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Our musings on making 360 degree feedback fantastic

Introducing 360 Degree Feedback – Part 3 – HOW to deliver 360 for success

The recipe to guarantee a pain-free 360 project

Article by Elva Ainsworth, world-renowned 360 degree specialist, author and consultant


Receiving a 360 degree report can be deeply upsetting and it can be life-changing. 360 can leave people seriously unsettled and can leave emotional scars for years, yet, at the same time, it can lead people to see things differently in a way that literally transforms the course of their career.  It can take people onto a new path, one that fits them better than they might ever imagine.  But 360 doesn’t have to leave anyone upset at all…there is a way to deliver 360 so that you can guarantee that everyone is ok.  This is the Talent Innovations recommended approach – described briefly here and in more detail in my book “360 Degree Feedback: A Transformational Approach” – click here.

The recipe for a pain-free 360 project contains seven ingredients combined with a bit of magic sprinkled on the top:

  1. Integration – build your 360 within a bigger, strategic programme
  2. Focus on current priorities – ensure business priorities are reflected clearly in your 360
  3. Commitment – source your seven key roles effectively for true commitment and engagement
  4. Design – build your 360 carefully so it is robust, accurately assessing a compelling and current framework and so it delivers your objectives
  5. Inspire – offer an inspiring package for participants to take control and manage their own journey, with real invitations to (freely) participate
  6. Support – bring in coaching and 360 expertise and offer face-to-face sessions to every participant
  7. Keep to the “two sleeps” rule! – ensure participants have time to read, digest and start to process their 360 before a coaching session for best results

Let’s look at these points in more detail:

  1. Integration

It is easy to assume that, if you have decided to “do 360” then you should focus on exactly this but actually, in our experience of running over 200 360 projects, it is much more effective when you build your 360 within a bigger context or programme – in fact, it is essential.  The reason for this is that 360 data is a detailed snapshot of an individual at a point in time – like a full “MRI” body scan for instance.  Now any detailed diagnostic will show up exactly this – details.  And, if designed right, it will show up those specifics that are not quite working fully from other people’s perspectives and lots of other details too.  But what is normal for someone my age/role in this situation?  What is ok?  What is not ok?  What needs fixing?  How to fix it?  To answer these questions, you need to have seen other MRIs and you need to understand about how things connect and influence each other.

The understanding is just the beginning of the process – you then need an overview interpretation in the light of what you are trying to achieve, and in the light of the current organisational goals too.  You then need to understand the consequences and the options moving forward before a “treatment plan” can be identified and agreed.  Then there is a process of experimentation, exploration, prioritisation and goal-definition – or there may simply be a process of acceptance with how things are and a re-planning of the future.  But, wherever it goes, it is clear that the data itself is just as described, it’s only data.  It can act as a very useful springboard but this data is best delivered within the context of a broader programme of development.

Options include:

  • Personal coaching programme
  • Talent potential programme
  • Cultural change initiative
  • Leadership skill training
  • Team building event
  • Introduction feedback initiative
  • Customer focus programme
  • Insights initiative

Key is therefore to deliver 360 within a larger initiative – something that totally fits your current strategy and will inspire your people.  The focus on 360 will then change – from one of potential issue to being simply a tool, one of the pieces of a bigger picture.  This way, the significance eases which in turn helps the emotions respond maturely.  The perspective alters and it will often ends up being not just “one of the pieces” but actually, “the most valuable part”.  By making the game bigger, you, rather bizarrely, make the 360 easier and more palatable.

The other aspect of integration that is essential to get right is to ensure the content and messaging within your 360 is fully aligned with your other HR frameworks and models.  This is straight forward to do as you can build your 360 on your priority model and you can cross-map your content to other supplementary models at the same time.  Your 360 reports can then display the data using these models and the right language.  Getting the branding consistent throughout is also essential so that your 360 looks like it is part of other HR initiatives going on.

For further information on how to integrate your 360 please do read chapter 11 of my book, “360 Degree Feedback: A Transformational Approach” –  click here.

  1. Focus on current priorities

Competency frameworks are not as easy and straightforward to build as they may appear.  A robust and well-constructed model takes something to develop.  It requires significant knowledge and/or research to ensure it truly represents the current behaviours that differentiate between the best performers and the worst.   Learn about some of the techniques you can use to do this in our guide to developing a competency framework – click here.  The tricky thing is that, by the time you have a good model with management buy-in, it may very well be already out of date!  This is the challenge with any quality framework.  In order to guarantee the relevance of your 360 however, you need to be working with today’s language and tomorrow’s vision.

The way to ensure you have built your 360 on current priorities is to find the best model as a starting point and then to translate this to ensure you are bringing up to date strategies and thinking.  You need to hear your visionaries and your key stakeholders and adapt your model so that it incorporates the latest views on what is required in the future.  You may need some help with this.  Our guide to drafting 360 questions can assist you further in this area – click here.

