The use of 360 degree surveys in business has been around since the 1980’s, and by the late 1990’s, was being used by approximately 90 percent of Fortune 1000 companies.
The prevalence of 360 degree surveys continues to this day. Its popularity can be attributed in part to two key assumptions:
- Different perspectives and multiple people rating improves measurement accuracy compared to single source measurements.
- An individual’s self -awareness and perceived need for change will be enhanced by a systematic process of introspection and the review and comparison of ratings from others.
However, the assumption of improved measurement quality can be challenged in some circumstances.
“Rating fatigue” a problem with 360 reviews
One of the big complaints of larger scale use of the 360 method is the administrative burden and time demands it places on raters that participate in multiple surveys.
It is commonly recognized that people who do the rating suffer from “survey fatigue” from having to complete multiple lengthy 360 degree surveys. Under these circumstances, the diligence and attention of the person doing the rating can become compromised and raises concerns about the reliability and accuracy of the ratings that result from the process.
It can also be challenged that an individual’s self-awareness and motivation to change is necessarily enhanced by the process. Traditional 360 degree surveys have shown a low level of agreement between self-ratings and “other’s” ratings.
Research suggests that self-ratings are typically higher than “other’s” ratings by as much as one half a standard deviation. This presents a challenging feedback situation where there is little agreement between self- perceptions and other’s perceptions with other’s ratings generally much lower. Individuals may discount the ratings of other’s or become defensive and demotivated by the lower rating values.
Primary drivers of performance improvement
While 360 degree surveys have received a great deal of attention in the HR trade magazines, it has received far less attention in scientific literature. Despite its popularity, there is actually little clear evidence that 360 surveys result in performance improvement. Two factors seem to emerge as primary determinants of subsequent behavior change:
- The level of self-other agreement;
- The level of follow through on development.
It may be surprising to some that high self-other agreement is such an important predictor. However, high levels of self – others agreement have been associated with a number of positive outcomes relevant for human resource practitioners. Some of these positive outcomes include perceived need for change, performance improvement after feedback, and leadership effectiveness.
It is easier to understand the importance of high self-other agreement if you think about it in terms of high self-awareness.
Clearly, self-awareness is a key ingredient for performance improvement. It could easily be argued that the degree to which a discrepancy exists between an individual’s self-rating and the average rating made by “other’s” in a 360 degree review process should be an indication of the amount of self-awareness possessed by the individual. Small differences would be an indication of high self-awareness while large differences would be seen as indicative of low self-awareness.
Does the low level of self-other agreement in traditional 360 degree surveys therefore mean that most individuals have low self-awareness? I suspect the low level of agreement between self and others is not because individuals have such little self-awareness but has more to do with the traditional 360 process which creates a scenario which encourages self-promotion.
An alternative approach
I would like to offer an alternative approach to the traditional 360 degree review process, a process I call “Social Self-Awareness Validation.” This process was designed to maximize self-awareness and show higher congruence in self-other’s ratings compared to traditional approaches.
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In this process, the individual first rates their performance in comparison to structured performance standards for each behavior within a competency. The self-ratings along with the performance standards are then shared with others in the individual’s business network to validate the level of self-awareness.
The network validates the individual’s self-awareness by indicating their level of agreement or disagreement with the shared self-ratings. The combination of structured performance standards with a transparent sharing of the ratings to others is felt to drive higher levels of introspection which leads to greater self-awareness.
Early results from using this process suggests that the process does correct the past problems reported for traditional 360 degree surveys concerning overly inflated self-ratings and low self-other rating agreement.
The benefits of this approach are most likely seen in performance feedback sessions and subsequent developmental planning. These sessions will not have the difficult task of overcoming potential defensiveness associated with presenting data showing other’s perceptions being much lower than the individual’s self-perceptions.
The higher agreement between self and others should also make it easier for the individual to accept identified development needs as being accurately measured which should increase their willingness to act on the data. Finally, the more thoughtful introspection driven by the process should help predispose the individual for receiving feedback since they have already thought carefully about their true strengths and development needs.
There are likely to be other benefits to higher self-other agreement including a higher willingness to participate in future 360 degree surveys.
The process should be seen as less threatening by the target individuals. It is also more efficient. While the self-ratings are made at the behavioral level, the other individuals validate the individual’s self-rating and add comments at the competency level. This help solves the common problem of “rater fatigue.”
The higher efficiency of the process should also increase overall willingness of all participants to continue to use social validation for tracking performance improvements and guiding developmental planning efforts.