Best Practices / by Amy Gallo
Unlike traditional reviews and other types of feedback, 360-degree reviews include input from a comprehensive set of people: peers, managers, direct reports, and sometimes customers. One of the most valuable aspects of this tool is that the opinions are voiced anonymously, which encourages a higher level of honesty than you might normally get.
However, the truth is not always pretty, and receiving a negative 360-degree review can be upsetting, especially when the opinions are echoed at many levels. But with the right attitude, you can still create a positive experience. How you handle a bad 360-degree review is far more important than the content of the review itself.
What the Experts Say
Before you begin the 360-degree review process, it’s important to have an open mindset. Remember that no one is perfect and every manager, no matter how seasoned, has room to improve. “The best leaders aren’t those who don’t have a lowest score on a 360. The best leaders have standout strengths,” says Susan David, co-director of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching, founding director of Evidence Based Psychology LLC, and a contributor to HBR‘s The Conversation blog. It’s your job to figure out what to do about those low scores. Larissa Tiedens, the Jonathan B. Lovelace Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Business School and co-editor of The Social Life of Emotions agrees. “Being reflective and changing after a negative review is often more impressive than getting positive reviews from the start. Thus, a negative review is an opportunity to show that you can listen and learn,” she says. Here are several principles to follow if you receive a less than stellar 360-degree review.
Reflect before reacting
After you receive the feedback, let the results sink in before you do anything. “Sometimes people want to respond too quickly before they have sufficiently reflected upon it,” says Tiedens. Try not to be defensive. “Receiving feedback can bring our most vulnerable and self-critical parts to the fore,” says David. Counter this instinct by asking questions and being sympathetic with yourself and those who gave feedback. “The stance that is most helpful in receiving feedback is when you consciously try to draw on your curious and compassionate parts — those aspects of you that genuinely want to learn, hear, and understand,” says David. Once you’ve taken time to process it, ask yourself whether the feedback rings true. Does it echo what you’ve heard in past reviews or from other people in your life, including those outside of work? Sometimes it can be helpful to talk with a colleague, your manager, or a mentor and get an additional perspective from someone you trust.
Avoid a witch hunt
While 360-degree reviews are intended to be anonymous, it is sometimes easy to tell who said what from the comments. It may be difficult to resist doing this type of deciphering, however, you should resist the temptation to reach out to your reviewers and address their input. “Typically, the respondents provide their feedback with the understanding that they won’t be sought out to discuss their individual comments, so you risk harming the process and the general level of trust if you try to discover the individual source,” says Tiedens. Rusty O’Kelley, a partner at Heidrick & Struggle’s Board Consulting and Leadership Consulting Practices who has conducted hundreds of 360-degree reviews as part of his work on CEO succession planning and transition management, echoes this point. “It’s important to protect the people who gave you feedback so that they can be honest. Where 360s often fail is when people are diplomatic instead of straightforward,” he says.
Decide what to respond to
Remember that the review is made up of opinions. This means you don’t have to react to everything. A 360-degree review is different from a formal review by your boss in that you aren’t obligated to address the feedback. Instead, be selective about what you are going to change. Responding to every piece of feedback would be a colossal waste of time. “Just as you wouldn’t rush out and replace your car because someone didn’t approve of it, it isn’t necessary to rush out and try to change yourself and doctor your personality or behavior because of a piece of negative feedback on a 360,” says David. Instead, she suggests that leaders use three criteria to decide when to attend to a low score:
- Is this a consistent problem? Has it come up in previous reviews and from different raters?
- Is the problem a fatal leadership flaw? Does it point to lack of integrity, authenticity, or honesty?
- Is it incongruent with your values? Does it conflict with the type of leader you want to be? “Your values are your anchor and they should inform the leadership principles that you try to live up to,” she says.
Many 360-degree review tools cluster feedback according to its source, whether it comes from direct reports, peers, customers, etc. Take note of what level the feedback is coming from. “In some ways, it is even more important to be responsive to what you hear from those lower in the hierarchy,” says Tiedens. “Subordinates took a bigger risk in raising these issues and have fewer avenues to discuss them with you, which suggests that these things are really bugging them and may mean they are even more confident of their views.”
Commit to change
When making a plan to change, focus on the future. Don’t start immediately altering things that will make you feel better now. Often this won’t help you achieve your goals in the long term. “While the pull of bad is stronger than good, if you are choosing an area to develop you might be better served by attending to an average score rather than your lowest score,” says David. It is unlikely, even with a great degree of work, that you will be able to move a low score to an off-the-chart strength. “Think about concrete behaviors you can engage in that would be responsive to negative feedback,” says Tiedens. David suggests creating mini-experiments where you choose one or two focus areas and create opportunities to try out a new behavior or way of being. Ask yourself: What’s the smallest thing I can do that will make the biggest difference? Then, once you’ve done that small thing, assess how it went. “Start developing proof points that show it will work,” says David. This is the foundation for change.
