A Guide to 360 Feedback What is 360 degree feedback?

A guide to 360-degree feedback reviews and how to do them better so that your staff can use them to help them develop.

360-degree feedback is a process used by individuals in a business or organisation to gain a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. It involves the individual gathering real and constructive feedback from a range of people who work with them: their managers, peers and reports.
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360’s were first introduced into the business world in the 1950s by Esso, and famously misused by Jack Welsh of General Electric to fire people, before companies realised it’s better to use a 360 to identify and develop the strengths of workers rather than punish them for perceived weaknesses.

The premise of a 360 is simple: the people best placed to feedback on how you are doing are those who work most closely with you. 

By including a variety of different colleagues in the feedback process, a 360-degree review is designed to give someone a more rounded picture of their strengths and weaknesses than they would get from just their manager, who may not have such a holistic view.

If done right, the collective feedback gives an individual a breadth of useful information that’s a jumping off point to help them develop and grow - both personally and professionally - with invaluable and practical insights to inform their personal development plan.

If not done right - using flawed data based on rating people’s behaviours, which can never be objective - 360 feedback reviews are not helpful and won’t be trusted or looked forward to.

In this guide we explain how to do a 360-degree review well, when to use it, and the steps you need to take to implement one that will help your people become more effective and more engaged, and that will help you all work together better.

When to use a 360?

A 360 is one of a suite of tools that can be used to develop your workplace culture into one that supports teamwork and performance. Multi-person feedback has been found to be an effective part of that process - because of that 360s are a tool for both personal and organisational development.

One source estimates that multi-source or multi-person feedback such as a 360 is used in 90% of Fortune 1000 organisations, across a broad range of industries and sizes.

It’s common to run them annually or every 6 months, unless you have a specific need - such as new team members or someone who is having issues, or causing them - in which case you may need less of a gap between running them. 

The ideal use cases for a 360-degree feedback review

Because of their nature, 360’s are best used as a way of helping staff to develop and grow, not for performance appraisal. This is because feedback is subjective and hard to use as a measure.

360-degree feedback helps people develop their skills and pinpoint areas of improvement.
  • They help people find out how they’re doing, and discover the difference between how they see themselves and how they’re being received by colleagues at different levels.
  • They encourage people to keep on doing the things that have a positive impact, and uncover blindspots so that they can be worked on.
  • For example, someone might be performing really well in one area and be weaker in another but have no idea of either. We saw this with two new leaders in a large organisation who were struggling with imposter syndrome. They received such incredibly positive 360 feedback about the work they were doing that they both switched up their mindset and became much more confident and effective.

At the same time, 360’s help people at all levels become aware of their unhelpful or challenging behaviours - such as bullying, always being negative, or being a micromanager - so that they can change:
  • For example, in one of AdviceSheet’s 360 feedback reviews on a person who was causing problems in a team, because of the way the questions are structured the problems were brought out in a balanced way: people explained what was wrong, but were also careful to say what they appreciated, which helped the person accept what they were hearing, and realise that they had unresolved issues from a previous role, so they could move on. (And the whole team became happier.)

360’s also help people learn what behaviours will help them progress, and can be used to identify training needs.

Use for development not appraisal

Done right, 360 feedback is a tool for employee development, not for managing performance. This is because a 360 review is different to a performance review or appraisal (which is a tool for measuring and rewarding).

  • By its nature, a 360 feedback review is subjective so is best not used to measure performance or to decide on someone’s bonus. 
  • If a 360 is used as part of an appraisal or to decide on a bonus, friend team mates may give overly positive feedback whilst competitive colleagues may be affected by self-interest and try to hinder progress, by giving poor feedback, even if not warranted.
  • Done well, a 360 empowers employees to take personal responsibility for improving, rather than it being imposed on them.
  • A 360 works best if you view it as an investment in a staff member.
  • Best if it’s anonymous - so that people feel safe to give honest feedback, and without fear of their own position being affected.
  • Treat the reports as confidential - so that the recipient is not defensive and is open to receive and act on the feedback (and won't feel it’s a stick to beat them with.)
  • Feedback may be uncomfortable or conflicting (different people have different views after all) - so 360 feedback reports are best digested in a coaching conversation with someone who’s safe, independent and perhaps external.

