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360 Degree Leadership Training: Does It Work?

Although generally thought of as a performance appraisal tool, 360-degree feedback has been used as a awareness tool during training–especially Leadership training. When I was involved in training management, I worked with a team of contractors who used 360 feedback as part of the training program we asked them to design and deliver for us. While I the training was useful, a part of it had questionable value. Does the 360 feedback really help train “leaders?” How about those managers filling the leadership positions who seem lacking the character traits we most associate with leaders?

360-degree feedback, also known as a multi-rater feedback, multi-source feedback, or multi-source assessment, is a way of measuring behaviors. Input comes from those surrounding an employee–including subordinates, supervisors and colleagues. It also includes a self-assessment and, in some cases, feedback from external sources such as customers and suppliers or other interested stakeholders.

Often touted as an important part of leadership development, the process does have its detractors who say it is too personal and unpredictable. For example, it doesn’t take into account typical reactions that could be dismissed as not being honest because the participant doesn’t want to appear politically incorrect. Or, to address it another way–there may be experimenter bias–that is when the participants give the experimenter the answer they want to hear instead of an honest one.

Participants may:

  • Try to figure out who said “it”
  • Focus on the negative and forget the positive
  • Dismiss the feedback as “situational”
  • Engage in coping behavior such as denying, becoming defensive, rationalizing, transferring behavior, blaming, making excuses.

It is said by some trainers assessors, executive development and leadership training programs “that include 360-degree feedback have been shown to be more effective and have a greater impact on participants than programs that do not include it.” By the same token, it is optional in most training packages because used without specific training it can be an issue for some. The reason for that is may be because of the highly personal nature of the approach. Handled badly and you have one pissed off leader or leader candidate who has just learned some not so great things about him or herself. Used well, however…

To be fair, it looks at seven excellent leadership competencies that are meaningful.

  1. Interpersonal
  2. Strategic Positioning and Thinking
  3. Directing and Inspiring
  4. Decision Making and Problem Solving
  5. Building External Partnerships
  6. Teams and Teamwork
  7. Leading Organizational Change

If 360 degree process has detractors and needs training to apply it, why use it? The statististics this time that say approximately one third of all companies use some sort of multi-rater formula, and some studies suggest that 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies are said to use multi-rater system to appraise their senior executives. It seems to make sense to use it to train those executives the same way, and I suppose, get them used to the idea.

While it makes sense since companies use it for appraisals, why not for training? The same issues that affect the system in its appraisal role also affect the results of training.

We trainers often talk about how leadership should be part of every level of a company or organization. Could this be applied to all employees? Apart from logistics issues of time spent, in some situations it could be quite cumbersome depending on how many employees would have to evaluate each other as well as their supervisor and any employees they themselves supervised.

So, there appears to be a logical reason for limiting this to high-level staff. But in the modern corporate business and non-profit world, we like to think leadership should be trained on all levels where possible. It would seem the lower echelon has to have a different “leadership” training, serving to do just what we don’t want to do: separate higher leadership from the team.

The multi-rater system is not new. In fact it has been in use since the German’s used the approach during World War II, but it wasn’t studied or written about until the ’50s.

As with theories of any kind, the more variables you have, the more complicated the validity and value to an organization. The results are mixed. As an appraisal, it measures not productivity, but what others think of you and perhaps their perception of your productivity. Again, personal factors come into play. In leadership training, participants are cautioned:

  • Don’t accept your feedback too easily.
  • Don’t reject it too quickly.
  • Don’t assume you know who said what.

It’s been asked how a management person would fare if their overall evaluation score consisted of input from their reporting staff, fellow teammates, and external/internal customers. Are all these components taken into consideration with regard to promotion, bonus and retention?

Best question ever: How would 360 feedback affect your evaluation?

One simple answer: the boss still holds the power to control subordinates. That would be you, regardless of what others say about you. Bias is bias, if it exists in a relationship.

The use of multi-rater assessment does not improve company performance, or so say the studies. In fact, one 2001 study found that 360-degree feedback was associated with a 10.6 percent decrease in market value, while another study concludes that “there is no data showing that [360-degree feedback] actually improves productivity, increases retention, decreases grievances, or is superior to forced ranking and standard performance appraisal systems.” The 360 rater process sounds good, but there is no proof it works. Could it be the same with training?

Ironically, a 2003 study states that there is little evidence that the multi-rater process results in change. Other authors state that the use of multi-rater assessment does not improve company performance. In fact, one 2001 study found that 360-degree feedback was associated with a 10.6 percent decrease in market value, while another study concludes that “there is no data showing that [360-degree feedback] actually improves productivity, increases retention, decreases grievances, or is superior to forced ranking and standard performance appraisal systems.” It sounds good, but there is no proof it works.

Do our leaders change that much after training, and if they do, does it last? Not in my experience. Change in behavior is not an immediate or lasting result in most cases. You can sometimes affect attitudes, but that is difficult and unpredictable at best; it also may not last. We can provide knowledge–even wisdom, but what makes us think we can make big changes in behavior with training. I don’t know about you but I’ve not noticed lasting change in behavior with the leadership training of any kind. It has to be worked on and the participant or trainee has to have the desire to improve. For me, the answer still lies in early development of those traits we desire. The behaviors are learned over time and those are more lasting.

That’s my take on the 360 Degree Leadership Training. Now, it’s your turn. I don’t have all the answers. Comment here or on my website. Guest bloggers always welcome here. Just click on the link above, fill out the form and let us know about you.

By the way, I am available for training and training development, speaking, coaching, and, of course, I’m always open to new ideas. Need interactive discussions on effective communication and presentations–if you have the need for training or a motivating speech in training, presenting or public speaking, please let me know. Know your audience, know your subject and know yourself. There is no “Mission Impossible.” Only an “Affair to Remember.” Happy training.

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