This is a (long and) detailed addition to the conversation going on at David Maister's blog about 360 degree evaluations/reviews in firms. A little verbose to post as a comment, I think...
David kindly posted a question I'd e-mailed him providing his insights and asking for responses from his readers. Here's my response to his post:
David, I'm particularly glad you linked to your prior posts. I hadn't recalled the "guts" post in particular as it relates to 360 (or any) feedback and it certainly does relate.
Quite clearly, some people just don't want to know.
The saying that you can lead a horse to water but cannot make him drink is what comes to mind with regard to what people will do with the information they receive. It does take guts to drink from the feedback cup. And it takes real resolve to act on that feedback after absorbing it.
I believe the way the feedback on style and performance is presented is paramount: context and purpose are key.
And, as I mentioned in my question, there are many ways to mess up a 360. (This holds true for ANY appraisal!) It is no small matter and must be handled extremely carefully.
Issues to resolve:
- Is the purpose of the feedback clear? Is feedback for personal consumption? Management consideration?
- Is the process understood? Confidential? Credible?
- Are the questions without bias? Fair? Level appropriate?
- Is the instrument suitable for the purpose? Easy to use? Not too long and cumbersome or repetitive? Can the reviewer edit her responses, if need be?
- Are the reports explained such that interpretation is clear and consistent?
About the process, I think it's essential that the subject selects his or her reviewers so that results aren't easily dismissed as potentially coming from someone whose opinion the subject does not respect. We are far more likely to accept and process feedback from people we respect. If people choose their reviewers, they are saying upfront they will consider the feedback worthy of regard.
That being said, I usually urge people to consider choosing some people outside of their tightest circle of "friends"--perhaps even those they've had some professional disagreement with, as long as they would value their opinion. Optimally, each subject selects 3-4 of each: direct reports, peers, managers, and sometimes clients, plus self. This provides a good sample size.
I hear (read) you saying that running a 360 without accountability for action based on the outcome is a cause of failure. I'm not sure I agree. I do see it as suboptimal, but not as a complete failure.
Based on the horse/water/drink theory, I think statistical odds suggest that some will take the information to heart and try to use it while others will not give a hoot. The question the firm would then ask is, "how many will care?" Is it worth doing if 50%, 25%, or just 5% would act on the information? I think yes. But maybe I'm too willing to accept incremental change. (I think all real change is incremental...). I very seldom see 100% participation in anything a PSF ever does.
About your reasons for failure, you're right about "a."
a) if no articulated standards exist, I would suggest the "first" eval serve as a personal benchmark against which a person would seek to improve over time. As an aside, if there is no managerial job description--aside from the sad oversight it represents--why not view it as an opportunity to write one's own--he or she is, after all, a knowledge worker which implies the entrepreneurial ability to chart one's own course to some degree.
b & c) covered above in process/approach
d) failure? or suboptimal? (my suggestion above)
Your "quick summary" statement is: "a manager who really wanted to improve would not need the formality of a company-wide 360-program to get there." Perhaps not, but managers desiring to improve are typically hungry for feedback. Your linked article recommends asking people directly. That can be great. I particularly like your suggestion of asking "tell me what others say..." to take some pressure off.
But even so, especially with accountants (lawyers tend to be more forthright) the idea of hurting someone's feelings can keep truths buried. 360s can open the door for honest AND CONSISTENT feedback.
Specifically, 360s are most useful in assessing perceptions about how well people are doing in areas of management/leadership that tend to be extremely subjective--those requiring judgments, not measurements. It so happens that nearly all characteristics of a "great" CPA or lawyer are gauged only by judgment:
- ability to apply sound judgment (irony there?)
- ability to deal constructively with challenging situations/people
- ability to teach others in a way that inspires/motivates them
- ability to be trusted and valued
- ability to accept and apply feedback (more irony?)
Exact areas worthy of focus are:
- Teambuilding and team management
- Delegation and direction of others
- Planning and decision making
- Integrity and trustworthiness
- Self-awareness and development
- Skills and performance (non-technical)
We refrain from cover abilities already "evaluated" (saturated) in other ways such as technical skills and marketing efforts. Those tend to be extremely measurable and feedback, though not always formalized, tends to be ample.
Feedback at all is rare in PSFs. Positive feedback is even more rare.
360's provide the unique opportunity to see if you treat direct reports differently from your managers. Or if you are perceived as weaker or stronger in a given area by one group or another. This can provide telling insights about management style. Most importantly, do you see yourself the way others see you?
Assuming all perceptions are the realities of the perceivers, then all feedback is valid. As you said, David, what people choose to do (or not do) with the information is the next step. So is it worthwhile in your eyes if change is incremental? If participation is less than 100%?
(Welcoming contributions from all...)