Multi-Source Feedback Can Work If You Train It

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Such is also true with multi-source feedback, a method of gaining a broad view of individual performance, which is also known as multi-rater feedback, multi-source feedback and 360 degree feedback.

Multi-source feedback was developed as an alternative to one dimensional traditional “downward reviews” whereby managers or superiors give feedback to their subordinates. Instead, multi-source feedback is comprised of “upward” (feedback delivered to management by subordinates only), “downward” (the reverse), and “lateral” feedback (amongst peers), plus an employee self-assessment in order to gain a more accurate appraisal of an employee’s behaviour, skills and knowledge gaps. In addition to in-company appraisals, when relevant, some companies also include feedback from external sources such as stakeholders, clients or customers.

This article will take an in-depth look at the feedback you are likely to receive from each of these types, and their associated benefits and pitfalls. While each of the three types, on their own,  are no longer consider an adequate means to assess performance, together they provide a more rounded and complete picture of an employee’s performance.

Upward feedback

Upward feedback is an important part of the multi-source feedback journey. As the name suggests, upward feedback moves in an upward direction from subordinates, upwards to you. One considerable advantage of upward feedback is that it gives you a clearer understanding of how your direct reports see your competencies and skills as a manager. Your subordinates will advise you on your leadership abilities: what you are doing well and equally what aspects of your leadership could do with improvement. Feedback from subordinates is therefore crucial in helping you to develop the skills and qualities that will make you excel as a leader.

While you can generate some interesting and insightful feedback from subordinates, out of the three, this is not the most valuable source of feedback. Employees are inclined to behave in a manner that is most beneficial to them. For instance, when submitting their reviews, subordinates may not provide a wholly accurate account of performance if it will result in a favourable outcome for them. Additionally, as with most management structures, subordinates are unlikely to work in very close proximity to, or in co-operation with their managers and therefore are potentially not the most qualified people to measure their performance; their leadership qualities, work attitude, and communication skills for sure, but not their overall performance.

Downward feedback

Downward feedback is the opposite of the former type; it goes from managers to their subordinates. This is a very valuable appraisal, as a large part of a manager’s role is in guiding and overseeing the work carried out by their team. Additionally, managers are typically highly involved in a company’s performance review process, and therefore are involved in setting goals and objectives for each of their team members. As such, they are in the best position to assess the progress that has been made towards reaching each goal.

Appraisals from managers, like the previous upward feedback, are imperfect tools. Personality plays an important role here, too. While managers should not entertain biases and should treat all members of their team equally, this is simply not reality. In addition, these appraisals are influenced by the recency factor. Once a year or even once a quarter feedback can be too easily skewed by what happened yesterday, last week or even by a single event.

Then there’s the issue of how the feedback will be received by the recipient. A person’s own take on their manager’s performance will very likely affect their willingness to listen to advice or take criticism. If they perceive their manager as incompetent, or maybe just dislike their style of management, good feedback may go ignored.

Peer-to-peer feedback

This is perhaps the most valuable feature of the multi-source feedback system. An employee works closely with their peers on a daily basis. They collaborate on projects, work side by side and spend the most time in each other’s company. As such they can be the most knowledgeable about an employee, their attitude, their work ethic and provide the most complete overview of the quality of their work. Also, as part of a team, the feedback a person receives is most likely to be constructive in nature, and will benefit the team as a whole once implemented.

Asking for peer feedback can be a valuable way to uncover gaps in knowledge and areas where coaching or additional training may be advantageous to the team. However, like the other two kinds, there are also disadvantages to peer feedback. Personality clashes can lead to unfair or biased performance appraisals. And the opposite is also true: employees are more likely to reward a popular colleague with a better-than-deserved rating. Employee manipulation of feedback ratings is also known to occur, Amazon being only the most recent and widely reported.

Combining them all

As I hope I’ve made clear, there are advantages to using downward, upward and peer feedback. However, none of the three are enough on their own. To borrow a phrase, there is strength in numbers. The three combine for a much more complete, holistic account of an employee’s performance. When used together as multi-source feedback, you get the benefits of each of them, their disadvantages often offset by the advantages of the other.

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In order for a multi-source feedback process to work employees need to engage with it properly, and use it on a regular basis. If only part of the team uses it, it loses many of its benefits. If feedback and input are not coming from all participants the evaluations and suggestions lose their value, as the lower the number of sources the less objective the comments become.

Overcome the disadvantages

There are many articles about the disadvantages of multi-source feedback programs. But what most fail to acknowledge is that these mistakes are largely preventable and almost exclusively human error. If employees received proper guidance and training on how to use the tools, most of the problems commonly encountered will be alleviated. If adequate training has been done, and managers are on-board, the advantages of a multi-source feedback process should far outweigh the disadvantages.

As so many companies are overhauling their reviews processes, there is little disagreement that continuous and transparent feedback is the key to effective performance management.