Why The 360° Feedback Is The Worst Tool In The Workplace

Written by Mike Shapiro | | December 26, 2017

Somewhere along the line, somebody decided it would be a good idea to get people to “say things” about co-workers in an anonymous survey. Bosses, peers and reports all have a chance to weigh in. The results are tallied and a report is presented to The Accused — er, the person receiving the feedback. I guess the idea was that people don’t really get enough candid feedback, so this was a way to do that in an organized, company-wide and supposedly anonymous way.

I suppose somewhere, someone got something good from this practice. But overwhelmingly, any positive effects have been more than offset by the serious damage done.

Why? Because the whole process is fundamentally flawed:

The most well-articulated comments tend to be the snarky and hypercritical ones. Any time someone asks for feedback, it provides a spark that ignites that critic in each of us and starts the negativity flowing. Colorful language comes easily when criticism is the subject, while positive comments usually warrant a weak and clichéd “awesome,” “amazing,” or “nice.” The structured, anonymous nature of the process doesn’t lend itself to positive, constructive feedback, richly expressed.

It serves as a vehicle for revenge. Working at close range with others for any period of time provides plenty of raw material for hard feelings. Say a manager makes a staff change for what he believes is the good of the organization. The person on the short end of such a move is just itching for an opportunity for pay-backs. The 360 provides a handy place to do it.

It encourages criticisms aimed at the person’s character rather than specific observed behaviorsThe way the questions are set up, raters are typically asked to rate a person, not some action he or she took.

The anonymity is not real anyway. C’mon. You ‘ve been working with these folks. You can tell who said what. But the person can’t confront his or her accusers.

It breeds a tattle-tale culture. One of the worst offenses in school was running to tell the teacher when someone did something wrong. Is this the kind of behavior we want to bring into adulthood — and the workplace?

It breeds currying of favor. You’ve seen it: Managers intensifying the volume and rate of high-fives, shout-outs and atta-boys in the run-up to the big day when the feedback forms are due.

It has a “totalitarian regime” ring to it. It’s kind of like “informing” on your neighbor.

It’s talking “behind someone’s back.” I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, one of the worst sins was talking to friends about someone who wasn’t present. Bringing such a practice into the workplace — even dressed up with corporate-ese language — can’t be a good thing. (Note: This is not to be confused with “tattle-tailing” where the person receiving the nasty info is in a power position. In this one, it’s friends and peers sharing the dirt with each other.)

It’s an ambush. The person being rated doesn’t see it coming and has no defense for it, no chance to respond.

It fails to meet any of the requirements for effective and actionable feedback:

  • It’s not specific as to events.
  • It’s not about behavior, but tends to be character-oriented.
  • It’s not captured at a time contemporaneous to the events and behaviors. Sharp memories fade over time, to be replaced by vague impressions that color the recollections of the rater when it’s time to provide the input.

Finally, and most importantly, it fails to recognize that most people are just people, doing the best they can, trying and succeeding and then trying and failing, and then succeeding again and so on, moment-by-moment.

In the workplace, we ought to want to bring out the best in everyone. The 360 doesn’t do that, but rather fosters a kind of treachery that weakens the bonds co-workers strive so hard to build with each other. Don’t use it. Instead, encourage honest, person-to-person, on-the-spot feedback that focuses on actions and behaviors, as and when they occur.