Using 360 Feedback to Improve

Self-improvement may sound a bit old-fashioned to some. If so, it may be due to an emphasis in recent years on knowing and using your strengths. But our strengths need to be used differently over time and across situations. As we face new or bigger roles, legacy strengths need to serve us differently. What mattered less in the past may matter more with new challenges.  

And one of the best sources of guidance on how our strength-based practices are working (or not) is to ask those affected by them for candid feedback. We best enable them to do this with an assurance of anonymity, using a well-designed 360° survey questionnaire. It’s the “well-designed” aspect of this method that is of special interest to me in this short article, along with its practical uses.  

The approach to 360 feedback I will discuss is a “situated” kind of assessment. It’s highly contextualized in order to make it specifically relevant to the feedback recipient’s situation and role-based challenges. This tailored approach is aided by recent innovations in online 360 technology. Assessment experts are now less reliant on off-the-shelf surveys. They can produce tailored solutions affordably.  

Essential Features of a Well-Designed 360 Solution

I’ve written about how valuable assessment methods can be as an instrument of management. But like most tools and methods, their most effective use is based upon the insights, abilities, and expertise of the user. In this case, I refer specifically to the vital importance of the psychologist who designs a 360 tool as a solution for a situation-specific problem: to address the development needs of this leadership team, in this company, and to address these needs, at this point in time.

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Mark Twain

So, the first essential requirement for developing a well-designed survey tool is finding the right expert to help you do this work. The right expert is one who is business savvy, able to grasp the purpose, goals, issues, and requirements for success by interviewing a select group of company managers. What’s key here is the ability to translate these business relevant factors into behavioral variables that are amenable to measurement and development. 

The second essential feature of a well-designed solution is that it’s informed by a role-based grasp of adult development. Human beings as a species are distinguished by our extraordinary capacity to learn and adapt. As social creatures, our adaptive development is largely driven by role-taking. We learn to be members of a family as children, and then we learn how to be students, how to be workers, how to be intimate partners and parents. And some of us – perhaps the real gluttons for punishment – pursue careers as leaders that consist of ever-increasing role-based challenges.  

The third vital requirement is the capacity to help others connect the dots between feedback data, their role-based responsibilities to others, and the vital few development themes for self-improvement that are most relevant to them. Assessment results are data. They must be contextually interpreted to have practical meaning. And this interpretive work must be done jointly, sometimes with a bit of “tough love” from the psychologist, in order to generate sufficient insight and motivation to act on it. 

The fourth essential ingredient in a well-designed 360 development solution is skill-building. Feedback to team members will usually include thematically common needs for skill-building, i.e., communication, conflict resolution, follow-through, collaboration. But the ways such themes and skill-building apply to each person and his or her role will be different. Development requires “idiographic” insight into how you or I might need to cultivate skilled practices in order to achieve the desired effect in our presence and impact on others.

The Tail is No Longer Wagging the Dog

360 feedback surveys have become a cottage industry over the past three decades. A few theories of leadership and competency models dominated the scene in the early years. That led to off-the-shelf surveys and certification training in how to use them. If that sounds instrument-centric, it’s only because it is. Interpretation is always a vital step in making 360 results meaningful and practically relevant, but standard models had their limitations.   

Now, more user-friendly, high-function online survey platforms are available, allowing experts in assessment to design tailored solutions with ease and flexibility and with reduced cost and turnaround time. These advances are particularly important for smaller businesses whose needs are often quite different than the needs of Fortune 500 organizations for whom traditional, off-the-shelf solutions were designed.