How a 360 works

The best 360’s work by inviting participants to give meaningful feedback on a colleague through a series of questions and statements that they have to comment on. 

The feedback is usually gathered from 6-10 people who have varying working relationships with the person - including managers, peers and reports (at AdviceSheet we recommend at least 2 of each.)

The questions are designed to assess a range of workplace competencies and behaviours. (See the 12 questions we use here: https://advicesheet.com/questions)

These include how they experience their coworker, how their coworker’s behaviours affect them, and to comment on how their colleague is doing and where they are heading

The responses are collated and compiled into a report which is then shared with the individual, ideally in a coaching conversation where they can discuss how to grow and improve.

360’s are more powerful if: 
  • the feedback is anonymous, 
  • the results are kept confidential and not owned by HR or by line managers,
  • the 360 survey uses qualitative questions only* 

* this yields richer, more meaningful feedback that can actually be acted on. Asking people to rate competencies on a scale - which may make it quicker and easier to fill in - can be bewildering for the recipient who has to work out what a score of say 5 or 7 means in terms of how they are doing and how they can develop.

Who are the right people to give feedback?

The best people to give feedback are colleagues who work directly with the subject. This includes leaders, line managers, peers, direct reports, and - in more forward-thinking organisations sometimes even customers, and suppliers.

It is good practice to choose people who have worked with the person for several months or more, as they will have more experience of the employee’s behaviour and have seen them in various situations.

It’s also best if employees are fully engaged in the process. If you want 360-degree feedback to be effective, it has to be welcomed - if people are going to learn and grow from it, they need to be ready for that and intrinsically motivated, and not feel that it's being forced on them.

Why 360s are good - the benefits and risks

  • 360’s give your employees information on their strengths and where they can improve that they might not be aware of.
  • Reading or hearing things about yourself helps you grow. How can you get better if you don't know or if you have a mistaken view? 
  • In large organisations with flatter hierarchies, leaders may not have all the information they need to monitor how an employee is doing - which makes colleagues better placed to give feedback.
  • Using 360’s in a people-first way empowers employees to take personal responsibility for improving rather than it being imposed on them.
  • 360’s promote the company’s commitment to employee development which is useful for recruitment and retention.
  • It provides a fair and transparent process that encourages an open culture that values feedback.
  • It can improve team work through an increased understanding of behaviours and how others experience them.

  • The questions have to be well-thought out and well executed which means spending some time putting the process together.
  • People may give fairly conservative feedback rather than risk straining relationships with colleagues by saying things that could be perceived negatively - especially if a 360 feedback is not anonymous.
  • Standard 360s that use metrics are not objective and confusing to subjects.
  • If you need to assess someone’s performance, you’d be better off finding more quantifiable measures of success rather than basing it on how people feel about an individual. 
  • If a 360 isn't owned by the individual, then there is room for them to reject it. It will feel like it's being imposed and a punishment, and respondents may also feel they cannot tell the truth. Those are not conditions that are conducive to people being motivated to change or improve.
  • If feedback is not acted on, people may lose faith in the process.
  • If feedback is not well-communicated, it could cause distress to the subject.
  • Managers may use a 360 to highlight a problem team member’s weaknesses, as a way of avoiding a difficult conversation with them.

10 steps for designing a good 360 review

  1. Be clear on the goals
    Before you start, spend some time thinking about why you’re doing a 360 and the desired outcomes. We recommend 360 reviews are used as a tool for your employees’ development - which is considered a top workplace benefit - not for performance reviews.