Talk with your manager or team
“The instinct is to hide and not talk about it, but since everyone participated, they are anticipating that some things will change,” says O’Kelley. Talk with your team and share an overview of the feedback you received. “You don’t need to give them every data point, but a general characterization of what the feedback said, both positive and negative, can be very useful for your team to hear,” says Tiedens. Make a commitment to your team or your manager as to what you are going to change and how. To keep you focused and to include them in the process, invite them to call you out when you aren’t living up to your promises.
How to handle outliers
Sometimes it’s clear from your 360-degree review that only one or two people had a certain negative opinion. Instead of completely dismissing that feedback, it’s important to reflect on it. It’s possible that others agree with the feedback but were afraid to express it in the assessment. If you have an outlier critique, do more research and try to assess whether it holds any truth. Then apply David’s three criteria from above to decide whether it deserves a reaction.
Principles to Remember
- Remember that feedback — positive or negative — is an opportunity to see your leadership in new light
- Ask yourself what the value of changing a behavior is before you spend time and energy on it
- Commit to what you’re going to change and how with your team or manager
- Try to seek out your detractors for more information
- Attempt to change every negative behavior — be discerning about which ones to focus on
- Instinctively focus on the negative — most reviews contain both good and bad feedback
Case Study #1: Deciding when not to react
When Aimee Fieldston’s* small strategy firm was acquired by one of the big consulting companies, she received a much-deserved promotion to partner. About six months into her tenure, she was offered coaching and a 360-degree review as part of a development program for new partners. When she met with the coach before the review, she asked that he interview specific people. Aimee knew she had many fans in the organization but she was more curious to hear from some of her new peers and potential detractors.
The feedback report was primarily positive but included some useful areas of development around building a more commercial approach and developing a stronger team. The review also included some harsh feedback about Aimee as a person, indicating that some of her reviewers thought she had an irritating style. The coach noted that this was something he heard from a very small number of people. Aimee was taken aback as these were criticisms she hadn’t heard before. “It just wasn’t aligned with my sense of who I am,” she said. She was upset but rather than reacting right away, she took the time to reflect on it and consulted a more senior partner who had given her some frank, career-changing advice in the past. He agreed that the feedback didn’t resonate and asked her to think about whether there was any truth in it. If there wasn’t, he advised her to let it go. “Feedback sometimes is a gift that comes with a gift receipt,” he said.
Not responding was hard for Aimee. “I believe in feedback and I believed in this process,” she said. Ultimately, she chose to work on the things in the report that had ringed true for her.
*Name has been changed
Case Study #2: Listening to your team
In 2004, Torrey Cady, a Battery Commander, was mid-way through a tour in Iraq. In accordance with the Army’s culture of feedback and continual improvement, Torrey decided that the tour midpoint was a good time to take the temperature of his roughly 100-person organization. Torrey had been in service for almost 20 years and had done several Command Climate Surveys (CCS). The CCS, the Army’s version of a 360-degree review, surveys all soldiers in a unit on issues of morale, leadership, and performance.
The results of Torrey’s CCS surprised him. His soldiers indicated that they thought he was unapproachable and was too busy speaking with Iraqi mayors and sheiks to spend enough time with them. This negative feedback was especially difficult for Torrey. “One of the strengths I thought I had, because I came up through the ranks, was being approachable, easy to talk to, and down to earth,” he said.
While his initial reaction was shock and disbelief, when he read the comments, he understood more about what was going on. Every day Torrey and his men went out on patrol so that Torrey could meet with an Iraqi official about rebuilding the country. His team would wait outside, patrolling the area to keep Torrey and themselves safe. When the meeting was done, Torrey would hop back in the Humvee and say, “Ok, let’s get going,” and they’d head back to base. He rushed them back because he wanted to keep his soldiers safe and give them as much time off as possible. The sooner they got back to base, the sooner his team could eat, call their families, etc. But it turned out that they wanted to know what had happened in Torrey’s meetings and why they had to wait in the hot sun all day. “From their perspective, I hadn’t done a good job of explaining what it was I was doing and why,” he said. “I realized that I was so task-oriented and mission-focused that I was ignoring the very people who were helping me achieve the mission.”
After taking in the feedback, Torrey sat the team down and shared what he had heard. He explained that while it had not been intentional, he now knew that his behavior was having a negative impact on them. Starting then, at the end of each patrol, Torrey committed to debriefing his team (not just his supervisor) on the meeting and how it went. He also made a concerted effort to spend more casual time with his soldiers. Three months later, Torrey did another CCS and the difference was drastic. His team clearly appreciated what he had changed and they now felt included in the mission.