360 Anonymous Feedback – Is it giving your organization the blues?

Every organization I am familiar with in the US and abroad conducts 360 anonymous feedback for people in leadership positions (90% of all companies according to an ETS 2012 study). This holds true despite data indicating lack of results and other problems. Here are just two examples:

Watson Wyatt’s 2001 Human Capital Index, an ongoing study of the linkages between HR practices and shareholder value at 750 publicly traded US companies found that companies that use peer review have a market value that is 4.9 percent lower than similarly situated companies that don’t use peer review and companies that allow employees to evaluate their managers are valued 5.7 percent lower than similar firms that don’t.

A 2005 meta-analysis of 26 longitudinal studies indicated that it is unrealistic to expect large performance improvement after people receive 360-degree feedback.

In other words, many individuals and organizations using 360s have been getting the blues.

Despite such feedback, the use of 360s continues to be widely accepted. All of the research I’ve read comes to a similar conclusion: that the answer is not to scrap them, but rather to improve on how the organization supports learning from the results. It should be noted, however, that all of the research I could find came from companies that sell 360s. Despite the problems indicated by their research, every source remained a proponent of the method.

None of the articles, however, addressed these three fundamental problems:

  1. Anonymous data and feedback leaves recipients and experts alike guessing at the true meaning.

The separation of those who provide the data from the task of understanding the data violates a fundamental principle once held dearly by the social science founders of survey feedback. As Ronald Lippitt, who was a close associate of Rensis Likert (the creator of the Likert scale used in all surveys), put it in a conversation with our founder (Robert P. Crosby), “They who put their pencil to the survey paper should also see and work the data.” This principle has been lost in most survey processes, including 360s.

2. There is a widespread knowledge gap regarding specificity versus judgements in behavioral feedback.

Behavioral specificity is a concept that many are unfamiliar with and/or is underused. Specificity in feedback (our model is based heavily on Dr. John Wallen’s “Interpersonal Gap”) sticks strictly with observable behaviors (“when you said or did ____”). Ownership in this case means taking personal responsibility for how one takes and interprets what someone else did or said (for example, “when you said or did ____, I was concerned that you might be losing faith in me”). Such interpretations (“losing faith” in the last example) come out of our own personal history (I might worry that people will lose faith in me, and project it on to others behavior, whereas you might not carry that worry at all). Blame-laden generalizations (“you aren’t a team player,” “you’re a micro-manager”) are generally delivered without ownership (i.e., as if they are just a fact about the other) and almost certainly result in defensiveness on the part of the receiver. There is a high likelihood the receiver will reject such feedback, and even silently blame the giver (“the actual problem here is you”). The predictable result is further erosion of the work relationship, adding to a spiral of even greater fear of giving and receiving feedback. This in turn can become the work culture of the organization. In contrast, a high standard of specificity and ownership is much more likely to build strong work relationships and higher organizational performance. Anonymous feedback rarely has a high standard of specificity and ownership. Instead it allows generalizations and blame.

3. There is also a knowledge gap regarding first order and second order change.

First order change is immediate and specific, such as a behavioral change following effective feedback. Second order change is cultural, such as the impact of how the feedback was gathered and delivered. Anonymous feedback inadvertently creates negative second order change, by reinforcing the fear of and avoidance of open face to face feedback. A typical belief in such a culture is “our people won’t be honest unless it is anonymous” and a predictable consequence is that the organization becomes more dependent on experts (whether internal or external) to manage feedback and/or conflict. In contrast, sufficiently skillful direct feedback has the positive second order effect of creating a culture where people are increasingly willing to have potentially difficult yet much needed work related conversations. Although upfront training and facilitation is likely needed, the organization becomes less dependent in the long run.

Additional negative effects of anonymous feedback based on the three factors above include:

  • Because 0f the low standards of specificity and ownership, the odds of anonymous feedback adding blame-laden generalizations to your permanent employee file are high, thus adding to the fear of the process.
  • Even when the 360 is mostly positive, and even when the receiver of the feedback is a competent and mature adult, it is tempting to speculate on who may have offered any “negative” comments, and to hold some resentment against them.
  • Without dialogue, the receiver is left guessing at the real meaning of even the most specific comments, hence decreasing the likelihood that the intended lesson will actually get learned.
  • By reinforcing anonymity and indirectness, anonymous feedback works against the skillful feedback that is the foundation of high performance culture, and runs counter to wise corporate values such as openness, trust and accountability.

What to do about it

Here are some tips corresponding to the three fundamental problems (above):

1. Use live feedback processes. When surveys are used, which we encourage, of course they should be filled out anonymously. That is not the problem. The potential for individual and organizational performance improvement lies, however, in allowing the people who filled out the survey to interpret the data and engage in dialogue about how to maintain strengths and address issues. Rather than an individual guessing at what others meant, or an expert assisting in deriving implications, the recipient gets live feedback from the people who filled it out. The data becomes a tool for dialogue. The focus, rather than being stuck on the scores and comments, is on the much more important and positive task of how to move forward from here.

Furthermore, effective survey feedback is reciprocal. That is, the scores are understood to reflect a two way street. If the boss scored low on work load prioritization, part of the puzzle is for subordinates that are confused about priorities to mention it to the boss, and to let the boss know what they understand or wish the priorities to be. This requires dialogue with both parties taking ownership of their part in what is working and in what is not working so well. Such dialogue, on an on-going basis, will take the organization to higher levels of performance with the side benefit of decreasing the reliance on outside experts.

Likewise, your people can give each other direct timely individual feedback, and begin a continuous process of learning from their experiences and improving their skills. In high performing groups and organizations people talk directly to peers, bosses, subordinates and other groups about what is working and what is not working. Any work team can move in this direction, and a critical mass in your organization of people who give and seek feedback grounded in specificity and ownership can quickly change the culture. You and your people are capable of direct and productive feedback.

2. Get the training, coaching, and facilitation necessary to make the transition to a culture of live group and individual feedback. Such work culture has been created time and again, and is directly related to high performance.

3. If you do the above you will be creating positive second order change. With each moment of successful live feedback you and your people will be on a path of decreased blame and avoidance, increased trust, increased skill at handling difficult conversations, increased self-reliance (less need for facilitators, etc., as skills and confidence are embedded in the daily culture), and a step-change in the willingness and ability to solve touchy problems that interfere with productivity.

Feedback is necessary. Anonymous feedback can actually have the unintended effect of decreasing the amount of live feedback flowing in the organization. Give yourself and your people the gift of skillful live feedback and you will not only help them avoid the anonymous feedback blues, you will get bottom-line results.

Call us. We can get you started on the path to high performance feedback culture today.

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at www.crosbyod.com
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