360 degree feedback complete guide

360 degree feedback: A complete guide to designing and running programmes

Despite 360 degree feedback being a well-established and widely used tool, there’s little out there by way of freely-available practical guidance on it.

So, we thought we’d help by creating a comprehensive guide. It covers everything from what 360 appraisals actually are, to how to design and implement one in your business.

We hope this will be really useful for anyone who’s new to 360 or just looking for a refresher. If you already know much of this stuff, though, and are looking for help evaluating prospective 360 degree feedback providers or tools, you may find another of our guides, on the functions, features and pricing of 360 degree feedback programmes, more valuable.

What is 360 degree feedback?

Also sometimes referred to as multi-rater feedback, 360 appraisal or 360 degree assessment, it is a process by which individuals can ask others to provide them with feedback on their performance, including the behaviours, skills and competencies they display in their job.

Those taking part typically invite feedback from a cross-section of work colleagues and even clients. Feedback is usually given anonymously (apart from the manager), although more organisations are starting to introduce some attributed feedback too.

360 feedback is known for its versatility and it has a number of different applications such as for employee and leadership development, to inform performance appraisal or to embed cultural values. It’s also being used more and more as an aid to career conversations, helping individuals see where they need to focus to progress.

Why use 360 feedback?

The value of the process lies in the fact that you get a balanced view due to the feedback coming from multiple sources as opposed to just one source (line manager). This has arguably become of even greater value in modern workplaces where sometimes managers and their teams don’t work in the same office or even country. Managers may, therefore, not always be best placed to provide feedback on a person’s day to day behaviour.

By inviting people who you work closely with and who have plenty of opportunity to observe you, you’re more assured of getting valuable, well-informed developmental feedback. And, when acted upon, this can prove a great catalyst for personal development.

Whereas a traditional performance review will focus on what you’ve achieved, a 360 degree review is all about how you work. It can be particularly effective in helping you to improve key ‘soft’ or transferable skills such as leadership, working collaboratively and communication.

Should 360 feedback be used for development or appraisal?

It can be either but should never be both. More commonly, 360 feedback is considered a development tool and the vast majority of our clients still use it as such. However, it can be useful as part of a performance review too, but it is crucial that the feedback culture is mature enough for this. Where companies are interested in using it to measure performance, we often recommend introducing a 360 programme first for development and then transitioning at a point in the future, once the business is ready.

Can 360 feedback help to establish a feedback culture?

Fostering a strong and open feedback culture promises numerous benefits for both individuals and organisations. Receiving regular, constructive feedback about how you’re doing in general or how you fared on a recent project is something we could all find helpful. Ideally such formal and informal feedback conversations should be happening at all levels between peers and between managers and subordinates as this will help to improve things like employee engagement and performance. For its part, a 360 process can help to establish a level of comfort with the idea of giving and receiving feedback so that this becomes the norm.

Which job levels is 360 feedback most useful for?

While traditionally 360 feedback was seen as a tool for senior leadership development, it can be invaluable for many other employee groups too. People managers at all levels are one such example. Developing managerial capabilities and behaviours in this group has the potential for far reaching benefits both for the individual and the organisation. While the population you target will depend on the aims of the programme, most multi-rater feedback processes tend to start with the senior team before being cascaded down the management levels. The benefit of this approach is that others see senior leaders taking part first, building confidence and buy-in to the programme.

What 360 feedback questions should you include?

There’s no one-size-fits-all set of questions to use in a 360 process. The questions needed will be specific to the organisation. We usually recommend using an existing competency or values framework as the starting point for a 360 questionnaire. From there, consider key behaviours, skills or traits you want from the population in question, then devise questions relating to these.

Questions most commonly-used typically fall into the following categories:

  • Management/leadership capability
  • Alignment with business strategy/goals/vision
  • Communication skills
  • Creativity/innovation
  • Interpersonal or ‘soft’ skills
  • Teamwork and/or collaboration skills.

Keep in mind that a single process may not evaluate participants on all such skills or behaviours. In fact, it’s probably best that it doesn’t since the questionnaire would likely end up being overly long to complete, which is definitely to be avoided.

You also need to ensure that questions asked are truly reflective of one single behaviour, and that action could be taken to improve that behaviour. Introducing multiple concepts into a question means that feedback is almost impossible to provide accurately.

What’s the best 360 feedback rating scale to use?

As with the types of questions to include, there’s not one rating scale that is better than all others. However, there are a number of options and different rating scales will have different pros and cons. Furthermore, positive bias is a pretty common phenomenon and can often be a symptom of the culture of the organisation, or the relative immaturity of a 360 programme. Fortunately choosing the right rating scale can go a long way to avoiding ‘clustering’ of scores. The key to deciding between the various scales is considering what the organisation’s feedback culture is like, whether participants have experienced 360 feedback before and what it is being used for (development or assessment).

We talk more about best practice for 360 degree feedback rating scales in a separate article but here’s a rundown of the types of feedback scales used:

  • Effectiveness scale
  • Observed frequency scale (4 or 6 point)
  • Anchored observed frequency scale (typically our recommended approach where 360 is being used for behavioural development)
  • Developmental or strengths-based scale.

Should you go for levelled questionnaires?

