360-Degree Assessments—Their Deadly Flaw

a man in a kayak is circled by sharks

360-degree surveys have long been favored as effective training needs assessments. It is generally believed that, when administered appropriately, they can help reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the subject and are then useful in determining next steps for development and coaching. They expose hidden areas, show where skills gaps exist and inform the template for targeted skill building.

Good coaches can use the feedback to enlighten them on how to provide insight to leaders on their challenges vis-à-vis their followers. Where could they improve? How are they perceived by others? Where does their own assessment of their strengths differ or agree with the perceptions of the circle of those who work with them? 

But there are some serious training needs assessment detractors of the value of these up-down-and-sideways surveys. Why? Because they claim that the data is faulty. Here is what they say…

360s are, in general, built to measure a set of competencies by asking peers, superiors and followers to rate the subject in terms of behaviors. Let’s say, for example, that you were asked to fill out a survey for Chris, your boss, and you are evaluating Chris’ management/motivation. You might be asked a question like, “Builds a compelling vision and ‘sense of purpose.’” The flaw, say 360-degree detractors, is that your answer is very subjective…it reveals more about you, the survey taker, than the survey subject.  A high rating indicates that you feel Chris builds a more compelling vision than you do. A low rating indicates that you are better at articulating a sense of purpose than Chris. Because the data gathered is not objective, it is not as helpful.  And because it is gathered, not from a random sampling, but from a select group of employees, it is a skewed sample.

According to some training needs assessment experts, the solution is to change the way the questions are formulated. The rater can provide good data if asked, not to assess the subject’s behavior, but to evaluate their own feelings. You could be asked if you understand the purpose of the team instead of whether or not Chris has built a sense of purpose. That outcome-based question would be a true rating and provide more valuable data.

The bottom line is that 360s can be useful as training needs assessments if they are couched in terms that measure the right things…not your subjective view of the target’s behavior but your own feelings.


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