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The 360-degree feedback: A literature review

Mon, 9 Mar 2020 Source: Isaac Ato Mensah

The 360-degree feedback system is fraught with serious problems, but many organizations still use it.

Let us, therefore, present a review of the literature so that HR practitioners may be accordingly guided.

Monalisa Mohapatra (2015) reviewed the scholarly work of 30 different authors about the 360-degree feedback spanning a period of 19 years, namely 1996 to 2015, and concluded that “Until and unless the process and the purpose of the implementation is clear to the people within the organization it will never be a success”.

The literature shows clearly that where soft skills are being measured – a quite amorphous term depending on who is measuring – many reported cases show that the process is not transparent.

Let us take a deep dive into the particular experience of Liz Ryan (“The Horrible Truth About 360-Degree Feedback,” 2015, October 21) published on forbes.com.

Ryan was among the innovators/early adopters of the 360-degree feedback system and implemented some “godawful” decisions against employees.

But years later, here is a take-away quote from Ryan:

“Even sharp and forward-looking people who see clearly how broken our traditional top-down, fear-based, command-and-control organizations are struggling with the pros and cons of 360-degree feedback. I didn’t even struggle: I heard that 360-degree feedback was the latest HR trend and I was all over it. I brought 360-degree feedback systems into our company in a big way. It makes me queasy to write those words because 360-degree feedback is as evil and anti-human a mindset and methodology as you could find anywhere in the weenified, bureaucratic workplace.”

Deb Calvert (2019, August 5) similarly stated: “Unlike function-specific hard skills, there aren’t cause-and-effect outcomes that can be directly linked to soft skills. Demonstrating mastery of a soft skill isn’t as simple as following a step-by-step guide”.

Calvert argued that hard skills such as showing nurse trainees how to give injections should never be in contention.

Buckingham & Goodall (The Feedback Fallacy; Harvard Business Review, March–April 2019) suggest a way forward: “Neuroscience shows that we grow most when people focus on our strengths. Learning rests on our grasp of what we’re doing well, not what we’re doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else’s sense of what we’re doing poorly”.

Kanaslan & Iyem (2016) have stated that the 360-degree feedback has various names including “full-circle appraisal, multi-rater feedback, multi-source feedback, upwards feedback, group performance review, 360-degree appraisal, 540-degree feedback, all-round feedback, and peer appraisal”.

My mentor’s “The tail does not wag the dog” quip should serve as a poignant reminder that, those who know must teach – freely, for it is a sacred duty – and those who lack knowledge, when presented with facts, evidence and reason, must learn and obey.

The challenge then is what weight institutions place on the various categories of feedback used to measure both hard and soft skills.

And again, such feedback should be open and honest – collegial.

If peers are required to submit written reviews of their colleagues, the literature suggests those reviewed should have access to those reviews and a fair chance to respond.

In a university, this is sometimes achieved through the inter faculty seminar, and in a hospital through a monthly/weekly mortality and morbidity conference or clinical conference.

In some hospitals in Ghana we are familiar with, the process of giving feedback on hard skills involved picking a folder at random from the hospital records.

The medical history, diagnosis, prescriptions, etc of the patient are reviewed by a moderator assigned for the day.

All departments mentioned in the folder get a chance to respond.

And all present hear the details and may ask questions.

Thus the assessment is not inquisitorial nor done by faceless people with no reference point documents as the basis of their critique, nor is it done terminally when a contract is due for renewal.

When some managerial staff usually obfuscated and gave faceless reviews, Mrs A, a nursing school manager often told me: “Eyinom w?dzi tsir suro enyiwa,” Fante meaning, “These people prefer to be the heads but fear looking people in the eye and telling them their faults”.

HR managers may, therefore, borrow the clinical conference model to obtain open, honest feedback.

The criteria for measuring soft skills should also be known to all relevant persons.

As my mentor has often stated, “Facts, evidence and reason are the time honoured paths to enlightened public discourse”.

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Columnist: Isaac Ato Mensah