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360 Degree Assessment Surveys, are they an accurate form of feedback, or just bad data?

As i begin to prepare myself for my Executive MBA at University West of England, i have started to research my course and the topics i might very well study and discuss. This blog is a place for me to begin to understand more of these topics and try to engage with others about such things and effectively increase my learning.

As i have been looking through organisational structure and management i have come across a tool that offers managers ‘apparently’ objective feedback on their ability to manage that can be used at all levels within a business. This is called a 360 Degree Assessment Survey, or the Full-Circle or Multisource Assessment.

This assessment tool, allows organisations to gather feedback and information on a specific employee from managers, co-workers and those that report to the individual. It is apparently objective, and gives great insight and data on a specific individual within a specific job role by asking a set of questions about this individual and allowing a space for comments and feedback under a range of headings such as leadership, vision, clarity, work ethics, performance management, communication and many others.

The organisation can utilise this data to look at how an individual is viewed by his/her self and of all their colleagues around them who have undertaken the survey. It is, effectively a managers reality check, and a method for increasing self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses as perceived by others.

At first glance, this might very well sound like an interesting and useful tool. I don’t doubt that perhaps, within the correct organisation this information can be used to shape an individual so they become more effective at their role so long as no one becomes defensive or concerned about giving frank and honest feedback. And a lot of statistical data does point to this being a great tool… but…

I have just read a blog post by Marcus Buckingham that talks of a fatal flaw within the very fabric of this assessment tool, and how they can do more good than bad (if the organisation is not careful).

‘And yet I still think all but a very few 360 degree surveys are, at best, a waste of everyone’s time, and at worst actively damaging to both the individual and the organization. We could stop using all of them, right now, and our organizations would be the stronger for it.’

Marcus has some good point in his article, regarding the questions asked. How can someone give feedback objectively… really? Because surely their response is in some way related to their position and opinion of the assessment’s subject? Marcus states pretty clearly that the data garnered from these are in general.. bad.

‘No, my beef with 360 surveys is more basic, more fundamental. It’s the data itself. The data generated from a 360 survey is bad. It’s always bad. And since the data is bad, no matter how well-intended your coaching, how insightful your feedback, how coherent your leadership model, you are likely leading your leaders astray.’

And the last things we need from these surveys, is the take the leader in the wrong direction. That is the ultimate ‘no no’ and a waste of valuable time and resources.

Typically the survey breaks down core competencies into questions about behaviour that apparently encompase these. If we take communication as a core competency, and the evaluators use the following question;

‘Is Logan a good communicator?’

Your answer to this, will actually tell us more about you than of Logan. If your answer is ‘yes, Logan is a good communicator’ this simply indicates that Logan is a better communicator than you. And if your answer is ‘No, Logan is a poor communicator’ it could simply mean that Logan is a worse communicator than you. This could be said for all answers to questions that are asked in this way. It is based on the relative skill set of the person answering the questions to the relative skill set of the person we are asking about. And Marcus argues that no matter how much bad data you get it will always remain bad data.

‘Again, this sounds right, but it still doesn’t hold up. Each individual rater is equally unreliable. This means that each rater yields bad data. And, unfortunately, when you add together many sources of bad data, you do not get good data. You get lots of bad data.’

So, is there a solution to this? Everyone can answer a question based on their own experince, emotions and feelings, and thus be subjective. So why not ask questions that allow people to answer subjectively. A better question to ask about communication might be;

‘Do you understand Logan’s verbal instructions?’

The answer to this can be yes, or no and will give more accurate feedback because it is based on the way you specifically feel about the question.

These tools can be very useful, and the best leaders will be able to use them correctly and take good information and feedback and use this to develop. However, it can obviously be very easy to structure these incorrectly and point the leader in the wrong direction.

Be careful, think hard before implementing these forms of feedback survey otherwise you may be doing more harm than good.

If you have any thoughts on this, just comment as i am keen to hear what people think.

If you wish to read the full article by Marcus Buckingham follow this link.

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