360-degree feedback for leadership development: what are you practising?

Feedback given anonymously: masked worker typing on laptop
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360-degree feedback is one of the most widely used tools for leadership development. But does it enable us to have a deep, meaningful dialogue with colleagues and motivate us to improve?

The idea is simple; it enables people to give and receive honest feedback and to develop greater self-awareness, which will (hopefully) lead to a positive shift in behaviours, in the direction of greater leadership.

I say hopefully, because there’s no evidence that such a shift in behaviours occurs.

It is at its best, when:

  • People are skilful in writing their feedback (rare, as these are often done in a rush)

  • The person on the other side is able to read it as it was intended (challenging without tone)

  • The feedback is well debriefed with a coach

  • The individual receiving feedback does sensible and mature things with their report afterwards

When the above is fulfilled, 360-degree feedback can be a helpful way to share the meaning others create for our behaviour and our identity in the organisation.

It does not, however, involve practising a set of behaviours that develop my ability to have real, honest, and open feedback conversations with others. It involves practising being anonymous, disconnected and distant.

Just think about that for a moment – are those really the qualities you want in your leaders?

How limiting is the 360-feedback process?

I believe it is worth considering what we are practising when we do this. The old adage is a simple one – if you want to get good at something practise it, which applies across all domains of life, from solving maths problems to martial arts. So, what do we practise when we do 360-degree feedback?

  1. We practise having people who usually haven’t been trained to give feedback, give feedback anonymously (usually from behind a computer screen) without having any connection with the person concerned and any awareness of their reaction. We are therefore not practising developing any sensitivity for how to give feedback to another person in a way that is tactful and constructive.

  2. We are practising receiving disembodied feedback, where we are not connected to the emotional responses of the other, which caused them to give the feedback. We are not feeling the emotional weight of the feedback, but purely our own emotional response. We are practising being disconnected when receiving feedback.

  3. We are practising trying to spot who said what in the feedback report (most people do some of this when receiving their reports, although they can be incorrect), and yet not having a conversation with the person providing feedback to better understand, because it’s anonymous. This creates all sorts of weirdness in relationships in the organisation. Or, we all know that people will do this spotting, so a form of self-censorship occurs when filling in the form, which undermines the entire process.

  4. We are practising making sense of it individually, or with the aid of a coach, but not in dialogue with the other person to deepen our understanding of what they really mean.

What should we be doing instead?

I come from a perspective where self-awareness is the beginning point of change. We bring our attention to something – it could be individually or through feedback or coaching – and then we have greater choice over our actions and behaviour.

However, if we’ve spent a lifetime practicing being overly directive, for example, that awareness will not in and of itself produce a change. We need to bring our will-power or volition into play, and begin to practice a different response, which may initially be clunky or feel uncomfortable.

Just like learning anything, there will be times when we get it wrong.

In order to go down this path of change we need to have a good reason, and feedback can be a powerful motivator.

It is most powerful when that feedback leads to a dialogue of shared meaning and understanding, where we deeply understand the perspectives of the person delivering the feedback and the impact of our behaviour. This is not enabled through being disconnected when receiving feedback.

The power of direct feedback

When we give and receive direct feedback, face-to-face with another human being, however, what are we practising?

  1. We are practising what it is like to put our body into a place of emotional discomfort, connect with another person and offer them our feedback. Being uncomfortable is not a bad thing – in fact it is essential to change and development. Often it takes training to be able to do this. This is a world away from practising giving disembodied feedback from behind a computer screen, where we can isolate ourselves from the emotional impact.

  2. We are practising what’s too much and what’s not enough, when I offer feedback to one person, as opposed to another. Everyone’s different and we need to be able to develop a felt sensibility to being able to make ourselves heard without crushing someone.

  3. We are practising building mutual understanding and dialogue, where we build a deeper relationship and learn to work together.

It’s OK to get it wrong sometimes

Oh yes, but I can hear the objections. It may go wrong and make things worse, people may not offer feedback or feel comfortable to do it, etc.

So, yes – just like learning anything, there will be times when we get it wrong. We get the maths problems wrong sometimes, we play the wrong note on the musical instrument, or we get beaten in the martial arts match.

360 feedback is a way to create a culture where people hide behind computer screens to give and receive feedback, once a year, because that is what they are practising.

Yes, we will make mistakes, and that is how we learn, and we will need to address it and clean up our mess – more learning available here.

Note that 360 feedback is not devoid of such mistakes – there are cases of badly phrased feedback, misunderstandings and offence taken. But when this happens we often don’t sit in the immediate impact of it and learn, we don’t often engage in dialogue and we aren’t in a process of practising something that will enable us to learn.

Yes, sometimes people will not give the feedback, but that is also equally true of 360 feedback as people worry about their feedback being identified.

Nurturing a feedback culture

Sometimes people tell me that 360-degree feedback is a way to create a culture of feedback. Unfortunately, it is a way to create a culture where people hide behind computer screens to give and receive feedback, once a year, because that is what they are practising.

If you want to create a culture of openness and feedback, you would do well to replace the 360 process with developing the capacity in people to be in real feedback conversations on a day-to-day basis.

That culture will normalise and enable people to be able to give the feedback – it might take longer than a 360 tool, but it will be much more effective, for leadership, relationships and the culture.

So what about you?

Are you having real, open and honest feedback conversations with your colleagues? If you aren’t, then your line managers over your career history bear some of the responsibility – they obviously haven’t practised this with you enough. However, it’s never too late for you to start.

About Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill

Pete is a consultant, facilitator and coach with an international background in leadership and organisational development. He is interested in leadership and personal development, including the role that conflict plays in organisations and society. 

Following a spell working in not-for-profit organisations, he started a dotcom during the dotcom boom, and closed it down during the bust. His subsequent years have been spent in consultancy, initially in strategy, and for the last 14 years, in leadership and organisational development. His clients have included BP, Barclays, the Boston Consulting Group, KPMG, HSBC, NHS, Equality & Human Rights Commission, the Institute of Cancer Research, University of Reading and Virgin Atlantic.

From 2006 to 2011 he was a senior consultant with Roffey Park Institute, and continues to work on the faculty for their MSc in People & Organisational Development and their Post-Graduate Certificate in Coaching. 

Pete is the only executive coach in Europe to have completed an intensive four-month training internship with Dr. Richard Strozzi-Heckler at the Strozzi Institute for Embodied Leadership. He has been certified as a Master Somatic Leadership Coach and has completed a Certificate in Humanistic Counselling with the Gestalt Centre in London. He has also completed an MSc in Change Agent Skills & Strategies at the University of Surrey, where his dissertation focused on conflict in teams. In addition Pete is licensed to deliver Barry Oshry’s Organisation Workshop and is certified to use the FIRO-B, Change Style Indicator, the Global Leadership Profile and SDI psychometric instruments.

Pete practises martial arts, reads across a wide range of topics, and enjoys travelling on adventures to various parts of the world. He has published articles in a range of publications, including The Times, HR Magazine, People Management, The Retailer, and Charities Management, and has written a book entitled Embodied Leadership, which was published in June 2013 by Kogan Page. He is currently undertaking a part-time PhD to further his research on Embodied Leadership.

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