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A Better Approach to 360° Feedback

Many resources on 360° feedback will tell you that the best questions to ask are about a person’s performance or character as a whole. For instance:

  • Does this employee act professionally?
  • Does this employee follow instructions to achieve the desired results?
  • Is this employee a good active listener?

While the intent behind these types of question can be good—uncovering additional perspectives on interactions with the person under review—the question framing is asking a reviewer to pass judgment on the holistic performance or character of that person. This will often encourage reviewers to inflate confidence in their own opinions, and make harsher or more final judgments than their experience or role warrants.

Instead, it’s best to ask for reviews within the context that the reviewer actually interacts with the person under review. So, instead of asking about a performance attribute or character evaluation, a 360° review can ask a reviewer about their individual experience with the person under review, and ask for specific citations of observed actions to support their interpretation of the experience.

Humans also have a recency bias and suffer from long-term memory distortions that change to fit their current opinions of other people. This means that “observations” from months ago often aren’t so much observations as they are current opinions and emotions repackaged as fixed stories about the past. Most people don’t even intend to distort the truth like this: it’s just the way the human brain works.

So then, to get a better idea of what’s happening between a person under review and their reviewers, you might consider questions that take these biases and limitations into account. For example:

  • In the past 3 months, have you had any notable positive or negative experiences with this person with regard to them actively listening to you? If so, please describe your experience.
  • In the past 3 months, has this person over-delivered on a project you were also a part of? If so, please describe your experience.
  • In the past month, have you been in a meeting where this person didn’t attend, yet their presence would have been important to affecting the outcomes of the meeting? If so, please describe your experience.

You will have to work to create a set of good questions that examine various aspects of a person’s role—and the questions really should be customized per role under review, at least—but this is the type of work that will yield good results for you and the person under review. This is the work of good management.