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Are Your People Resisting 360 Degree Feedback?

15th Jun 2014
CEO Track Surveys
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Multi-source or 360 Degree Feedback is a very popular management and development tool and many organisations use it very successfully when developing the leadership and management skills of their people. The principle behind it is that structured feedback, from people with whom you have different working relationships can be a source of valuable insight and information for your personal and professional development.

However those of us who work professionally with the 360 toolkit sometimes come across resistance to 360 surveys .  Many of our clients ask us about this, and this article describes our experiences with resistance to 360 degree feedback and some ideas for overcoming this.

So where does resistance to 360 degree feedback come from?

Resistance to 360 does not come from just one part of an organisation: it can come from a number of different sources.

Appraisee resistance

Firstly, resistance can come from the people who will receive feedback from their colleagues, let’s call them the appraisees. This group can often be quite nervous about the process.  Of course this is understandable, after all, if they’ve never had 360 feedback before, they will be wondering what the feedback will look like like, and how it will feel.  They will probably be worried about negative feedback and comments, and not only that, but also what the consequences of any negative feedback might be.

As adults, we are particularly sensitive to what we see as criticism from other people, and particularly if we don’t work in a culture of receiving feedback from our peers, colleagues, and in particular are subordinates.   

Rater reluctance

Sometimes there is resistance to 360 degree feedback from the people who are asked to give feedback to their colleagues – the raters.  They may have a number of concerns, such as how to give a balance of positive and negative feedback, how to give constructive feedback without being hurtful or offensive, whether their feedback may be recognisable and whether there could  be consequences if they really are  ‘honest and open’.  They will also wonder what the consequences of the feedback exercise will be for their colleagues.

In particular, people can be reluctant to give a open and honest if they think that their colleague’s reputation, pay or bonus may suffer from a bad report, or even that it might affect their colleague's long-term career prospects.

Line mangers as blockers

Yet another source of resistance can come from line managers.  In theory, line managers should be very positive about 360 degree feedback for their teams, because it can provide them with a very effective tool to support performance coaching and the training of their subordinates.

Unfortunately, line managers can also be fearful of having to handle new data or have to use a new coaching tool that they may not be familiar with.  They also may feel threatened by the 360 process themselves, and they may indeed pass some of their nervousness to their teams and the people that they coach.  There can also be resistance if the line managers feel ambiguous or a negative to the changes going on in the organization and could therefore act as a blocker instead of agents for change.

Senior management's scepticism

Finally, unless senior management and the company board are bought in fully to 360 degree feedback, there may be some resistance at this highest level.  It may be that certain senior leaders do not understand the benefits of the feedback process, how it relates to the business and its objectives, and that it may just be another ‘HR fad’.

So how can these are areas of resistance and reluctance be overcome?

Two sides to resistance: emotional and intellectual

Resistance comes in two forms, emotional and intellectual, and using this model, you can put some initial actions in place to introduce 360 into your organisation. I guess you could say you have to win both hearts and minds in order to get engagement for the feedback process.

Winning minds

To do this, it's really a matter of providing lot of information that is going to help people to understand what the process is all about.  Key to any successful 360 is providing briefings, information, and most importantly, the reasoning behind the 360 process, what it's for and what it’s setting out to achieve.  

Be specific, clear and unambiguous: Is the feedback for helping individuals to develop and to understand their skill set, or is it about defining the core values of the organisation, and the behaviours that are valued?  Or is the 360 to be used as part of assessing how people are performing and will the feedback have an influence on how their performance is rated in the organisation?

Link the 360 to goals

For senior management, it’s essential  to be able to link the 360 Degree Feedback to the organisation’s particular business objectives and people strategy; the clearer the link, the more senior managers will be convinced that this process can lead to improved skills, productivity and ultimately, a more successful organisation.  For this reason, being able to develop and run a bespoke 360 feedback framework, aligned with the organisation’s goals, and designed using the organisation’s language and style, is critical.

Examples of successful 360s and organisations who use these effectively are another way of helping management to buy into 360.

Lots of information, lots of communication channels

The key in this area is to provide information with absolute clarity to the whole organisation, not just the appraisees.  Give everyone the opportunity to see sample questionnaires, and how the feedback will look in the final reports.

