What’s the purpose of 360-degree feedback? What are the most powerful ways to use it?

The technology for collecting and reporting 360 feedback was developed in the 1980s. Its original purpose was to diagnose leadership performance issues. By assessing a comprehensive set of skill areas, leaders obtained quantitative and qualitative information about strengths and areas that need improvement.

Other innovative uses for multi-source feedback have evolved over the decades (see Appendix). However, when most people hear about 360 feedback, they still think of its traditional use: a global diagnostic of competence and skill.

A much more powerful application of 360 feedback goes beyond the diagnosis to reinforce changes in behavior.

A doctor’s diagnosis can reveal the disease, but this information can’t cure it. Likewise, 360 feedback can identify priority areas for improvement. But this information isn’t enough to improve work habits.

Changing a behavior pattern may require instruction, followed by months of reinforcement and coaching.

Try changing the way you eat or the way you swing a golf club.

Tiger Woods made changes in his swing early in 2004. He didn’t start to win again until almost a year later, after persisting through hours of practice every day.

The problem is that when people try to do things differently, initial attempts tend to feel awkward.

When these efforts don’t achieve the desired result, frustration and discouragement follow. Without a formal program of follow-up and support, people tend to fall back on what feels familiar and comfortable. They eventually return to their old way of doing things.

To achieve the desired changes in behavior, 360 feedback needs to be followed by several months of reinforcement, feedback, coaching and accountability. It takes that long to create a new habit.

After receiving 360 feedback, people may need training or coaching, followed by an extended period of reinforcement.

This sequence represents the most powerful 360 application:
measuring individual performance improvement.

Used in this way, 360 feedback works both as a diagnostic assessment and as a means to check whether weak areas have improved.

The concept is simple. First, integrate behavior-based assessment with behavior-based training. Then several months after training, follow through with a more focused assessment related to the priority areas for improvement. Compare the two sets of scores to determine how much skills have improved.

This approach has significant benefits. First, the results of the pre-course diagnostic allow participants to set quantified, performance improvement goals.

Also, learners are more focused and motivated to improve when they know there will be a follow-up assessment.

Finally, follow-up assessments create accountability.

The assessment results show whether the individual has improved performance. Administer post-course assessments to produce ongoing measures of performance improvement.

You can use the data created by this assessment to calculate a practical return-on-investment (ROI).

For example, assume that leadership skills account for half of a supervisor’s effectiveness. Assessment scores showing an average improvement from 6.4 (before assessment and training) to 7.7 (several months after) would indicate a 20% percent improvement. Since half of a salary of $60,000 is $30,000, the organization would be getting 20% more effectiveness for this cost, worth roughly $7,500—a result many times greater (in dollars) than the investment in the individual’s training.

You can perform simple ROI calculations like this by measuring pre-course and post-course performance improvement if you use a customizable feedback system.

Combine an economical, flexible feedback technology with a behavior-based leadership development curriculum, and you get a fully integrated assessment, training and reinforcement system:

  • Focused, motivated participants
  • Ongoing feedback during reinforcement
  • Performance improvement accountability (Level 3 evaluation of training)
  • An easy method for calculating ROI (Level 4 evaluation of training)

And leaders are empowered to reinforce their new skills over time to create permanent, measurable changes in behavior.

In the end, how well your front-line managers lead affects the bottom line—and every other aspect of your organization. Considering the billions of dollars invested annually in leadership development, you need a way to demonstrate that your programs are actually changing behavior. Using 360 feedback to measure performance improvement is one of the best ways to quantify the return on your investment.

About the Author

Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., is CEO of Performance Support Systems, Inc. He coordinates research and development and provides strategic direction for the company. He is the author of 20/20 Insight GOLD, an award-winning 360 feedback and survey system, and Strong for Performance, an online coaching and development system. Learn more about how you can use these tools to help the leaders you work with and get the free guide, “The 5 Secrets to Getting Better at Anything.”