360° Assessments are a tool – How to use them effectively

 In Articles

We have all seen those funny warnings on tools. The most famous is probably one on the instructions for an iron saying: “Do not iron clothes while wearing them”.  My personal favourite is one on the box of a carpenter’s drill which says: “Not for use as a dental drill”.

Weird as they are, these warnings remind us that even the handiest tool can be dangerous if used incorrectly or for the wrong purpose.

Thornhill has been in the business of administering 360° assessments for nearly two decades. We have learnt that this exceptionally useful tool can also be used for the wrong purpose, or in less than optimal ways. Although probably not leading to severe burns or extreme physical pain, 360s poorly used can certainly lead to a sense of grievance, a feeling of being unfairly judged, a loss of confidence in one’s leadership abilities, or an obsessive attempt to “fix” all the “weaknesses” that have been highlighted in the assessment.

This article suggests how to maximise the benefits and avoid the pain. This begins with understanding the purpose for which the tool has been developed.

Why we use 360° assessments

The assessment sets out a well-defined set of behaviours and capabilities that when combined in a balanced way, result in effective leadership. Underlying the use of 360s is the belief that everyone can and should learn more about themselves as leaders, and with the correct information and the right support, make sustained improvements to their qualities as leaders and human beings.

The first step in this journey for the individual is to gather the right data, which is: How do those I work with experience me as a leader? The 360° enables individual leaders and whole management teams to get this feedback from colleagues, clients, managers and those they manage. They can then use that feedback to enhance their leadership capabilities, and their own personal growth. The next sections describe how to extract maximum value from the process.

Making 360° assessments successful

The whole process works best if:

  • Those being assessed bring an open mind and are eager to receive feedback and to use it. This means allaying their fears about how the feedback will be used, and by whom.
  • The feedback is explained and explored in an entirely non-judgmental way.
  • Those receiving the feedback select a few important areas to work on.
  • This work is described in a clear personal development plan and is supported by coaching or other longer-term input.
  • Progress in implementing the plan is monitored and measured.

To optimise this process, there are important issues of tone and practice that companies should carefully consider when deciding to use 360s.

Make the assessment part of your leadership development programme, not part of a performance management contract. Participants who are certain that the 360° will help them grow and lead better, will be enthusiastic and curious about the feedback – which is the frame of mind that allows people to absorb and learn.  If they fear that they will be judged, and their pay or bonus affected, they will be tense and defensive, which immediately closes them off to any learning. Clear and consistent messaging is necessary to create and maintain trust in the process.

Understand that feedback is not a photograph. If participants believe that the assessment delivers an unchangeable picture of who they are, if it is understood as a personality test (which it is not), then they will not believe that they can change how their colleagues experience them as a leader. However, if it is understood that the feedback tells them what their impact is on a particular group of people, then they can learn how to change that impact by moderating their behaviour. Changing behaviour is challenging and requires well directed effort, but it is certainly possible. Whereas changing the deepest aspects of one’s personality is not always possible.

Make sure that participants receive early guidance on their 360° reports. Even the most constructive attitudes can crumble if participants sit with what they see as critical feedback and comments for days or even weeks before discussing the results with anyone. This can lead to a hardened response that reduces the value of the feedback. It is also important that guidance on the feedback should come from someone whose only interest is supporting the growth of the individual, a role that may not always come easily to direct line managers.

Encourage a spirit of curiosity amongst those receiving feedback. It is much better if they respond: “That’s interesting.  I wonder why people say I am not so good at holding people to account”, than if they think: “I wish I knew who said that – I would show them what accountability means!”.

Steer clear of perfectionism. Many participants in 360° assessments have a view that they should be scoring high on all behaviours (the Thornhill Leadership Survey has about 60 such qualities). This leads to:

  • Despondency, and a desire to take on too many areas of improvement in the personal development plan. The truth is that almost no-one scores high across the board, and no-one should aim to do so. Sometimes the qualities are “shadows” of each other. It is rare for example, for people to be rated as being very good at having tough conversations, while also scoring high on people feeling very comfortable in their presence.
  • Too great a focus on improving weak scores. At Thornhill we are constantly reminding people that building on their strengths will probably improve their value more than struggling with things they find particularly difficult. This is especially true where people work in teams with complementary skills. Our approach is that “development areas” to be worked on should be chosen because they are central to their current job, or to future career progression.  Indeed, calling all lower scores “development areas” might be considered problematic because it implies that something should be done about each lower score. And at the other end, sometimes a development area might even be a strength that should be put to greater use.

In the interests of realism and being true to themselves, participants should exercise their own discretion in relation to what is the right score for them on any specific quality. Building an appropriate set of strengths, and recognition of which lower scores need addressing, will help leaders to get the best out of the feedback.

Embed the learnings in a practical plan. It is interesting to receive and understand feedback. But it is useful when that learning informs a clear plan to respond constructively to the feedback, by making the best use of one’s strengths, addressing blind spots (where you are not as strong as you believed), and picking a couple of areas for improvement.  A spoken or written commitment to change is not a plan. A clear set of steps, leading to improved performance, is a plan. And implementing those steps, with support, monitoring and gathering more feedback is the realisation of the plan and what leads to long term sustainable change.

In conclusion it bears repeating that 360° assessments are highly effective when used in the right way, for the purpose described in this article, and as part of a toolbox of leadership development methodologies. They help leaders at all levels to understand how their behaviour is experienced by others, and how it can be reasonably modified to achieve significant improvements in leadership effectiveness.

For more information on Thornhill’s various products and services for all levels within your organisation, please contact us on admin@thornhill.co.za.

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