360-degree feedback tools are sometimes criticized because they aren’t objective. It’s argued that since they aren’t objective, they can’t be reliable. In an article for the HBR, Marcus Buckingham suggests that all of the data we collect when we run a 360 is “bad”. But in the article, “bad” is actually used as a synonym for “subjective.” Here’s what he writes:
“My beef with 360 surveys is more basic, more fundamental. It’s the data itself. The data generated from a 360 survey is bad. It’s always bad. And since the data is bad, no matter how well-intended your coaching, how insightful your feedback, how coherent your leadership model, you are likely leading your leaders astray… The bottom line is that, when it comes to rating my behavior, you are not objective. You are, in statistical parlance, unreliable. You give us bad data.”
It’s impossible for 360-degree feedback to be objective, and on that point I agree with Buckingham. But I don’t agree with his conclusion. Subjective isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, subjective data can correlate to objective business results. Let me explain:
Responses to a standard 360 statement like “John is a good listener,” Buckingham argues, will always be “bad data” because what participants are really telling us is “does John listen to me.” This is far from objective, sure, but I’d argue that it doesn’t need to be. And I’ll go a step further and say that I think the value of a 360 actually lies in its subjective nature. If John is my boss and I don’t think he listens to me, then that absolutely relates back to how effective John is at leading me.
Performance appraisals are where objectivity is essential, but a 360 assessment isn’t a performance appraisal. In short, while a performance appraisal objectively measures actual results against pre-set targets, a 360 is all about development. It asks participants to give subjective feedback about how a leader stacks up against competencies that relate to their job and their performance. 360-degree feedback tools have to be subjective, because a leader’s success is measured in more ways than just performance. Effective leadership can be seen in the engagement, performance, and relationships of the people that work with the leader, and these qualities depend on subjective, personalized data.
“To create a reliable 360 survey, all you need do is cut out all the statements that ask the rater to evaluate others on their behaviors, and replace them with statements that ask the rater to evaluate himself on his own feelings. Doing this will transform your 360 survey into a tool everyone can trust.”
That’s another quote, close to the end of Buckingham’s article. Obviously, he’s not an across-the-board 360 naysayer, but he does believe that only a few 360-degree feedback tools actually interpret data in an accurate, reliable way. This makes a lot of sense: the reason that 360s can and do fail sometimes is not because the data is bad, but because the interpretation of the data is bad.
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To really grow and develop, a 360 should lead into a meaningful conversation about behaviours and competencies. There is great value in that conversation and it should lead to reflection and a greater degree of self-awareness. We need to take relevant insight and reflect on it, so we can turn it into an objective and actionable plan for personal development, improved working conditions and, in turn, greater productivity and performance.
And that’s where subjective data really shines.