Everything You Always Wanted To Know About 360 Assessments But Were Afraid To Ask


This article was originally published on Forbes.com.

“Will I be upset by my results?” my client asks me.

“Who knows?” I respond. “I’ve given people critical 360s and they’ve shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘That’s about what I expected.’ And I’ve given others what I would consider an effusive 360 review, only to have them obsess about one small growth opportunity someone pointed out.”

As these assessments have become an increasingly prominent part of leadership development initiatives throughout both startups and large companies, many more leaders have found themselves receiving 360 feedback. Organizations reap substantial benefits from taking the performance management conversation beyond the cocoon of manager and direct report, where it has primarily resided.

You might get 360 feedback in many different ways. One nonprofit I work with asks managers to survey peers, direct reports and other leaders for the strength/growth areas of each employee in every performance cycle. This is a herculean effort for the managers but yields wise insights hard to come by otherwise.

Another effective way you might receive 360 data is through internal or external coaches. Coaches collect feedback from people in different functions and levels who interact with a leader. This data gathering can happen through a 360 survey or a one-to-one interview-style conversation between coach and relevant co-workers.

While 360s have been increasingly popular tools in my coaching engagements, there’s relatively little written about them in the popular business media.

Dr. Jo’s Top Five FAQs For Demystifying The 360 Process

• What’s the difference between a survey and an interview-style 360?

360s allow the interviewer to delve deeper into suggested growth areas to understand exactly what conditions trigger certain behaviors in the workplace and what might be more effective or desired behavior.

Most online 360s are great at pointing to your particular areas of strengths and potential growth areas. But they can be a little vague as to how you could specifically alter your behavior to work on these issues.

It’s best to use online 360s for pointing to specific areas of development and request further conversations around what “better” would look like and what might be your specific landmines. I often follow up online 360s with a short interview to clarify the details hinted at in a leader’s online survey.

One-to-one interview-style

In terms of accuracy, all 360s come with this caution: These assessments contain the bias of participants, so if you don’t trust their judgment, you won’t believe the 360 data. Even assuming you trust all participants, they might have less insight into your role or see the world differently, which might lead you to discount some of their responses.

Try not to. It’s all data. Some of it is just more useful data to you than others.

• What’s a blind spot? Do I have them?

A blind spot in leadership is like a blind spot in your side view mirrors. You think you are seeing the full picture, but there are some things you just can’t see.

If you are human, you have blind spots. A 360 can illuminate glaring blind spots: You want to empower your team by letting them come to you when necessary. Your team finds you aloof and unapproachable. Or you value relationships and finding compromises. Your colleagues want you to occasionally be selfish or take a hardline stance when necessary.

Your blind spot resides in the gap between your intentions and their perceptions, and research repeatedly shows (paywall) that others are better than you at recognizing how your personality affects your performance.

• Will I get actionable feedback?

The amount of actionable feedback you get from a 360 depends on the instrument and the questions asked. However, pairing a 360 process with leadership coaching often leads to actionable next steps, new techniques to try and opportunities to develop your growth areas in a way you might not have been able to do on your own.

I frequently hear from clients that they knew something was a problem but none of their efforts changed anything. Yet after coaching, we were able to come up with several solutions that opened up new possibilities for action and relationships that weren’t there previously.

• What’s the best time to get a 360?

There are three crucial times when a 360 is most beneficial.

The first is when you are stepping into a new role or opportunity. Assessing your current strengths and where you need to be mindful as you engage in this next step can be very valuable. You start from a more self-aware place, conscious of your resources and where you might need to ask for extra help.

The second is during periods of struggle or difficulty. If you’ve been successful previously but now are struggling or finding yourself in a seemingly intractable conflict with another leader, a 360 assessment can often shed data on where you could develop to bring shifts to this challenge and find new approaches to work on entrenched problems.

Lastly, a 360 assessment is valuable whenever you engage with an executive leadership coach. Coaches are trained to see beyond what a leader presents, but they never have the complete picture until after they’ve conducted and debriefed the 360. If something is in your blind spot, you can’t tell them about it, but the 360 can.

• How can I best absorb my feedback?

Although challenging, the more open-minded you can be when reading your feedback, the less likely you’ll get hung up on an unimportant comment. Taking time to read and absorb your strengths is crucial. Often, leaders skip right past their strengths to fixate on their growth areas. Don’t do this! Your strengths have gotten you to where you are now. It’s important to fully understand your superpowers before you start tackling your kryptonite.

All of us have growth and development areas. Rally your strengths to tackle where you could be even more effective. That’s a rewarding leadership endeavor.

Now that you have the 411 on 360s, could doing one be right for you or your organization? It’s a journey that many of my client organizations find yields powerful changes and results beyond the impact of any one person.

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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