  2. Communicate well and give examples of good feedback
    Before starting a new 360 review, make the process transparent - we recommend explaining to your team the purpose of it and how it’ll work, reassuring them that it’s for their benefit not tied to performance and exploring what is expected of them, and how to give effective and useful feedback. 

  3. Get buy in
    Opening up to feedback can be a scary thought for anyone - some people will understandably be wary, a few will be keener to do it. Start with the latter. To overcome the resistance of the rest, you could offer to go first and share your experience afterwards. Always be grateful for the feedback - it is a gift!
  4. Stagger it
    If everybody in your team is giving feedback on everybody else at the same time, that could end up being quite a few hours of work for everyone. Think about spreading the load and not doing 360’s on everyone all at once - that way it won’t feel like such a burden.

  5. Ask the right questions
    If you don't ask the right questions you won't get the answers you need. We spent quite a lot of time researching and road testing various questions. These are our twelve most insightful 360 feedback questions - feel free to use them: (https://advicesheet.com/questions)

  6. Consider the impact of using ‘metrics’
    In our experience, numbers kill development conversations. A lot of 360 reviews ask more than 30 ‘rating’ questions and present feedback as pages of bar charts. A score of 5 or 7 is a confusing way to understand how you’re doing and how your behaviours affect others. Instead, people need stories about how they are doing to really understand how to develop, so we recommend using open-text questions only. You could decide to use a mix.

  7. Make it easy to implement
    Gathering 360 feedback can be a logistical nightmare, especially if it’s anonymous. Find the right tool to run a 360 rather than trying to do it yourself.

  8. Ensure reminders are not overwhelming
    360s mean quite a few emails - invitations to participate, reminders and follow ups - especially if your whole team is doing it. Busy people get enough email as it is. Getting overwhelmed by feedback requests during 360 season is annoying. Ensure it doesn’t become overwhelming by using the right 360 software that automates reminders without bombarding everyone.

  9. Have a good follow up process
    It is normal to feel nervous about 360 feedback. We recommend agreeing in advance how people will go through their feedback report and who will do that with them. It’s not a good idea for subjects to digest their report on their own - because it can make for uncomfortable reading. A session with their manager might be perfect for some people. Others might find the power dynamics of that difficult - so consider lining up a safe internal ‘mentor’, bringing in an external coach or arranging peers to do the review conversations.

  10. Empower people to act on feedback
    If feedback is not acted on, people may lose faith in the process. So after individuals have gone through their feedback, work out how you will support or empower them with the things they need to work on or take forward. When people see something happening as a result and that there is support for them, they will have more confidence in the process.

How to get the most out of the feedback

We recommend 360 reports are best gone through with a ‘safe’ person in a coaching conversation. 

Digesting the feedback on your own is likely to lead to tears, because we all find it hard to be objective about personal feedback. We tend to overplay any negatives and gloss over our strengths. 

Reviewing 360 feedback on your own is never a good idea, and doing it with your manager or boss might also be difficult. Best to have a coach or a trusted peer go through it with you.

One client of ours, a leader in a large institution, hadn’t slept for a few days after reading their 360 feedback because they were so upset by what they’d read. We had advised them not to look at their review until the day before their coaching conversation, but they heard that advice “too late.”

“I’m going round in loops, alternating between hating myself and then hating everybody else, and being really angry about how unfair it is,” they said. 

When we had the conversation, the feedback showed there were some problems with their behaviours, but there were also a lot of positives. Once they calmed down and could accept the feedback, they were able to change.

Our 360 feedback tool

If you’re looking for good 360 review software that supports the growth of your employees and your organisation, and removes the complicated admin that can accompany 360’s, our tool AdviceSheet is easy to use so you don't have to do any admin, it is really that simple. AdviceSheet has:
  • Transparent pricing
  • Automates the process
  • Anonymous participants
  • Confidential reports
  • Free from meaningless metrics
  • Questions that stimulate insightful answers