However, it is not simply a matter of updating the content of your 360, it is also important to ensure the positioning of the 360 itself is clearly linked with a top strategy.  This is quite straightforward – if it is not easily linked then you perhaps should not be doing it just now.  This is then a branding exercise and a way to ensure senior commitment is clear and tangible.

  1. Commitment

You cannot guarantee success in 360 if you are alone in delivering this project.  For it to be a transformational process, it cannot be a one person show.

You are advised to source your seven key roles carefully:

360 project lead:
You need someone who is ready to be accountable for the project and its success.  They are usually from the HR or OD department but could be external.

360 project champion:
A senior line champion who is driving the project is essential for real impact.  You need someone, ideally your CEO, who is truly committed to encouraging development and feedback.

The target group:
You need to identify your target audience for the first wave of your 360 project.  This is often a senior team or a particular level within the leadership group.  Look at where the true hunger for feedback is greatest, rather than where the need is most.

The reviewers:
There may be between 8 and 18 reviewers per participant – including their managers, their colleagues, their direct reports and potentially internal or external stakeholders or customers – possibly also family or friends.  All these people need some level of briefing and invitation to participate.

360 administrator/helpdesk/“bureau support”:
360 projects need day-to-day management once they are kicked off as queries need dealing with and questions need responses.

The coaches/supporters:
360 data can be tricky to interpret and you can only guarantee the value of the 360 exercise if you offer every participant a feedback review session with an experienced and trained coach.  More on these options in another blog on the website – click here.

Your 360 supplier:
Choosing the right partner to build your tool and support you through the process will be critical to the success of your project.

Each of these roles are discussed in more detail in the blog on the website – click here.

  1. Design

A great process will ensure sensitivities are managed well but even the best diagnostic and treatment process will fall down if the tools are faulty! An MRI false reading would be quite dangerous – and the same is true of 360.  You want to ensure your 360 accurately evaluates the perspectives of the reviewers and is accurately represented by the summary data.  You also want to be sure that your participants know what to do when they receive some negative ratings.  If your 360 has grouped questions together erroneously and summarised them under one heading e.g. “Communication”, when they are not all referring to communication, or if your 360 contains long questions containing two or three portions e.g. “Works in partnership with external parties to deliver change” then a low rating may lead you to wonder whether it is your ability to work in partnership, your relationships with external parties or your ability to deliver change.  If it is indeed all three then you may not be very clear which bit to focus on differently in the future.

To guide you in drafting of 360 questions, the Talent Innovations Five Golden Rules are:

    You should aim for between 2 and 6 words – 10 maximum.
    You should avoid asking two questions in one – avoid “and”.
    Every single reviewer needs to be able to understand it easily; no abbreviations.
    Check that a reviewer can see or hear them do this.
    Ensure a big word is not used twice in your survey.

It is not just the questions themselves however.  There are many aspects to the design of an effective 360 – including the definition of the rating scale, the size and randomisation of the survey, the type of survey you choose (Ti have six different types to choose from), the way it is described and introduced and also the way it interacts with the reviewers.

  1. Inspire

If your participants are engaged and inspired by their 360, the whole process will be easier and more effective.  The impact will be enhanced as they will be bringing the value towards them.  There will naturally be less resistance to feedback.  There are a number of ways to ensure you will inspire your participants:

Ensure the whole package (of which 360 is a part) is of great interest to them.  Check that they are enthused and energised by the idea. You will know they are enthused by their reactions to it.  If you are not sure, then you probably need to do more before going ahead.

Connect the participation in the process with something the participants really care about – either solving one of their problems, removing their pain or, better still, giving them something they really want.  This could be promotions, development dollars, recognition, visibility or coaching.  If you are not sure what they want or need, then ask them.

Choose a target group that has something personally “at stake” i.e. they want something as a result of their participation.  The more they want something, the easier it will be for your 360 to be successful.

Protect with privacy – to ensure the sensitive egos feel safe and secure it is important that you protect their privacy.  It is your job to ensure there are boundaries around the data that work for everyone. This can be a tricky conundrum as the senior leaders may want full visibility of all data but this can be a deal-breaking issue for the individuals.  It is only when people feel safe that they will truly open up to feedback and will be comfortable giving their views.  The trick is to find the sweet spot which will protect vulnerabilities and provide management value.  Often the answer is to look long term. You may need to start by keeping personal 360 data private (with an encouragement to share with their boss/coach) with aggregate data visible but in subsequent years you may be able to move to a clear and agreed sharing of data.

    6.  Support

When you start a 360 project you do not know who is going to need support with their data.  Not everyone needs to discuss their MRI with a Consultant but some do so it is not surprising that everyone gets an appointment but the level of attention and speed of response may then start to depend on your results.  This is a strategy you can use with 360.  Once you have decided whether your support is best provided by external or internal personnel (or indeed chosen by your participants themselves), you are best offering support to everyone.  That way all reactions are handled and those that need more support can be offered this.