Group briefings for the appraisees are important, so that they have an opportunity to thoroughly understand the process, see examples of what output reports would look like, and understand what the debriefing process will consist of.  It's also vitally important that they understand the purpose of the feedback who else gets to see the data (their line manager?  Someone else in HR or in training?), and what else that data will be used for (if anything).

We often provide any couple of briefing sessions for our clients to 360 appraisees in which we answer their questions both as a group but also individually, as sometimes people have private concerns that they may not want a voice in front of their colleagues or their manager.

Team meetings for potential raters, and everyone else, are really helpful.   We always recommend that the team leader in every team is provided with a briefing pack that he or she can share with their team at a regular meeting.  This allows everyone to discuss the process and ask any questions they need to.  It is also important to link the 360 with the implications of cultural or strategic change that the organisation is trying to bring about to make it part of the bigger picture.

It's important to send information out about the process through other communication channels so for example, via the company's intranet, or a learning management system.  Drop-in workshops about the 360 process are useful in that they can provide the people who were going to be giving the feedback some further information about what it's for and what's going to be required of them.

Winning hearts

We have found that one of the keys to success and to shifting emotional resistance to 360 is by showing the commitment of the most senior individuals in the company – this is where leadership comes in.

Visible commitment

A top-down approach is vital, specifically by involving senior people in the 360 process; ideally they should be the first to ask for feedback, to be coached through their feedback, to understand its implications for their personal development, and to share and communicate this to the rest of the company.

It's a highly powerful message when the CEO and the board are able to describe in their own words their experience, and therefore show their own commitment. The more advocates at the senior level that you can engage, and who are willing to speak about their experience, the more appraisees, raters and everyone else will be prepared to engage with the process.

Consistency and building trust

Consistency of message is important, in particular to raters, about confidentiality and anonymity, and about the consequences of the outcomes of the 360.  As the 360 project manager you do need to ensure that your process and 360 delivery system embeds this, and that appraisees and raters do the right thing (again through briefing and training beforehand).

Addressing, fear, uncertainly and doubt

Much of the emotional baggage that comes with 360 is down to individuals’ fear, uncertainty and doubt.  This can be partially addressed by lots of information, but the emotional side needs to be addressed by providing:
•One to one briefings for appraisees before the feedback (as above)
•Follow-up during the gathering of the feedback to ensure that all appraisees are on track to receive at least the minimum amount of feedback from their raters (your 360 feedback software or online delivery system should support this)
•Guarantee of anonymity for raters , which should be reflected both in the process and in the output reports
•The availability of a phone or email helpline, which is completely confidential, for appraisees or raters
•At least one coaching session for the appraisee to be given her/his 360 feedback report, and to be helped to understand it, to bring it alive and use it as an active tool, and to deal with any emotional aspects of the feedback in a safe environment.
•One further issue that is sometimes forgotten is to ensure that the appraisee is able to seek support, training or other input once they have identified their strengths and areas for development through a 360 process.  Part of the fear of the process can be concerns about competence: ‘if there are areas identified where I need to improve, is the organisation going to help me to do that?’ will be the big question for many appraisees, so it’s important to provide reassurance on this.

 
Pilots and follows ups

As you start to introduce 360 into the organisation, it’s recommended that you run some small pilots, perhaps with some specific groups or teams who may be leading the way in terms of their development planning, and are for various groups of people to experience the 360. When people start to understand that the 360 process can be trusted they are less likely to resist of the process when they are asked to engage with it themselves.

Use technology but make sure you maintain the human touch

Aside from the technical aspects, your 360 Degree Feedback system should support all of the principles we have discussed, including supporting both the information side of the 360 and its personal aspects, like confidentiality.  The system should reflect and uphold the commitment that has been made around confidentiality, anonymity, and outcomes.

Summary

While resistance to 360 can be encountered at different levels, we have described numerous tools and techniques that can be built into the 360 design to help break down resistance at both an intellectual and an emotional level.

Even in the most open and trusting organisation, people will naturally have doubts about any new process that involves their personal input, so ensuring...
•Clear, transparent communication
•Information in different formats
•Individual support
•Consistency of process and outcomes...

will help to embed 360 Feedback into the organisation and enhance its value over time.
 

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