating against a particular question', 'If you would rather I did something differently, please write what you would rather I did (or didn't do) or said (or didn't say). In this way I can gain clarity and depth from my report'.

And we ask them to check that the rater is comfortable with giving their gift of time in this way. As many participants aren't used to speaking to one another in these ways, this session is role-played until we reach a point at which they are both competent and committed to the invitation stage.

The fact that participants are having the invitation conversations with raters negates the need for any direct briefing input from HR or L&D. If you can pull this off successfully, the quantity and, more importantly, the quality of the feedback will improve. This is especially true of the depth and clarity of the written comments.

Second, and subsequent, time around, you should still run the same style of participant briefing, although there is not the need for the in-depth background inputs as before, or even the role plays. Consequently, participants' invitation conversations with raters they have asked in the past need not be so intense. But they should still happen. Skimping on this stage is asking for trouble.

Golden nugget 2

One other important step in the TLC 360 process is our 'checking out' model. Inevitably, the session that surrounds the participant first gaining sight of his 360° feedback is highly charged. Emotions may be heightened, especially where the feedback is negative. Despite even the most professional of feedback coaches doing their best to keep the conversation positive and objective - focused on what you want rather than what you're trying to leave behind - much time can be taken up by the participant getting caught up in the scores and trying to establish who said what, etc. When only one feedback session is on offer, the time devoted to looking forwards, towards action planning, is typically rushed, resulting in a plan of questionable quality.

We break our feedback sessions into two parts. Each session takes about two hours. Session one is when participants get to see their reports and go through a disciplined process to understand their key strengths and areas for development. Using the 'discovery' method, they will often have more questions than answers so it is important for the coach to introduce them to a procedure for checking out their feedback in the workplace. Participants select their line manager, two peers and all their direct reports to take through this procedure. The goal is to add depth and clarity to the anonymously-given feedback so that the quality of the action planning can be improved with the feedback coach in session two.

The coach uses the last 15 minutes of the session to guide the participant through the procedure and the words to use. The participant has already identified his two or three key strengths and key areas for development; the latter are shared with each of the raters and he asks the golden question If I was performing at my peak in these areas, what would I be doing (or not doing) and what would I be saying (or not saying)? Variations on that theme include If I was working at the best of my ability... If I was being the best I could be... etc. It's best if each of the development areas are tackled individually, with the golden question being used after each one is revealed.

When it comes to the participant's direct reports, you may decide to run the procedure as a group event (team meeting). Invite them all into a suitable room, describe the two or three key development areas on flip charts around the wall and put the golden question on another flip chart, somewhere prominent. Explain that you would like the team to apply the golden question to each key development area and brainstorm answers while you leave the room. Forty-five to sixty minutes should be sufficient to complete the task. When the participant returns, he asks a spokesperson to feed back the results.

In every case, we recommend that this procedure is carried out face to face. If, however, geography makes this impossible, a telephone conversation is the next best thing. While it may be tempting to the participant (especially introverts) to do it by email, that approach lacks sincerity and will never achieve the same level of engagement as a face-to-face conversation. It may also be telling you quite a bit about the participant's level of buy-in. One word of caution: counsel the participant not to interrupt the raters' feedback (not to defend or justify) unless he genuinely doesn't understand what's being said and needs to clarify.

By the time that participants return to the second feedback session with the coach, the depth and level of clarity they now have about each area for development is so much greater. The ground is now more fertile than ever before for the coach to take them through an action planning procedure.

We think part of the problem that surrounds the use of 360° feedback is that it is seen either as a one-off event or part of some bigger programme, such as leadership or management development, which has a finite lifespan. If 360 was elevated to 'the way things are done around here', repeated annually and seen as an end in itself, behaviours would definitely change for the better.

To illustrate this, I offer you two case studies.

High-quality feedback is music to Harman's ears

Harman is a leading provider of premium audio equipment with an impressive client list including Audi, BMW, Hyundai and Mercedes. It has a global workforce of 13,000.

Having identified 360 as a useful element of its global leadership programme, Harman spent a significant amount of time researching the market and selected TLC's click-360 tool.

The outputs generated have exceeded expectations and have been warmly welcomed by participants. "Our senior leaders have found the 360 enlightening, with some very personal feedback given. They say it's a great opportunity to look in the mirror, and it makes them feel special" says Denis Kerrigan, former director, global learning and development.

TLC Online feedback tools provide all-round benefits for Diageo

Leading global drinks company Diageo is resolute about the fact that all employees should "work for a great people manager". Successfully growing people management capability and performance comes from a feedback process that enables managers to identify employee strengths and development areas. This also helps Diageo ensure that L&D interventions are targeted to real needs, and allows an accurate assessment of return on investment.

Diageo began a partnership with TLC Online to develop three bespoke feedback systems as part of the Diageo Academy - the company's global learning system. These systems have now been translated into 13 different languages, and are used by Diageo's 22,000-strong global workforce.

The People Manager Feedback tool is the latest of the three products to be implemented, and provides individual and management reports based on anonymous feedback from line managers. Before employing the in-house system, the company had used a third party agency to provide the reports, which could cost £100 a time. Over the course of 12 months Diageo expects that replacing these with the TLC online feedback system will save it up to £180,000.

TLC Online also worked alongside Diageo to develop its Capabilities 360 system, used to collate and evaluate stakeholders' feedback on an employee' s performance. Additionally, the Leadership Colleague Feedback 360 product is used to provide insight into the progress of participants on the 12-month blended-learning Diageo Leadership Performance programme.

Joan Hodgins, former people manager and talent director at Diageo, says: "We have received lots of feedback that says the design of the sites and the style of questions are just right. This ensures employees are able to provide accurate feedback as simply as possible, and gives us valuable insights for development planning."

If you would like a full copy of the 360 Research paper referred to in this article, please contact us using the details below. We are still recruiting professional services organisations to help us with our next stage of 360 research. People will always be people and we don't expect that our methodologies will be followed exactly to the letter, but we will be looking to prove a measurable ROI of over 8,000 per cent from this research. If you would like to be considered as a participating organisation, please contact us.


1 The use of 360° feedback in professional services firms, compared to The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies 2012

2 Taken from the Myers Briggs Type Indicator ‘Extraverted Sensing with Thinking and Judging’

About the author

Colin Newbold is the founder of organisational talent development specialist The Learning Curve and can be contacted at cpn@thelearningcurve.co.uk, on +44 (0)845 313 3357 or via www.whereshifthappens.co.uk


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