There are specific techniques that Talent Innovations has developed over the 20 years for giving 360 feedback coaching sessions which may assist you. There is a specific structure to a feedback session that guarantees the best result from a two-hour face-to-face session for instance.  This includes six stages:

1.   RAPPORT Getting you both present, with credibility 5 min max
2.   BOUNDARIES Clarify objectives, boundaries and process 5 min max
3.   THEIR GOAL Getting to know them and what they want 20 min max
4.   EXPLORATION Exploring the 360 data together 80 min max
5.   SUMMARY Summarising the position 3 min max
6.  COMMITMENT Over to them: their priorities and their commitment 8 min max
Ref “360 Degree Feedback: A Transformational Approach” by E Ainsworth, page 124

First, it is about establishing credibility as the coach and building rapport. Then follows an introduction to the session – clearly setting the boundaries for the conversation and confirming data privacy issues and the full context of the 360.  At this stage it is important to hear their views and feelings on their 360 so you can start to see and feel where they are in this process.

The next stage is to get the key background information and their personal context for their data.  At the same time, you need to identify what they are really wanting.  It is critical to agree something in their future that they want.  It may be the next promotion, an improved relationship, a better appraisal grade or even a new job.  It does not really matter what it is as long as they really want it as it then becomes the matter “at stake” that is essential for them to get the value from the process.  Ideally you should pin them down to exactly what they want and “by when” they want it.  Sometimes this is the most useful part of the whole 360 process as they may never before have got this clear about their vision for the future.

The next step is to explore the data in totality.  With this process it is advised to cover (even if very briefly) each and every page – you need to check they have understood the data correctly and you need to summarise for them.  Assume they have not spotted all the links or nuances but assume nothing else!  It is about challenging and supporting them through their own data discovery.  This is where it really is very different from an MRI, and more like a basic wellbeing diagnostic that is in their power to understand to a point.  It is the depth of understanding and the true relevance to their future which needs help.  Each visual should tell a story about them and their personality.  Each bit of data should make sense amongst all of the data and any data under question should generate a number of possible hypotheses.  Your job is to facilitate this exploration and hypothesis generation and to bring in data from elsewhere in the report.  Look for triangulation of data before conclusions even start to be made.  Check theories out with reality and with reviewers – with care of course.

360 data is easy to “see” but not so easy to truly understand.  An example of this is when an individual is keen to “be liked” by everyone.  This will be evident across the report but this over-riding issue will not be explicit nor necessarily clear to the participant.  In fact, the deepest insights are naturally not visible to the person themselves.  Identifying the patterns is the real value the coach brings.  Chapter 8 in my book “360 Degree Feedback: A Transformational Approach” covers advanced interpretation and some common patterns to look for.

The 360 coaching process seems to be about interpreting data but it really it is about your participant coming to an expanded and updated view of themselves.  It will be your smart questioning and your acute listening that will allow them to come to their own conclusions.  At the end they may, or may not, see themselves as the gentle cat who is seen as a fierce lion by others for instance:

Once you have covered all the data, you can then summarise the report and give your perspective, including your comparison with others, your take on their fit to the role and their cultural fit within the organisation. You can usefully acknowledge the key positives and you can also identify some specifics that are current challenges.  You can then ask them what their conclusions are.

The final piece is to ask them to clarify where they think they should focus their energy in the future.  You can guide them to think of two or three areas only and you can discuss them further if there is the space and energy.  Otherwise it is advisable to ask them to write these down and agree their next steps – and finally to thank them for their participation and sharing.

This structured conversation takes a participant from initial thoughts on their 360 through a journey of discovery and exploration to form some clarity on areas they want to focus on moving forward.

  1. Keep to the “two sleeps” rule!

The final ingredient is small but critical. People need to process their 360, just like we need time to process difficult news.  First reactions will usually be a mixture of shock, denial, anger, resistance and depression (often in that precise order).  The emotions are running the show driving these reactions; there is no mental or emotional space for mature thinking, reasoning or even just listening.  In our experience, 48 hours is a good time period between receiving the report and a planned coaching session.  We advise the “two sleeps” rule and consistently get the best results this way.  Participants appreciate being prepared, they enjoy being treated like an adult with their data and they also prefer to experience their initial reactions in private.  It is important that they know they will be getting support soon as they tend not to take any action in the meantime and they then turn up to the session in a position where they are ready to explore, get clear and start to make sense of it.  If we ever miss the two sleeps we can easily end up dealing with the shock and anger and do not get to coaching in the session at all.

Each of these seven ingredients are essential if you want to guarantee a successful 360 project.  If you are missing any of them, you may well be a struggle so it is advisable to work on the missing pieces before you move on.  Are these seven sufficient??  Well, probably only the key magic dust is missing – and that is a true commitment to growth and development.  If your intention is true it will generally work out well.

© Talent Innovations
April 2018

To read the earlier articles in this series, click below: 



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