Speak to any team or organisation about the issues they face, and the quality of communication, and in particular feedback, will usually be near the top of the list.
Wanting a feedback culture doesn’t create one; instead it requires conditions that are only developed intentionally and slowly. These include: safety for everyone, trust between people, literacy around power, a sense of collective direction, a desire to learn, excellent interpersonal communication.
In a social sector that highly values compassion and care, and has a complicated relationship with challenge that might lead to conflict, an open and direct approach to feedback can quickly slip into what Kim Scott’s Radical Candour describes as Ruinous Empathy, and what we now tend to call Ruinous Sympathy after a useful challenge from a group of leaders we worked with at Crisis.
This means a 360 feedback process, however staid it might appear, represents a significant opportunity. Often one of the few formal processes for giving and receiving feedback in an organisation, and a testing ground for new approaches to feedback, reflection and communication, it becomes a set piece worth taking seriously.
For anyone unfamiliar, the 360 is a process by which a participant reflects on and evaluates themselves, and asks for feedback from a number of other people against the same questions. The principle of self-assessment and feedback is fairly standard across organisations and sectors, though it’s deployed in different ways and for different reasons according to context. In some cases people rate themselves and are rated against a scale, in others the questions are qualitative; often it’s both. In most cases the process produces a report which informs reflection on development priorities, and in some cases pay and progression.
Over the last 5 years or so at Koreo the 360 has increasingly become the starting point for our learning projects, with a belief that it can be an incredibly powerful way of supporting someone to identify what matters to them about their work and their learning, and can provide the catalyst for a learning process that can be transformational.
In that context, we’ve designed and implemented 360 feedback processes across the social sector — sometimes as part of organisational work and sometimes as part of cross-sector learning spaces — and have developed what we think is an approach that is as distinctive as it is developmental.
Here’s some of our learning from that work:
- Create Agency: there’s a temptation to look at a 360 through the lens of the organisation or entity that’s running the process. That might be by aligning questions and rating scales closely to organisational values or behaviours, by making the process fully quantifiable, or by putting rigid constraints around the process in terms of who can participate and how. By contrast, we’ve found how liberating and powerful it is to give people agency in the process to pursue the feedback they really want. So we’ve increasingly supported people to set their own questions, designing a process which will produce the insight and learning they need to shape their priorities. This in itself creates a beautiful opportunity to work with people on developing powerful, open questions, which we often integrate with an introduction to peer coaching.
- Broaden the Feedback Horizon: While it’s definitely true that the people asked to give feedback as part of a 360 process need to know the person well enough to give feedback, it’s easy to fall into a trap of only asking immediate colleagues/managers/line reports. In doing so, people limit the scope of feedback and the range of perspectives they have access to. If you’re leading or taking part in a 360, suggest people ask for feedback from parts of their life outside work; stakeholders, clients, participants, mentors. Encourage people to think about the people who will take it seriously and have a perspective they’ll care about.
- Don’t Underestimate the Ask: Having learnt this the hard way, take it from us that a 360 process can land very heavy in a team or organisation, and can take a significant amount of time for people to complete properly. So consider giving a limit to the number of people someone can ask for feedback from within one organisation, check the list of people asked for feedback and limit it to 5 or less, and DEFINITELY give a heads up to anyone who’s going to be asked for feedback by more than one person. We’re usually keen for people to have 5 or so people to get feedback from, but ultimately this can work with as little as 3, so if time and capacity is limited you can reduce that number.
- Focus on the Feedback: Part of the reason for 360 being a powerful and important process in teams is because feedback is often irregular and low quality. So it makes sense that 360s tend to throw up a lot of poor quality feedback which is hard to action or respond to. There shouldn’t be any surprises in formal feedback, but our experience would suggest that this is a common aspect of the process for people. So a critical part of our 360 process is to take everyone participating through feedback workshops in advance of taking part, and packaging up tips on feedback to send out to people giving feedback as part of the process. As you’ll have seen from earlier in this piece, we’ve got a lot of mileage out of Kim Scott’s Radical Candour over the last few years, as well as the feedback PICOC which we’ll blog about separately. Finally, we’ve increasingly taken to suggesting named feedback rather than anonymous, checking 360 reports before sending them out and asking people to clarify or amend their feedback where necessary, to ensure that what is shared is clear, constructive and useful for the receiver.
- Offer Outside Reflection Space: The 360 can be a very emotional process for people, for good and bad. On the good side, it can be a confirming, generative experience of reinforcement and encouragement, giving a moment of appreciation and confidence. On the other, it can uncover blindspots, bring significant challenge, unpleasant surprises, and can be an arena for anonymous criticism. To enable meaningful engagement with the outcome of the process, whatever its form, we almost always offer an outside coaching space with someone who can take a participant through the outcome and support them to make sense of next steps. We also send the report out max 24 hours in advance of the session so that people don’t have too long with it before having an opportunity to reflect on it meaningfully.
- Create Space for Response: Building on the above, we’ve always been surprised how often the 360 process in organisations ends when someone’s been sent their feedback. The result is that not only are they left with a feedback resource but without the support to interpret it, but also without any way of responding to what they’ve heard. That’s particularly hard when people experience the feedback as partial, unfair, or unhelpful. So we now ask everyone who’s participated to write a short reflection on the process and outcome, which is then shared with everyone who gave them feedback. This is an opportunity to share any emotion, reflect on learning and conclusions, in some cases to correct the record, as well as to share next steps. We tend to share these reflections in advance and then in a session ask people to reflect on what they read across the group, looking for trends, contrasts, and lessons.
- A Starting Point: And finally, while it could be an end in itself, for us the 360 is always the starting point. That means we use it as a way of supporting someone to identify development areas and then articulate a question related to their practice or development that they want to pay some attention to over the course of a programme of project. For us this is usually the starting point of a programme, a group of people in a learning community with personal learning inquiries which can be stitched into collective inquiries and ultimately distilled into learning experiments. But even without an accompanying programme, a 360 can be the beginning of a new conversation through 1–2–1s and something to refer back to to understand progress.
We’ll continue to add to these reflections over the next few months, and if a guide to designing and delivering a 360 process would be helpful let us know and we’ll pull one together. In the meantime, here are 4 of the most generative, open questions we’ve seen people ask each other as part of a 360:
- What do you think my blind spots are?
- What questions should I be asking myself at this point in my work/practice/career/life?
- What do you value about the way I work/the way we work together?
- What are your hopes/expectations for me over the next 12 months?