Lots of organisations choose to employ levelled 360 questionnaires. This allows internal competency frameworks and target behavioural questions to be lined up to particular levels of seniority/roles, e.g. by providing more stretch in questions which are seen by more senior leaders, or asking more stretching behavioural questions of certain populations.

However, this approach is not right for all organisations. For example, if there is a single leadership framework in place, or where a 360 programme questionnaire is based on values, there is an argument for all participants seeing the same version of the questionnaire, regardless of seniority or hierarchy. This sends the message about the behavioural standards which are valued within the business (from everyone) and that should form part of the workplace culture. As a by-product, this can also encourage greater use of the full scale.

How should you go about introducing 360 feedback?

Active stakeholder support at a senior level is invaluable. If others see senior leaders, starting at the very top, taking part in a 360 process, this will help to embed the process and encourage uptake elsewhere. For this reason, when introducing it for the first time, a number of our clients start the process with their most senior populations and then roll out more widely.

Clear communication is arguably the other key factor. Make sure the messaging is very clear around what the 360 process is for, how data will be used, who will see it and how the participants benefit from taking part.

What are the roles and responsibilities involved?

This is the person or persons charged with setting up a 360 programme, creating or at least adding the desired questionnaire and then assigning access to the chosen participants. This could be an HR representative or a manager heading up a talent programme who ‘push’ it out to a given population. Or, with some 360 degree feedback tools featuring self-registration, it can be made available to employees at all levels who effectively ask to take part and administer the process themselves.

The participant or subject is sometimes also referred to as the feedback receiver or ‘ratee’. As part of the 360 process, they will need to complete a self-evaluation questionnaire. Doing so enables them to see how their own perceptions of themselves compare with the views of their chosen raters. This can highlight important, and often eye-opening, hidden strengths and perception gaps.

Also referred to as a feedback provider or rater, they are invited to provide feedback on the participant by completing a questionnaire. A participant will usually invite anywhere between five and 10 raters. They are typically made up of peers working at a similar level, subordinate employees, managers and even clients.

Almost always the participant’s manager will be among his or her chosen raters. In addition to their role in providing feedback, they’ll often also be involved afterwards in helping the participant to assess the feedback and prioritise developmental actions.

How do you prepare participants?

There’s no denying that having other people evaluate how you work and offer their views on you can be an uncomfortable experience. However, it can also be a richly rewarding and enlightening one too. Here’s some important stuff to keep in mind:

  • Nobody is judging you, they’re simply offering their views based on what they’ve observed
  • You don’t have to agree with all feedback. There’s no right or wrong and everything is open to your interpretation
  • Embrace this as a learning exercise that gives you pointers of what to consider changing in order to develop and achieve your goals
  • You are free to decide on what you do with feedback, what aspects you agree with and what to act on. But please, be open-minded!

What advice can you offer to those giving feedback?

This is a subject we cover in greater detail in a separate article but here are the headlines of how to help prepare people to provide constructive feedback:

  • Remind people what their feedback is to be used for
  • Encourage them to be both honest and constructive
  • Reassure them over the anonymity of the process
  • Make them aware of common feedback pitfalls such as the ‘halo effect’, leniency and recency.

What data should you include in a 360 feedback report?

We suggest offering two different report formats for those participating in a 360 degree review; a single page summary report for an ‘at a glance’ view, and a detailed report for deeper analysis.
A summary report would normally contain a summary of key strengths, development areas, and perception gaps, which are where either others rated you higher than you did yourself or vice versa. Where available, it may also include a historic comparison.

A detailed report provides greater insight into how each feedback provider group has responded. This is valuable in fully understanding results and is most often a tool used in one-to-one feedback facilitation and coaching.

What are the typical steps involved?

    1. Administration and initial set up (either names added to group or by self-registration)
    2. Participant accesses 360 tool to invite feedback providers
    3. Line manager approval of chosen feedback providers (optional step and will depend on context)
    4. Participant completes self-questionnaire and raters also complete feedback
    5. Report released to the participant (once required raters have all provided feedback)
    6. Feedback session between participant and coach/manager to agree development actions.

What can you do to encourage follow up and behavioural change?

The involvement of a manager or a coach can be particularly useful immediately afterwards, helping the participant to understand the feedback, identify the areas they need to act on (which won’t necessarily simply be those that are lowest-scoring) while also increasing their accountability for acting on the feedback. The participant should then be encouraged to build any actions into a personal development plan.

But the process really mustn’t end there, it should become a cycle. To encourage behavioural change in participants, follow-up is essential. And that doesn’t just mean once. Set a timescale for a ‘follow-up 360’ and make this a recurring check-in. This should happen between six and 12 months after the initial process and it could feature questions just relating to agreed development actions to assess progress.

Need help to revise or optimise an existing 360 feedback process, or looking to design and introduce a completely new platform? We can help; please get in touch for a chat.

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Related resources

360 degree feedback tools: A comprehensive guide for HR buyers

In this guide, we outline a range of criteria, considerations and questions for prospective buyers of 360 feedback programmes. This should provide a solid basis for a brief.

360 degree feedback rating scales: What’s best practice?

This article explores different types of 360 degree feedback rating scales commonly used and considers the scenarios when each of them is most suitable.

How can you ensure 360 feedback always offers great value for leaders?

If 360 feedback is to offer real value to leaders, it’s imperative the process is freshened up to ensure its strategic relevance. Here we highlight three key design considerations for questionnaires.

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