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Readers of my books and clients will be aware that I am not very fond of 360 degree feedback used as a tool in performance management in organizations. My antibodies are not related to the principle of obtaining feedback in order to progress individually and professionally, or to become a better leader.

My problem with ‘360 feedback’, where subordinates and colleagues are asked to provide anonymous input about somebody’s performance and qualities, is at least two fold:

(1) 9 out of 10 cases it’s misused. It is used as a form of control, warning for bad behaviours, even punishment, in a badly controlled way. You don’t need to be a psychologist to understand that soliciting feedback about somebody’s behaviours or traits in a anonymous but formal way, is an invitation for venting, highlighting and expressing feelings that the respondent would not like to say directly to the person. It’s often corporate open season for a semi-Maoist finger-pointing, accumulating feedback as ‘the collective truth’ with little room for disagreement. Very often, a 360 feedback system ignores the internal group and organizational dynamics. Any group psychologist would be very careful in orchestrating feedback and open discussion making sure it is a safe and constructive environment. Many ‘360 implementations’ end up as simply obtaining feedback for the sake of ticking boxes, with little care on what to do with the feedback itself.

(2) So, 25 people says that Jim is not very analytical (so this is sort of bad, or a weakness). What 25 people may not say is that Jim is very ‘synthetical’ and may be able to put things together and provide meaning. And this may be precisely what makes Jim valuable. 25 people say Peter is inconsistent; 25 people say John is emotional; 25 people say Mary is too quick to make decisions etc. All that, whether you like it or not, presupposes that being consistent, unemotional and a less quick decision-maker is good. The system presupposes an ideal normality, which is artificial. It inevitably tends to produce a comparison with an ideal type with no room to decide what ideal may mean other than some dubious, general bench marking. ‘Jim is 3 point below the norm for managers of this kind of company size and industry. Really? Everybody gives Mary feedback that her communication is poor, and this is communicated to Mary with some numbers and a talk by her boss. Great.

I know I am in caricature mode but many years of observation (and dare I say practicing) have convinced me that the misuse is greater than the benefits.

I’ve written before that my ideal angle is not 360 but 45 degrees. I believe in 45 degree feedback. 45 degree is about the angle needed to look at oneself in the mirror. A mirror is the best and cheapest Leadership Development tool.

Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, notorious for his disregard for customer service of any kind, was told by his Board that the company needs to show a little bit more respect for ‘the customer’. The man who once said ‘my company is the fastest at customer response; we are the fastest at saying no’, has admitted that the customer is some kind of reality to take into account. As a result of some changes in that direction, the company decided to invest in a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. O’Leary went on to say: “We’ll be getting people to register and CRMing the hell out of them.”

Some organizations behave in similar way: they are ‘360-ing’ the hell out of everybody in management. You get the picture… On behalf of anonymous and collective feedback, we are abandoning open, transparent and more difficult face to face conversations. Those questionnaires are easy. Sure, it’s a choice…

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