Nothing improves employee performance like specific, credible feedback. Of course, giving and receiving that feedback can be pretty challenging: there is no way to predict whether our insights will enhance or destroy a solid working relationship. That’s why 360 assessments are so popular. Credible? You bet. Anonymous feedback comes from raters who are usually selected by the recipient; moreover, feedback comes from all sides—peers, co-workers, management. How is it specific? Questions are related to a company-wide competency model and focus on well-defined, observable behaviors. It’s tough to argue with the power of a 360, but as with anything powerful, there are also some serious pitfalls to avoid. Here are seven ways to assure success whether you choose to build your own or buy one from a vendor.

An assumption: you already have a competency model. To over-simplify a bit (many books have been written on this), a competency model is a list of competencies specific to a company. This list of competencies reflects the company’s culture and brand, and therefore is unique.

A competency can be described simply as the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to do any job in a given company. For example, communication is probably the most universal competency. Every employee is required to communicate effectively in order to do his or her job, although at very different skill levels. Even the most dedicated number-crunching analyst still has to communicate analysis results in some form. Similarly, executives are expected to communicate to employees, the board of directors, and customers. Both groups, as well as many groups in-between, must communicate, but they do so at very different skill levels. Other fairly common examples include accountability, teamwork, customer focus and can-do attitude. Some companies prize absolute accuracy, others reward creativity. It is the mix of competencies and the unique definition of what that competency means to your organization at each level that your 360 assessments will focus on.

If you do not have such a model, you’ll need to build one. Count on spending some time organizing a cross-sectional team comprising company leaders, middle management, line workers and (possibly) customers to determine which competencies define your company best. Limit your list to between six to ten competencies to keep it manageable. Then you’ll want your team to identify the various competency levels for your company (four, ranging from production workers through executive management often works and is manageable). Finally, get agreement on the definitions of precisely what the competency means to your company at each level. A skilled facilitator can help reduce the time and frustration common to this process.

If you do have a competency model, assure it is still valid and the definitions are specific.

Use Behaviorally Written Competency Statements

Measure your competencies behaviorally; i.e., what can you or others see or hear? What would a camera record? Nothing is more frustrating than getting vague feedback such as “lousy attitude.” What does that mean? What should I change or do differently?

Write the statements for your competencies in behavioral terms. Instead of: “Good attitude toward team members” try “When asked to help by a team member, freely gives assistance at the earliest opportunity in a cheerful, positive manner.”

If you are buying a 360, you should have a large bank of behaviorally written competency statements to chose from. Quality vendors offer banks of about 2,000 statements similar to the one above.

Use the Right Format

Are you assessing a team? Executives? Production workers? Choose or design a format specific for your audience so you get the information you want.

Make Computers* Your Administrators

Build as many computer-automated features into your assessment as you can. Features such as on-line nomination of raters and on-line assessment are fairly common. Higher-end features include automated reminders to complete the assessment as well as reports of who has and has not completed the assessment. Other nice options should include the ability to automatically generate your report upon completion, the ability to automatically copy managers, or hold assessments for a facilitated session on accurate interpretation of results.

* Alas! Some production workers do not have access to computers. Be sure a paper option exists for them. If appropriate, select a vendor who can generate an identical paper report and then accurately input the results for you.

Be Sure the Results Make Sense

Once the results are in, be sure to build or buy reports that are complete and easy to interpret. The data should break down completely to show:

• Highest and lowest-rated items
• Individual ratings for peers, direct reports, manager and self
• Consensus scoring (number of raters at each score)
• Ability for raters to write their comments for each item
• Average scores
• Olympic scoring option (discard highest and lowest scores for a truer average)

Be Sure the Recipients Accurately Interpret the Data

Consider offering a training module to help others understand the results. This can be even more powerful if you are assessing an intact team (good opportunity for facilitation of some potential team issues) or a group of executives who might not take the time to fully understand all the feedback in their report.

If training is not an option, you’ll want to provide a complete self-interpretation guide.

Will You Need a Multi-Lingual 360?

Multi-national companies and those with a diverse workforce should be prepared to build or buy a report that reliably translates into the local language of the workforce. We communicate most comfortably and openly in our native language, and the likelihood we will complete a report goes up dramatically when we don’t need to translate it ourselves.

Look for Good Value

Still deciding whether to build or buy a 360? Building one will require time, people and some information technology know-how, but with enough effort you can get exactly what you are looking for. Buying one will get you what you want faster and with fewer meetings, but will cost more. One good way to reduce the cost when you buy is to insist the vendor charge based on the number of reports generated, not by the number of respondents. Budgeting becomes easier (assuming you have a firm number of people to be assessed) and allows you to concentrate your efforts on implementation issues.

Some Closing Thoughts

Unless you are buying a 360 for some executive coaching, you’ll probably want to think long-term on a project like this. Here are some questions to consider:

•How do you see your 360 rolling out? Just one employee group or company-wide?

•Initially, most folks are suspicious about this process and wonder whether it is truly anonymous and if retaliation will occur. How will you handle the important communications aspect of this project?

•Will the results be linked to pay? Promotion? We suggest using results strictly for individual development and recommend a formal process be put in place for that effort. Individual development can become part of the annual review process. Also, 360s offer great information on a person’s promotability, but should be used as only one part of the total selection process.

•Will the 360 be done annually? How will you keep the 360 fresh given the rapid change common to our workplaces?

Author's Bio: 

Kelly Fairbairn is President of PPS International Limited (, a company of consulting professionals with offices in the United States, and affiliates worldwide and home of the Lockwood Leadership Assessment, a fully-customizable 360 instrument ( Kelly is a former HR executive with multi-discipline experience including recruiting, selection, performance management, and training. Michael Bensley is a senior consultant with PPS International Limited. He has utilized 360 feedback with clients for more than 10 years, and, as a former HR Communications Manager, understands the complexity of implementing feedback systems in organizations.