Don’t pigeonhole the potential of 360-degree feedback

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Written by Ian Lee-Emery on 24 July 2014 in Features

360-degree feedback has a broader role to play beyond development, Ian Lee-Emery says

How does your organisation fill its key positions? Does it recruit externally, take applications from within or is there a formal process in place to ensure a continuous pool of talent is available? A key strategic need in organisations is to have the right people in the right place at the right time. Whether you call this talent management or succession planning, the point is that you must understand what skills your organisation needs to succeed and what constitutes ‘potential’.

Creating and managing talent pools is actually quite a straightforward process. It’s not practical to line up successors for every role, so the first step is to determine which positions in your organisation are ‘critical’. Then, analyse the requisite knowledge, skills, behaviours, experience and competencies that are necessary for success in these roles.

The next, more difficult, step is to determine the early ‘indicators’ of potential for success in these roles. What could individuals reasonably demonstrate at an early stage in their career that would indicate their potential for the target position? If you can identify this, you then simply need to find a way of assessing who is currently demonstrating this ‘potential’ behaviour.

Having identified individuals who have shown potential, you can then assign them to specific talent pools. A gap analysis will then need to be undertaken to determine what skills they currently have and what their development priorities are. Individual learning plans can then be introduced to enable the individuals to develop the skills, knowledge, competencies and experiences necessary for the target positions. This often involves exposing people to the right opportunities, lateral moves, mentoring, knowledge-sharing, peer-learning, formal training, professional qualifications or a period of study and coaching. The final step is to monitor their performance, development and progress.

Two challenges

It all sounds simple when you lay it out like this. However, there are two key challenges.

The first is identifying who has the potential. To do this, you clearly need to know exactly what you’re looking for. Few organisations have a consistent understanding of what potential is, across the different business areas, functions and specialities. Robust, valid research into what ‘potential for higher roles’ looks like at an early stage of an individual’s career within your organisation is necessary. You need a common language and a clear, evidence-based understanding of what ‘potential’ really means in your organisation. 

The second challenge is to find a way of assessing people effectively. To start with, you’ll need to bring the ‘indicators’ to life by translating them into behaviours that can be measured. Can you describe exactly what someone might do, say, think or demonstrate if they possessed each indicator? Once you know what you’re looking for, the next step is to use the right assessment process to measure it.

Performance management, assessment centres and 360-degree feedback are the most commonly used methods for identifying those with potential. The problem though is that, in most organisations, these processes are focused on performance against deliverables in the individual’s current role. In other words, they look backwards at past performance, not forwards at future potential.

Flexibility of 360

360-degree feedback is typically used to support development, often by identifying training needs. However, increasingly organisations are realising that, with careful management, positioning and communication, it can be used effectively in higher-stakes applications, such as talent management and succession planning.

360 has several advantages over performance management and assessment centres, although each has its place. Firstly, it provides an holistic view of an individual, from a range of different sources (unlike traditional performance management which only considers feedback from a line manager). As such, it offers a fairer, perhaps more accurate, assessment as it draws on performance data over a period of time (unlike an assessment centre which offers a ‘snapshot’ of a person and their performance on a single day). It can also be administered to large numbers of people reasonably cost-effectively.

However, the principal advantage of 360-degree feedback is that it can be easily tailored to assess those aspects of performance which tend to indicate future managerial success. In other words, it can focus on outputs against job objectives, or the hard skills and competencies required such as strategic thinking or problem solving. However, it can also assess the softer skills such as emotional intelligence and aspects such as motivation, drive, values, work preferences and learning capacity. These factors form an integral part of a person’s ability to realise their potential, so - when making important decisions about future capacity - organisations need to take them into consideration.

The upshot here is that 360-degree feedback has a much broader role to play than simply supporting development. Yes, it can assess employees in terms of their key strengths and their development needs but it can also assess their degree of readiness for promotion. As such, it can be used to support training needs analyses, career goals, development strategies, succession planning, workforce planning, talent management and human capital risk management.

So, don’t pigeonhole the potential of 360-degree feedback. Managed carefully, it can provide you with extremely valuable assessment data, particularly if you’re looking to fill key positions. After all, if you’re thinking of promoting someone into a more senior management role, wouldn’t you want to know exactly what impact they have on those they currently manage?


About the author

Ian Lee-Emery is managing director of talent management software specialist Head Light. The company has produced a free, comprehensive handbook called The Good Practice Guide to Using 360-degree Feedback which can be requested from


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