Our fetish for feedback

Is 360-degree assessment a triumph for democracy and transparency, or an opportunity for mutual back-scratching and sly rubbishing of your rivals?

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How's my writing? Call MT and ask for Andy, my editor. He's the one who took out all the good bits. We live and work, after all, in an age of continuous commentary on our performance. Capitalism has passed from industrialisation through capitalisation to professionalisation.

We're in a new era - the feed-back phase.

In the old days, if anybody assessed our work, it was the boss - probably over a pint. As far as possible, British companies operated a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy with regard to performance. Some things were better left unsaid.

Now, though, managers are expected to conduct elaborate appraisals of those who report to them. In some companies, weeks are set aside for this laborious process, a bit like exam week at school. But the feedback fetish has not stopped there. Now the assessment is not just from the boss downwards.

Everyone is getting in on the act: professional peers, clients, even suppliers and - here is the revolution - subordinates.

The term for this octopus approach to performance assessment is 360-degree feedback. In a few firms, career advancement is beginning to be affected by the views not only of your boss but of your team, including your PA.

To get to the top, it is now essential to kiss everyone's arse. Most Starbucks outlets are now full of senior executives buying coffee for their secretaries.

On the face of it, 360-feedback is a triumph for democracy and transparency over elitism and shadowy politics. Rather than preferment being based on membership of the right club, or the confident presentation of other people's work, it will take into account the opinion of the people who work with you every day. By garnering the insights of people outside the firm too, a whole picture can be painted. Good managers, rather than good Machiavellians, will inherit the earth.

The results of 360-feedback surveys are mostly used for development, especially on leadership courses. When the results are bad, these sessions become therapy for battered managers. It's quite something to discover that your apparently adoring staff think that you are a lazy, dishonest, narcissistic megalomaniac.

On the upside, for people genuinely concerned to improve their skills, the availability of honest criticism is hugely helpful, even if it hurts.

Good management, like good sex, requires communication.

But feedback from subordinates has dangers. First, it can be used as an opportunity for a cathartic release of frustration, or for exacting vengeance. Quite often, the feedback is about the neuroses of the feedbacker rather than weaknesses of the feedbackee. Second, an effective manager cannot please all the people all the time: being loved and being effective are not the same thing. I remember one senior manager getting quite upset because half his team thought he was indecisive and the other half thought he rushed into decisions. What this meant was that he was getting it exactly right, even if his 360 scores didn't show that.

Third, it's a law as certain as gravity that no matter how much time a manager spends communicating with his staff, it will not be enough.

Employees are often under the impression that their bosses have nothing more important to do than chat to them. My unscientific guess is that managers who consistently score excellently on the communication bits of the survey are not doing their job properly.

Fourth, it is a fact that successful managers are not cut from the same cloth as those who report to them. Their personality types are different: if employees find a boss to be controlling and perfectionist, some of this is simply who they are - and the reason they are the boss.

Fifth, although feedback from below is good on issues such as trust and integrity, staff are weaker at assessing the technical competence of their own boss - which is at least as important.

When it comes to peer-to-peer feedback, it is of course valuable to know how colleagues view you. But if these judgments start to affect promotion, all kinds of dynamic are unleashed. Suddenly, which people are picked to do the feedback becomes important: in many cases, the choice is made by the individual concerned. This creates an obvious difficulty: instead of choosing Bob, who hates me, I'll go for Linda, who is a mate (and who will then choose me in return) - and a process that might be called praise inflation sets in. And if I'm given the opportunity to provide feedback on someone who is a rival for promotion, I might well engage in a bit of praise deflation. Whatever the system, ambitious people can start gaming it, and before you know it a potentially useful exercise in performance enhancements has become either a circular firing squad or a group hug.

Feedback works if it is undertaken in a spirit of honesty and generosity.

Personal attacks do nothing to improve behaviour and they sour the atmosphere; mutual back-scratching makes the exercise empty. All results must be treated with a degree of caution. But if the feedback is presented fairly and with good intent and is received by someone who is willing to use the information in a positive fashion, it is all to the good. The success or failure of a feedback system is a reflection of the maturity of the organisation and the individuals within it. And 360 feedback, in particular, is an adult pursuit.

Richard Reeves is director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk.

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