Implementing a 360-Degree Feedback Program

When your organisation wants to support leaders on their personal development journey an important part of the process should be making sure that they have access to as much insight and information as possible in terms of knowing how they’re tracking relative to their leadership goals so as to make informed decisions about what’s next for them as a leader.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”  ~Aristotle

That’s what 360 feedback is all about and we’ve set out in this piece a brief overview of the key considerations in setting up, running and getting the most out of a 360-degree feedback process for your organisation.  We’ll take a brief look at the concept of 360-degree feedback as well as running through what’s typically involved for both participants and those managing the process.

It’s critically important that before you try to implement processes for leadership development or to hold leaders accountable for their impact your organisation takes steps to ensure that the expectations of leaders at all levels are clearly articulated and communicated.

We find that this step is quite often missed by clients with the best of intentions.  The desire to be seen to be taking action and actively supporting existing leaders with their performance development can mean that taking the time to step back and clarify exactly what is expected of leaders feels like stalling and delaying.  The reality is that it’s very unfair to hold someone accountable for expectations that they’re unaware of!

Take a look at our advice on building a Leadership Framework if you think your organisation would benefit from some clarity in this area.

Building a Comprehensive Leadership Framework

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What is 360-Degree Feedback?

We’ve all heard the term, but what exactly is 360-degree feedback?  For us, it’s a process that allows individual leaders to obtain feedback about how they’re going from a performance and capability point of view, from those who work most closely with them, in a constructive and confidential way.

The 360-degree reference comes from seeking feedback up, down and across the individual’s network, including:

  • Those who work in senior roles within the organisation
  • Those who work at either side of you, your peers
  • Your direct and indirect reports

We also recommend incorporating a self-assessment against the same criteria that peers are using to provide their feedback to offer a really valuable basis for comparing one’s own perceptions with those they work with.   In summary, then the exercise is aimed at building awareness of strengths and areas of opportunity in order to ultimately enhance the impact of your leaders on those around them.

We’ve highlighted the key steps in the 360-degree feedback process below.  Read on to explore each one in more detail and consider our guidance for those tasked with setting up a process for the first time.


  • Introduce participants to the exercise
  • Address any questions or concerns they may have

Rater Identification

  • Nominate or identify those who will be providing feedback
  • Provide guidance to assist in your selection as required

Feedback Gathering

  • Typically raters will complete an online questionnaire
  • Self-assessments are also be completed at the same time

Reporting and Debrief

  • Preparation of a report aggregating the feedback
  • A coach assists participants in reviewing their feedback

Identifying Raters

One of the decisions you’ll need to make when designing your process is around how Raters (those tasked with providing feedback) will be identified.  One school of thought is that the Raters should be determined centrally based on some established protocols.  This approach avoids issues where those receiving feedback handpick their Raters believing they will only provide positive feedback.  We advocate however for a nomination process whereby the leaders themselves identify relevant Raters, based on some guidance/expectations.  The idea here is that individuals know better than anyone who is best placed to provide feedback, which can avoid potential for results to be dismissed as irrelevant. Either way, we suggested the following guidelines:

  • The individual’s direct line manager
  • Between 3-6 colleagues (operating at a similar level)
  • All direct reports
  • Up to 5 indirect reports (with whom the leader might have regular interactions)

Feedback Gathering

There are a number of considerations for your 360-degree feedback program in regard to gathering constructive feedback for participants.  Obviously, the main thing to get right is the questionnaire design and coverage.  To be useful it’s imperative that your questionnaire is directly aligned to your own leadership framework, including your values and behaviours.  There are of course generic questionnaires available but if there is not a clear relationship to the specific styles and expectations you have of your leaders it will be hit and miss in terms of supporting development of your desired leadership culture.

When it comes to how raters respond to the questionnaire you’ll want to focus on fixed-response rating scales so that you can effectively aggregate and compare results.  We also suggest including a ‘don’t know’ option to cover situations where a rater may not be able to provide meaningful feedback.

