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Elva Ainsworth

Talent Innovations

World-renowed 360 degree specialist, author and consultant

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Performance management: why 360-degree feedback says more about context and less about you

360-degree data says more about context and less about you.

If the coronavirus crisis has shown us anything, it’s that context is everything. Working from home pre-pendemic felt like one thing but these days, with the backdrop of lockdown and impending global recession, is quite a different experience for most of us.

Perspective is crucial if you want to make bigger cultural changes in your business.

Now let’s apply that lens to organisational culture and how we interpret feedback. When we conduct 360-degree feedback exercises, we collect a wide range of data from people across the organisation. The simplest thing to do would be to observe trends for what they are – where feedback scores are most positive, where they are lowest, where there are significant differences and so on and draw conclusions from there.

We have to remember, however, that each rating is coming from the context of that individual. Even then, there will be multiple other filters through which their feedback has travelled. So, one piece of feedback could be considered through a number of contextual lenses:

  • Individual lens: what is that person going through right now? Are they upset or happy with you? What’s your relationship – are you their manager, or a colleague? What are their expectations and needs?
  • Group lens: what are the cultural norms and expectations of the team you work in? What was the last boss like? What do they need?
  • Division, sector or country-level lens: are there national expectations or behaviours of your particular division? What are the standards of your particular industry? What are the cultural norms of your country?
  • Organisational lens: the wider culture of the business has a strong influence on how employees expect others to behave and also on how they might give feedback on an individual level.

So, culture and expectations are important but they are mostly invisible to those within as they are simply the ‘norm,’ so their interpretation will need to be considered through a certain context too. This is why it can help to bring in an independent professional to view the data objectively.

In every organisation, there is an agreed set of values, even if people don’t realise they are there – everyone just ‘knows’ that one thing is more important than another. These often invisible but accepted norms can make it difficult to shift culture in an organisation. The longer people have been there, the stronger their acceptance of that context will be, and so will their resistance to change. Everyone within a team, for example, will be operating in the same context, making it uncomfortable for those acting counter-culturally – thereby making behavioural change very difficult. Expecting individual leaders to change behaviours without shifting the organisational context, therefore, becomes rather fruitless.  

Four ways to assess data objectively

How, then, can we ensure we consider 360-degree data objectively and take into account the context feedback is coming from? I believe there are four key ways:

  1. Build in normed data: consider the data as a reflection of how an individual compares with a norm. That could be a norm for the whole company or an external benchmark (or both). Show this comparatively so they can get a clear view of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they are compared with that norm, rather than seeing data or comments in isolation. Ideally, you need a minimum of around 75 of them for a thorough statistical analysis. Well-crafted questions and a robust framework for the assessment are also essential, or the evaluation won’t hold up.
  2. Train and coach participants: educate them on the importance of contextual perspective. Brief them on the findings and how they compare to your benchmarks rather than simply handing over a report. When seen in isolation, most participants will focus on negative scores and comments, which won’t help if you’re looking for constructive change.
  3. Integrate your data: bring the data into your wider learning and development plans. For example, can the findings be used to personalise aspects of your leadership programme? Connecting these programmes to the same framework provides a better foundation for creating real transformation.
  4. Provide the bigger picture: show 360-degree cohorts what the industry or company norms are and brief them on the context. How does your whole group look against other groups in the organisation, or in your industry, for example? Explore why the current norm is as it is and whether it will serve the future vision of the company. Talking about the cultural constraints is a key first step in allowing a culture to change and develop.

Gaining perspective

Setting out 360-degree data in context means you can also support participants’ emotional journey. Raw feedback can be upsetting if it is negative and seeing the bigger picture can help individuals to understand the source of observations and then see where they need to go next. Getting out of the detail and exploring patterns and comparatives can spark curiosity, rather than allowing emotions to take over. The same applies with open text comments that can seem cruel out of context – again, looking at patterns or trends enables participants to take a ‘helicopter’ view rather than getting stuck on one thing.

This can also be a useful exercise at a team level. For some established teams, everyone gets on with one another and individuals are competent at their jobs, yet things are evolving and the organisation needs to change its approach to become more agile and commercial, for instance. The individual 360-degree reports may be positive but, when taking an overview, it can become clear what they are not doing. Showing a team what is missing can help them to see how they can all make changes to move the culture forward in the future.

Perspective is crucial if you want to make bigger cultural changes in your business. Individuals might only take part in a 360-degree feedback exercise every few years so, if they’re only focusing on isolated feedback, they may not notice there’s a new agenda or direction at the organisation. If you want a tapestry of different groups, norms and relationships to move forward together, then you have to put that bigger picture very clearly in front of them. As a coach, the question I most often get from individuals is ‘is this alright?’ and laying out the context for them can give them what they need.

As we hopefully return to a ‘new normal’ in organisations in the coming months, we should all have a fresher understanding of how context shapes everything. How we apply this to feedback exercises will determine how they influence future success for both individuals and the organisations they work in.

Interested in this topic? Read HR technology: how smart feedback transforms employee engagement and retention.

Author Profile Picture
Elva Ainsworth

World-renowed 360 degree specialist, author and consultant

Read more from Elva Ainsworth
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