The Utility of 360° Feedback

Ah, the 360° feedback process. It’s a common practice for HR teams of larger companies to implement, as a way to counteract managerial biases and singular points of view, by involving more perspectives surrounding each individual and in doing triangulating across a constellation of ideally diverse, wide-ranging data points. The theory behind the procedure makes intuitive sense.

Of course, social media is all about garnering attention, and it’s easy enough to rag on a familiar, though perhaps underwhelming, cornerstone of the HR playbook:

Look, the modern social media-driven internet rests on a foundation of snarky commentary, laden with bricks of cynicism and sarcasm. 360° feedback is easy pickings here for simple reasons: it’s an HR-ism that most corporate workers have experienced; the context around its implementation—typically around performance review cycles and promotions—means that the output is obscured; the name itself is dripping with corporate jargon and is just asking to be made fun of1. It’s also easy to set up a us vs. them dynamic, our merry band of employees realizing and rejecting the controlling mechanisms of evil management.

The commentary accuses comprehensive feedback, facilitated by formal company processes, of being a vehicle for backstabbing and turning employees against each other. In reality, 360°s don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re more reflective of the team’s culture than its driver, and it’s a mistake to point at the process itself as the cause for anti-collaborative, intra-competitive behavior within a team. That is, if the promotion system presupposes winners and losers; if there’s an explicit stack ranking of team members and managers are incentivized to keep their teams intact via unproductive, roundabout schemes; then the touchpoints of performance reviews and 360° feedback loops are convenient scapegoats.

The complaints that I do hear about 360° feedback mechanisms isn’t that they’re conduits for backstabbing, but that the feedback itself tends to be bland and ineffective because employees don’t want to feel responsible for getting someone else in trouble or putting their own necks on the line to put down others2. Consistent with the above critique, this isn’t the fault of HR implementing a faulty system: it’s that the team itself isn’t comfortable with routine critical feedback and we haven’t created an environment that encouraged this behavior, so of course when career livelihoods are on the line employees are even more shy. The solution isn’t to label feedback as extraneous, but to build a culture of kindness where critical feedback in given and received gracefully.

Admittedly, cultivating that culture of fluid and responsive feedback is really, really hard. The original tweet author’s proposed solution, though, of “just have people trust each other,” belies the difficulty of setting up such an environment in the first place. In reality, most workplaces do not have perfect managers and utopian cultures, and HR teams cannot single-handedly turn the ship around—or crash it into an iceberg—with periodic procedures. Here, I sympathize with the Sisyphean task placed on overwhelmed People teams; if anything, 360° feedback mechanisms exist to nudge people managers, looking to set a floor of competence instead of some unattainable ceiling of excellence.

  1. I tend to be sympathetic to workplace jargon; it’s a language of the workplace and easily translatable across teams and companies. At some point, we grow out of the “it’s cool to hate on the popular thing” phase of our lives, even our work ones.

  2. This ascribes to the understanding that feedback is a gift.

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