360-degree employee reviews, which gather feedback from an employee’s manager, co-workers, and direct reports, may seem like an obvious win. Organizations can use the feedback to build a more productive workforce by recalibrating worker behavior. But all too often companies fail to communicate the goals of the feedback effectively. The result? Employees enter the process with a lot of uncertainty.
To ensure a successful 360 feedback process, it’s important to prepare your employees for what’s to come. At Qualtrics, we’ve found that simply and clearly communicating the objectives increases engagement in the process, leads to better feedback, and generates a greater willingness to change based on the outcomes.
Here are five important steps that will prepare your employees for their next 360-degree review:
Remember this conversation Alice in Wonderland had with the Cheshire Cat?
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—,” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
There’s some wisdom in what the Cheshire Cat says here. Too many organizations begin their 360 reviews because they know they should, but they don’t take the time to figure out where they want to go or what objectives they want to achieve. Before running forward, figure out where you’re going by defining the goals of your reviews. Ask yourself:
- “What competencies are important to my organization?”
- “How will we measure them and what will managers do with the data they get?”
- “Are we going to evaluate only top-level leaders or will we include mid-level managers, emerging leaders, or the entire organization?”
Defining your objectives is essential to determining which competencies to measure, what questions to ask, and whom to involve.
Employees want feedback. What they don’t want is a black box filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. If you don’t clearly communicate the purpose of your 360 process, you many unintentionally stir up confusion, fear, and doubt. It’s important to let your employees know up front why you’re collecting the data and how you plan to use it.
Just as important as knowing “why” and “how” is knowing “what.” Once you’ve determined what competencies matter to your organization, make sure to communicate them clearly to your employees. Knowing what skills and attributes will be measured goes a long way in reducing anxiety and providing employees with a clear purpose.
If the 360 review is for development reasons, then explain this. Tell employees what resources you’ll provide them after the process is over to help them enhance their strengths and further develop in areas where they’re weak. If you plan to use the 360 as part of the performance appraisal process or to determine advancement opportunities, be clear about that, as well. Whatever you decide, just be up front about it and clearly communicate it to your employees.
In some cases, you’ll have employees who’ve never participated in a 360 evaluation. Or maybe they’ve had a negative or overly stressful experience in the past. Use this opportunity to give all participants a refresher on how the process works and to set expectations.
Determine what role different people will play in establishing those expectations. At Qualtrics, we were careful to ensure that the executive leadership team set the tone for the initiative. We wanted to make it clear that at an executive level, we supported the 360 employee development effort because it was designed to help our employees become more effective and, in turn, would lead to a stronger company overall.
While executive backing is critical, managers must reinforce this message by expressing confidence in their employees’ ability to evaluate themselves and others with honesty and objectivity. Be sure to take the opportunity to walk employees through the evaluation, including the skills, traits, and attributes on which they’ll be assessed.
Possibly one of the most challenging parts of any 360-degree employee feedback process is just getting people to complete the evaluations. Organizations conduct more successful 360 processes when the expectations are clearly defined. So articulate not only what employees are expected to do, but also when they’re required to do it. HR managers should play a key role in laying out a clear and reasonable timeline.
Let all participants know exactly who will see the feedback and whether it will be attributed or anonymous.
Many organizations choose to make all 360 assessments anonymous because they feel it allows employees to give genuine feedback and avoid unnecessary bias. At Qualtrics we made upward and peer feedback anonymous but made all manager comments attributable. There are even a few organizations where no comments are anonymous.
Whatever you decide, be sure to disclose it to employees in advance so that there are no surprises when the feedback reports are distributed. Nothing can harm the credibility of the 360 process or a management team faster than betraying employee trust because of failure to disclose how feedback will be communicated.
Despite all your best efforts to prepare your employees for the 360 process, there will probably still be some employee anxiety. Help dispel this by establishing an open forum where employees can ask questions before, during, and after the reviews.
Employees will likely ask helpful questions that will help you design a process to better fit your organization. You’ll often find that staff will ask questions that point to common concerns you may have overlooked. So after the process is complete, employees will generally have relevant insight about how to use the feedback and valuable suggestions for how to make the process better in the future.
By establishing a safe and open forum to discuss questions and concerns, you give participants a voice. This is a key differentiator and establishes buy-in, making employees more open to the feedback they receive.
I firmly believe that an organization is only as strong as its people. Gathering 360-degree employee feedback is an essential part of employee development because it provides feedback from a variety of sources: managers, peers, direct reports, and external evaluators. If employees don’t get this range of feedback, then substantial opportunities for professional development become limited. This hurts both the employee and the organization. Properly preparing employees for the 360 feedback process greatly enhances your ability to create a successful and rewarding review experience.
—Ryan Smith is CEO at Qualtrics.