It’s well worth considering including a couple of open-ended or free-text options for raters to provide some additional commentary and context for their quantitative feedback.  Keep in mind however that it’s likely that participants may, accurately or otherwise, attempt to attribute the responses to individual raters.  This can be confronting as well as potentially inhibit open and honest feedback from the raters so needs to be carefully considered and managed to avoid issues.

When it comes to collecting feedback the easiest and most efficient way is to conduct an online survey.  That said, you may need to provide hard copies for any raters that don’t routinely have access to a PC at work.  Make sure that those tasked with managing the process are able to identify who has completed their feedback and who hasn’t in order to proactively follow up.  This doesn’t mean that results should be attributable to an individual rater when provided to your leaders which we look at below.

Reporting Considerations

In preparing reports for your participants we highly recommend aggregating results according to the different rater groups.  This will mean that only feedback from the individual’s line manager will be directly attributable which can help to encourage other rates, especially more junior colleagues, to offer open and honest feedback.

Reports should indicate how the feedback received compares to others in the organisation in order to offer participants an opportunity to reflect on their own leadership impact relative to peers across the organisation.  We also recommend that reports include a comparison of the individual’s self-assessment against the aggregated results of their raters to further support self reflect.

Clearly, with so much information to convey and so many points of reference, using a visual representation of the results in the form of bar charts or similar can assist greatly here and make the feedback much easier to digest than if presented as a series of tables and numbers.

If you have included open-ended questions we recommend the comments are shared verbatim to avoid losing the intended sentiment which can occur when a third-party attempts to edit or sanitise the comments provided.

Coaching and Debriefing

To really help your leaders get the most from a 360-degree feedback process it’s critical that there is an effective support structure in place.  Ideally, each participant should have access to a coach or mentor that can help them process the reports and feedback provided rather than simply being provided with the information and left to digest it alone.

Some of the key principles we recommend all coaches and participants keep in mind include:

  • The focus of the exercise is to assist individuals with their personal and professional development
  • As such, results do not form part of a formal assessment or performance discussion
  • Feedback should first be used to gauge progress to date and reflect on the impact the individual is having on others
  • From there the results can inform plans for future development
  • In regard to development, think long term about where you will focus (e.g. for the next 12 months)

The best way to drive action is for participants to prepare a structured Leadership Development Plan as a way of committing to working on their relative areas of weakness and to enable further reflection along the way.

The Beautiful Mess

There’s no doubt that for many of us, opening ourselves up to feedback may be a little daunting.  Even if it’s largely positive, our brains can have a tendency to focus on the negative and for protective reasons, we might have a defensive response…  a sort of “I don’t do that!” or “what are they on about?” kind of response.  It’s important to acknowledge this fact and to focus on why 360-degree feedback can be such a good exercise to undertake from a development point of view.

Showing one’s flaws, admitting mistakes, apologising first and essentially showing vulnerability can be a little scary for most of us.  It’s not uncommon to fear being rejected or judged negatively.  However, according to some psychologists, we shouldn’t be so afraid – they say that having the courage to show our vulnerabilities often results in rewards.   Why?  They’ve discovered that there is an interesting mismatch in the way we view our own vulnerabilities versus those in others.  They’ve been able to demonstrate that we view our own vulnerabilities much more harshly than we view others – vulnerability is courage in you but inadequacy in me.

The Beautiful Mess Effect – Other people view our vulnerability more positively than we do

A good coach then will help participants to openly acknowledge their perceived weaknesses and embrace their vulnerabilities.  Research suggests that they’ll find it easier to connect with others who in turn will find it easier to relate to them.  Only when we’re willing to acknowledge where we could have done something better, do we truly start to make improvements.  And this is exactly what 360 allows participants to do, identify their areas of development as a platform for self-improvement.

Getting the most out of 360-degree feedback can be a challenge – we’re here to help.

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