The 360 degree feedback (or just “360 feedback”) is named after the multiple sources from where the feedback is gathered: it can be upward (from somebody reporting to that person), downward (from that person’s managers) and lateral (from a peer, or from a cross-functional team member). I don’t resort very often on the 360 feedback “as a process”, but it admittedly provides several advantages:
- It’s useful to uncover blind spots: other people look at things from a different angle and might help you surface the unexpected
- It’s more balanced: you get (or give) feedback gathered from a diverse group of individuals instead of just one person, lowering the impact of the bias that will inevitably come with the feedback
I sometimes resort to 360 feedback in situations where these advantages shine: for example when I know I have several blind spots to cover (took a new reporter, joined a new organization) or to prepare performance reviews or promotion cases, where I can’t afford my positive or negative bias to have a crucial impact.
In environments exhibiting a strong feedback culture, the 360 feedback is already there, it’s just a matter of putting together the existing pieces - in any other case, you have to go catch them all.
Asking for feedback
Getting response to a feedback request is not always easy: in my very personal and very limited dataset, around 50% of the people I reach out to, asking for feedback, just don’t respond - not even a “sorry, I don’t have time / I don’t know what to say / I don’t want to participate”. Nothing. Ghosted.
There are a number of reasons why people won’t reply to your 360-feedback requests, for example:
- the person receiving the request doesn’t feel entitled to deliver feedback for a certain individual
- the feedback culture in other teams is different, and the perceived importance of your request is different as well
- your company lacks a formal 360 feedback process, and your request just looks weird; the receiver doesn’t know what to do exactly and stalls
This is ok, you need to work to get feedback and this is part of your job as a leader. But the upside is, if you get an idea of the reasons behind a missing response, you can figure out a few countermeasures to make the process more likely to succeed.
1. Define the rules
When you ask somebody for 360 feedback, be sure to include in your message a brief explanation of how the process works. Point out that following up is totally optional - never use your position to force a response from somebody directly or indirectly reporting to you; mention there are deadlines; when it’s appropriate, you can even half-jokingly anticipate in a funny way that you might be pestering them close to the deadline to extort an answer; explain clearly whether the feedback they provide is anonymous or not.
2. Ask questions
Asking specific questions is a win-win situation. It’s easier for you to elaborate the results: the topics covered, the length of the answers, the tone will be most likely similar for different people. It’s also easier for the person you’re asking, because a blank page to fill can be intimidating; instead, in front of a list of questions, they can go one by one answering what they can, being able to roughly guess what are your expectations. For each question, be sure you ask for one and one thing only, you should optimize for short answers.
3. Give them enough time
Nobody likes tight deadlines, and don’t forget you’re asking somebody for help - least you can do is being kind and avoid pressing them. Also, if you ask now for something you say you need in a couple of days, without a sound excuse for such a hurry, I warrantee you will look like you’re improvising, which isn’t pretty.
4. Give yourself enough time
Even if the more recent the feedback the better, considering most of the recipients will not fulfil your request right ahead, you might want to start the process way ahead of time. You need to take into account that a fair chunk of the time you have will be spent soliciting an answer: I usually ask for feedback three weeks before I need it, you can go up to four if you want to exceed on the safe side.
5. Make it personal
Instead of sending the same request template to everyone, consider including one or two sentences detailing why you’re reaching out to them specifically. For example, you could write “I see you have collaborated to fix the memory leak bug in Project X…" or “I know they reviewed some of your work recently…", and this usually has two positive effects. First, you show you care, and this extra empathy might make the receiver more keen to help you; second, it puts some little pressure on the receiver, who knows this message is for them and not just a cold mass e-mail.
6. Don’t be afraid to pester…
If everybody involved was given enough time and if the process is easy to follow, you can indulge in pushing a bit in order to get an answer. Don’t be afraid to follow up your email message with a direct message on chat, or bringing up the topic when you talk to them: declining the request is one possible outcome of the process anyway.
7. …but keep culture and personality in mind!
Try to take informed decisions when you ask somebody to provide feedback on a third person. For example, in some cultures giving feedback might be harder than in others; or there might be personal reasons you ignore about why one individual doesn’t want to give feedback for another. In general, unless you know the recipient well enough, stay conservative.
The Feedback Form
In one attempt to incorporate all the tactics above into the process, I ended up using a web form to collect 360 feedback. There are plenty of services providing feedback for free forms and chances are you already have one of them as a trusted supplier at your company, so the overhead for setting one up is very low. On the recipient side, filling a form will be generally easier than having to write down something from scratch. Here are the fields I use in my 360 feedback form:
- An option to submit the form declining to provide feedback in an explicit way
- Anonymous mode
- Let the recipient choose whether the feedback has to remain anonymous and make evident what’s the default.
- The name of the person we’re gathering feedback for. Depending on how the form is implemented, this might be a pre-selected selection, worst case you let the recipient pick the right name.
- What should they keep doing?
- This is an open question, the recipient has to write something. I use a single line form input to hint that the expected answer doesn’t have to be long.
- What should they start doing?
- Same notes as question above
- What should they stop doing?
- Same notes as question above
- Anything else you want me to know?
- This is also an open question, but the field is a multi-line text box so the recipient knows they don’t need to be necessarily short here.
- How closely do you work with them?
- One option among: Extremely, Very, Somewhat, Slightly
The form alone can only get you so far, but it helped me a lot: I get way more responses (can’t say how much but my feeling is being ghosted is definitely not the norm anymore), the feedback is usually insightful even when it’s short.
I have to thank my fellow engineering managers at my current company for helping me out shaping this 360 feedback process. When I first raised the concern about people not responding to my requests, they gave me plenty of advice, hints and options to explore.