A deserted desert road in Shiprock New Mexico

The 360 Review and Other Forms of Assessment

What could go wrong?  

At the organization where I was employed, we had an employee review process that was exceptionally transparent and fair. This approach ensured an equitable evaluation of all personnel, irrespective of their roles or performance levels. It wasn't uncommon to witness a whirl of conversations around the office, with employees discussing their upcoming reviews either with a sense of trepidation or strategizing their approach in an almost Machiavellian manner.

This review procedure was known as the 360-degree review process (360). Its moniker was inspired by the complete circular perspective it provided, akin to the 360 degrees in a full circle. The naming choice was both meaningful and indicative of what it truly means "What goes around, comes around."

The cornerstone of its effectiveness lay in its all-encompassing nature. Under this process, everyone from managers to individual contributors were subjected to a comprehensive evaluation. The most remarkable aspect of this approach was its capability to uncover sub-par managers. Since reviews were not limited to being top-down, managers found themselves being scrutinized by their peers and subordinates alike. This multiplicity of viewpoints often brought to light any managerial deficiencies, contributing to an overall improvement in the organization's functioning.

Now, this really sounds great doesn't it? An inherently fair, transparent and ideal process that ultimately fosters growth, accountability and continual improvement. Well it can be but let't elaborate a bit more.

The 360 involves collecting performance feedback from all around an employee, such as their superiors, subordinates, colleagues, and sometimes even clients or customers. While it can be a valuable tool for development when implemented correctly, there can be several issues associated with this approach: 

  1. Bias and subjectivity: Reviews can be heavily influenced by personal bias. Personal likes, dislikes, or other subjective feelings towards the employee being reviewed can affect the objectivity and reliability of the feedback.
  2. Lack of anonymity: If not properly designed, the 360-degree review process can make it hard to maintain reviewer anonymity, leading reviewers to give more positive reviews out of fear of retaliation or negative personal relations.
  3. Overwhelming feedback: The sheer volume of feedback from multiple sources can be overwhelming and confusing, making it difficult to interpret and action.
  4. Time-consuming: The process can be time-consuming for both the reviewers and the person coordinating the review, as it requires gathering and consolidating feedback from multiple sources.
  5. Lack of actionable feedback: Often, the feedback provided may not be specific or constructive enough to help the individual improve their performance.
  6. Inconsistency in evaluations: Different people may have different standards and expectations, leading to inconsistent evaluations.
  7. Potential for gaming the system: If the review process is tied to promotions or pay increases, people might be tempted to manipulate the system, either by providing unduly positive feedback for friends or harsh feedback for perceived competitors.
  8. Ill-equipped reviewers: Not all reviewers may be equipped to provide constructive, actionable feedback, which can result in poor quality evaluations.
Despite these potential challenges, many organizations find value in the 360-degree review process when it is properly structured, the feedback is handled with care, and it's used as a tool for development rather than punishment.

While the 360-degree review process is one way to gather feedback, there are several other approaches to performance evaluation and employee development. Here are a few:

  1. Upward Feedback: Instead of feedback from all angles, this focuses on feedback from subordinates to their managers. This can provide managers with insights into their leadership style and team management.
  2. Management by Objectives (MBO): This is a goal-oriented performance appraisal method where managers and employees set specific, measurable goals together for a given period, and then assess performance based on whether those goals have been met.
  3. Regular One-on-One Meetings: Regular meetings between employees and their immediate supervisors can provide opportunities for ongoing, real-time feedback. These meetings can be more focused, timely, and pertinent to the individual's role.
  4. Peer Reviews: In this model, employees are evaluated by their peers on several parameters. This type of review can be particularly effective in a team-based structure.
  5. Self-Evaluations: Employees assess their own performance. This method encourages self-reflection and personal development, but it may not be as objective.
  6. Rating Scale Method: This method uses a standard rating scale for each performance indicator, such as job skills and knowledge, quality of work, productivity, etc.
  7. 360-Degree Feedback with Coaching: To overcome some of the drawbacks of the 360-degree feedback system, it can be combined with coaching. A coach can help interpret and prioritize the feedback, and guide the individual on how to respond to it constructively.
  8. Continuous Feedback Model: In this model, feedback is given on a continuous, often real-time basis, rather than in a formal, annual review. This approach is becoming more popular as it allows for quicker adjustments and more timely recognition.
Each of these alternatives has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the choice between them should be based on the specific needs and culture of the organization. None are perfect and in most cases the 360 does provide a very good assessment of one's abilities but it can also be a double edged sword.