360-degree feedback can lead to worse results - we can't let it

Feedback session
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Real-time feedback tools have been around for a number of years. JP Morgan is only the latest to launch its own. The tools promise a great deal. They allow employees and managers to give feedback on their colleagues in real-time on their smartphones.

But are we in danger of solving one problem only to create a much larger one?

Poorly designed 360-degree feedback tools can be risky. They can demoralise the workforce, and encourage employees to focus on their own performance – to the detriment of everything else. Isn’t it time we took a closer look at the dangers?

Actionable feedback is key

One of the biggest risks with 360-degree feedback tools is that managers and employees do nothing with the data they produce. We simply generate more and more data that sits idly on our hard drives doing precisely nothing.

It goes unused because the feedback is of a low quality. It doesn’t give employees and managers the types of insights that they need to make changes. And it’s poor because giving constructive feedback is a skill. Most managers learn this skill early on, but it doesn’t come naturally to most people.

When you ask someone to give feedback, most instinctively think of the negatives that need improvement – and understandably focus on them. That’s why we end up with a raft of negative feedback.

Instead, feedback must be actionable – otherwise, what’s the point? To be actionable it needs to highlight both the good and ‘less good’ in an employee's actions, and, importantly, suggest positive ways to improve. It needs to empower employees to read it and spur them to improve their performance accordingly.

Without careful thought, when launching a 360-degree feedback tool we risk opening the floodgates to a wave of negativity from employees who haven’t been taught how to give effective feedback.

Overcoming negative feedback

The result is predictable. Employees open their apps, read all the negative comments and understandably feel hurt, annoyed, and demoralised – which, in turn, harms their work performance. Alternatively, they start to think that other colleagues have a vendetta against them. Either way, they don't respond positively.

But many companies, and especially HR departments, are already stretched. They just don't have the resources to invest in teaching all their staff to give good, high-quality feedback.

So, what’s the solution? First, we should make sure developers build explicit prompts into 360-degree feedback tools to remind employees to be constructive and positive – and give examples of what that means.

We should also think about stopping employees from submitting feedback that has certain emotionally loaded words, like 'useless', which are almost never helpful and always destructive.

Apps can even strong-arm employees into giving two or three positive comments for every negative one to ensure that the feedback is balanced and more constructive.

Feedback tools shouldn't create myopia

Another big risk with 360-degree feedback apps is that employees start to focus exclusively on their own performance – to the exception of all else.

If you're receiving constant real-time feedback on your performance, it's easy to start thinking of everything in terms of your own metrics. Would this improve my rating? Would this mitigate the last negative score I received? How can I improve this-or-that metric?

But a company's overall performance isn't tied simply to the performance of individuals, however outstanding they are. Great performance is all about teams. As well as having fantastic individual performers, we need teams that are supportive, psychologically safe, and positive.

A team of A-star employees doesn't always create fantastic results. You need a bit of the team 'magic' too.

This means that individuals, occasionally, need to sacrifice their own performance in order to help other team members, contribute left-field ideas to projects they aren't formally involved in, lend a hand every now and again, or even just provide a shoulder to cry on.

The risk of 360-degree apps is that they encourage individuals to focus exclusively on their own performance – and the 'magic' of this team interaction is lost.

At its worst, it could lead to individuals actively trying to harm the performance of their colleagues to get ahead, or lead to a culture of blame-placing so mistakes don't turn up in their own feedback metrics.

Feedback tools need to create team awareness

The obvious solution is to make sure that 360-degree feedback tools don’t simply stop at the individual level, but instead allow colleagues to give feedback on teams as well. This will encourage team members to think in terms of the productive output of their whole team rather than just themselves.

It stops employees from myopically focusing on maximising their own individual metrics, and, instead, encourages to increase their teams' feedback scores as well.

Feedback tools should encourage team awareness in other ways too. For example, they should enable team managers and members to get a snapshot of the performance of their team over time, and their role within it.

At its best, it should help team members to identify their unique strengths within the team; encouraging them to see themselves as the team ‘expert’, and persuade them to lend support to colleagues when that skill is needed.

Rich feedback is the best of all worlds

Feedback tools can be powerful and help drive performance improvement. But the most actionable feedback is rich, constructive, and multi-format. By multi-format I mean that as well as giving employees the ability to give raw scores, feedback apps encourage employees to give text feedback too.

Numerical scores are important to generate quick, actionable snapshots of the data – and even use new big data techniques to pull out interesting and unexpected relationships between the data.

But the text feedback is vital. Giving employees this facility encourages them to talk in a language that is positive, upbeat, and constructive – and mitigate the negativity of the blunt numerical score.

All large employers will adopt 360-degree feedback tools in the future. But as they’re rolled out, we need to make sure that they’re truly effective and give us the actionable data we need to justify their cost.

Tackling the risks of overly negative feedback and individual myopia is a good place to start.

About Ab Banerjee

Ab Banerjee

CEO and Founder of ViewsHub, the team-to-team ratings and feedback tool. Previously founded Ceeders.com, Immediance, and RAW Communications. Before that held various roles at the Financial Times, Pearson, JP Morgan Chase, and A.T. Kearney.

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