360-degree feedback has been facing a dilemma in the workplace for quite some time. Employers love it—over 90% of Fortune 500 companies are now using some form of 360-degree feedback for leader assessment and development. However, managers generally do not care for receiving feedback, especially when ratings from supervisors, peers and direct-reports can appear dramatically deviant from their own self-ratings. 360-degree feedback is designed to identify leaders’ blind spots – weaknesses that they may not notice but are apparent to those around them. Should we always treat others’ perspectives as the golden standard to gauge leaders’ lack of self-awareness? Under what conditions do observers’ judgments become curved and tainted? Here are three facts about 360-degree feedback I’d like to share with you. Keep these in mind when interpreting discrepancies between self-ratings and the ratings of others’.
1) Raters use different theories of leadership.
Were you asked to describe your ideal supervisor when you interviewed for a job? Indeed, every person has his or her own beliefs and expectations about what an ideal leader should look like. When it comes to evaluating leaders they work with, raters more or less compare the target against their implicit standards. Even to the same competency, decision-making for example, interpretations vary person to person. To one person, decisiveness and sensitivity to useful information make a good decision-maker. To another person, involving others and being open to different opinions is the key to making outstanding decisions. There is no right or wrong criteria about individuals’ implicit leadership models. However, if raters use dramatically distinct standards in 360° ratings, their ratings come with a substantial portion of idiosyncrasies and are therefore problematic when directly compared. Therefore, it is critical to use well-structured, behaviorally-anchored rating scales to create a shared, standard conceptualization of competencies to be rated.
2) Raters have different opportunities to observe leader behaviors.
If your subordinate and your long-term client both evaluate your service orientation, whose feedback will you find more insightful? Who do you think knows better about your coaching skills: your boss or your direct report? You see my point. Leaders interact with different people in different work contexts; in a particular environment they tend to demonstrate one area of leadership more than another. As such, you wouldn’t expect your external customers to accurately evaluate how inspiring you are as a team leader, but you may greatly appreciate their comment on your influencing skills and business acumen. Observers cannot be accurate in every aspect. An effective and efficient 360-degree feedback program leverages each rater’s best knowledge and observation.
3) Raters are always under one or more motivations.
The primary goal of 360-degree feedback is to help leaders grow. When it comes to different raters, however, this is by no means their single motive – oftentimes not even the main one. Subordinates are most concerned of hurting relationship with their supervisors, so they usually inflate their ratings(even it is promised to be anonymous, they are still afraid that supervisors will find out who gave negative feedback). When 360-degree results are linked with administrative decisions such as promotions and bonuses, co-worker raters may purposely underestimate competitors in peer competition to put them at a disadvantage, whereas supervisors will likely glorify every team member in order to win team performance-based rewards. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to entirely remove rating bias. One rule of thumb is to use 360-degree feedback exclusively for developmental purposes, due to the fact that involving administrative decisions could possibly produce personal concerns and calculations. It is also essential to understand the underlying motives of different types of raters (e.g., supervisor, peer, subordinate, internal customer, external customer), and to report their ratings separately in the 360-degree feedback.