This article covers everything about 360-degree feedback, even a comparison with the Johari Window. Find out how to set it up in your startup or corporate setting.
360-degree feedback or: how we learned to stop worrying and love the feedback
How would you feel like if you received the following comments?
“It took you 4 hours to learn this task, others learned it in just an hour.”
“Your performance has been bad recently.”
“You did a lot worse than yesterday. What are you doing to improve yourself?”
If one of those statements already makes your heart pumping and sweat flowing, why would anyone suggest a 360-degree feedback? Also, many startups consider it a waste of time and big companies dub it just another bureaucratic overhead. Well, for a start, all three comments were formulated very poorly.
Let’s have a quick refresher about how to give good feedback. There are two general types of feedback, the positive, which most of us really fancy about, and the constructive, which you probably veered away from as you read the three comments. But how are we supposed to deliver critical feedback in a professional and non-offensive manner? Some good advices are to create safety, be positive, specific, immediate and well-intentioned. 
Along with an increasing connection between functions and disciplines, top-down feedback gets less useful. To be more specific in achieving our goal in developing people, it makes sense to replace it by a more balanced, multi-stakeholder view. Allowing to evaluate competences and performance of participants from different perspectives.
Let’s look into an approach with a multi-source feedback process to provide observations professionally and radically improve your work culture.
What is it?
Employees are assessed at regular intervals by colleagues, supervisors, customers and themselves. The 360-degree feedback form provided, consists of questions which are measured on a rating scale and an additional comment field. During the process employees, managers and other relevant stakeholders can share their opinion to generate a 360-degree view on the individual. Because of the broad coverage it gets increasingly beneficial with modern methodologies like agile or work from home. However, it is important to carefully consider the implementation in a company, because a faulty application will lead to more toxic behaviour.
History of the 360-degree feedback
Its origins are rooted in the Wehrmacht Army back in 1930s. As it turned out, assessments from comrades were far better at estimating battle readiness than various existing tests. Later in the 1950s, the Esso Research and Engineering Company used the same technique, but in a corporate setting. 
What’s in it for me?
Have you ever heard the phrase “Feedback is a gift”? Most people only understand the true meaning of this phrase when they reach maturity. For you to get feedback, someone else needs to spend time and energy, meaning that person cares about you. Without working feedback-loops personal growth is tedious. They are a key benefit of 360-degree feedback, by getting regular responses from multiple sources. The team members get valuable insights, to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Based on this feedback, they are more aware of themselves. The method encourages good and healthy communication as well as authentic working with the team. If implemented regularly, individuals can track their progress themselves, thanks to simple metrics.
Let’s learn more about the benefit it provides for personal development using «Johari Window». This is a technique originating in the 1950s for helping participants to better understand their relationship with themselves and other people.
360-degree feedback, provided in an honest, confidential and constructive way, should allow to gain similar insights as the insights gained with the “Johari Window”. Due to the self-assessment its possible to compare your own results against other points of view. Which means that the quarters open self, blind self and hidden self are covered. For example the blind self when you rate yourself worse than others rate you. Both methods should not be seen as a self confirmation but rather to bridge the gap between one’s self awareness and the outside perception.
Being authentic can be deeply rewarding and helps in building relationships with other people. A key benefit is to establish trust and improve awareness of team dynamics. Along with a follow-up discussion, it tightens the bond by mutually revealing the hidden and blind self. With feedback originating from many sources, as opposed to only one source, the bias is decreased which in turn increases acceptance. Provided with more insights, it is possible to work more effectively together and thus increase the quality and quantity of the outcome.
Pitfalls to avoid
Like many methodologies used in a corporate setting, 360-degree feedback is often despised because of poor application. Some of the main pitfalls are listed below.
No positive feedback
The process should not be used to expose only weaknesses of a participant. Such practice would only decrease morale and motivation. It is important to distribute praise where praise is due. This ideally leads to the attendees discover hidden strengths they didn’t know before.
No constructive feedback
Soft feedback only leads to a mutual waste of time. It does not help anyone in their personal development if only positive feedback is given. It’s an avenue for the participants to reflect and assess themselves. The criticism should be constructive, not destructive, and positively support the individual growth. Truth hurts but the SARAH model, which will be shortly explained in the “get started” section, can come to rescue.
Taking it personally
Participants sometimes disagree with the feedback. It is important to know that the feedback is not meant to condemn nor judge anyone. Observants are merely offering their views based on what they have analyzed. Therefore, it is necessary to be open minded about the input given by teammates.
Depending on the size of the company, it can be hard to implement the 360-degree feedback. Key to a successful implementation is a proper explanation about the purpose and benefits. It shouldn’t be a top-down exercise, the majority of stakeholders should be convinced of the approach. If the results get tied to any kind of advantages, the insights gained will be negatively influenced, as seen below in the Paradox of Rewards.
The science behind 360-degree feedback aka peer appraisal
Harvard Alumni Council Member and London Business School associate dean Maury Peiperl, conducted research for ten years on the theory and practice behind 360-degree feedback. He studied its implementation at 17 companies varying in size-from startups of a few people to Fortune 500 firms, from high-tech manufacturing to professional services firms. He was looking for answers to various questions. Under what circumstances does peer appraisal improve performance? Why does peer appraisal work well in some cases and fail miserably in others? The most important insights are listed below. 
The Paradox of Roles
“You cannot be both a peer and a judge… people are torn between being supportive colleagues or hard-nosed judges. Their natural inclination is to offer counsel and encouragement, and yet they’ve been asked to pass judgment on a colleague’s performance. Unless this conflict is addressed early on, peer appraisal will go nowhere fast — and cause stress and resentment along the way.”
The Paradox of Group Performance
“Focusing on individuals puts the entire group at risk. If most work is done in groups, focusing on individuals can compromise the group’s performance or make a weak team’s performance even worse. Rather than cultivating a sense of shared ownership and responsibility, the process can breed deep cynicism, suspicion, and an ‘us-against-them’ mentality — the exact opposite of the values most companies espouse.”
The Measurement Paradox
“The easier feedback is to gather, the harder it is to apply. Simple ratings are not always bad, but most of the time they are not enough. Of course, qualitative feedback is more difficult and time-consuming to generate and is not as easily compared and aggregated. It can pose problems of interpretation when comments are personal or highly idiosyncratic (such as, ‘She is the class of the outfit.’). But without specific comments, recipients are left with no information to act on and with little sense of what might help them get better at their jobs.”
The Paradox of Rewards
“When peer appraisal counts the most, it helps the least. When not tied to rewards, feedback is likely to be more comprehensive (and thus potentially useful) but is not seen as important by recipients, who may delay in addressing it or ignore it altogether.”
Experience at Earlybyte
Even though startups and SME have a different environment than giant corporations, the same metrics can be used across all kind of organizations. After a lunch meeting, where a detailed process was explained, we came up to do the 360-degree feedback with a 4 point scale (1 means unhealthy, 4 means exceptional) for each metric. Its purpose is to avoid the subconscious decision of picking the middle value. The metrics we choose were performance attitude, collaboration, giving and taking feedback as well as quality and quantity of the contribution. Furthermore, we wanted the feedback to be completely open, which means everyone can see everyone’s feedback. For any metrics rated with 2 points or less, it was mandatory to include an explanatory comment which brings in the rational behind critical points of improvement. Once everyone filled out the forms, a 360-degree feedback follow-up discussion was organized to discuss the received feedback. The sentiments towards the whole procedure were mostly positive, and we are looking forward to the next iteration.
So, how to get started
Choose the people who are involved. Ideally, all observants are also feedback-takers. This improves the return rate and also the quality of the process.
Find a suitable feedback matrix that fits your organization and culture with the right metrics and scale. Choose a team for the pilot wisely, because the mindset of the participants is critical for the exercise. As a starting point, it is useful to start with people who are hungry for an open feedback culture.
Establishing a baseline about the purpose and expected outcome of the 360-degree feedback is important. Keep the survey short to enable the participants to answer the metrics quickly and precisely. Let the team take part in choosing the metrics. All the stakeholders need to be on board, so the process does not turn into an alibi exercise.
The following was the most important thing learned from an executive coach who has worked with Fortune 500 companies in the US and ASEAN and who gave his thoughts about 360-degree feedback:
“Everyone has to make sure the instructions cover how important it is for respondents to be candid and not worry about wounding subjects’ self-esteem. The expectation should be that people are direct and open while ensuring their comments are productive. It’s rare for respondents to be overly critical or inappropriate in their remarks since comments of those nature can often be attributable to specific people.” 
Use appropriate technology
Depending on the the size of your company use appropriate tools to support the execution of the process. If done manually, the effort needed can get out of hand quickly. Remember the number of feedback increases in square in relation to the team size. In a small company or team, an online form is adequate. This template (Microsoft Forms) is what we used at Earlybyte.
Introduce SARAH and 4-ears model
SARAH is a framework to describe the healing process for people who receive difficult news and/or messages. It consists of the 5 phases shock, anger, resistance, acceptance and healing, which can also be applied to critical feedback.  Furthermore, there’s the 4-ears model which states that every message and receiver has 4 aspects each. Those aspects consist of facts, relationship, self-revelation and appeal. For example the message “There is something green in the soup.” can have the following meanings:
- Factual: “There is something green.”
- Demand: “Tell me what it is!”
- Relationship: “You should know what it is.”
- Self-revealing: “I don’t like greens in my soup.”
Follow up meeting
One of the most crucial points is to talk about the feedback together, because misunderstandings can happen. By talking about the feedback, such uncertainties can be resolved. It also helps promote a culture of an open environment, where no one feels the need to hide their problems. Another add-on option would then be to resolve issues with an action plan derived from insights gained.
Heres how you can implement it yourself:
[🎨] Images created by macrovector (https://www.freepik.com/macrovector)
About the Author
Philipp Lötscher is Co-Founder and Software Engineer at Earlybyte.
Earlybyte is an IT consultancy firm specialized in developing new digital solutions for companies around the world from digitalization to IoT solutions, close to the client and its business embracing agility. Checkout our newsletter and subscribe if you are interested.