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June 17, 2024

What Is a 360 Performance Review? And When to Use It

While a traditional performance review takes place between manager and employee, a 360-degree process solicits feedback from the entire team. 

This more holistic approach can help you deliver better feedback and boost employee performance with fewer hard feelings in the process.

But if it’s not executed correctly, the 360 review can quickly veer off track. Here’s everything you need to know about 360 reviews, including when to use them and how to get them right.

Understanding 360 performance reviews: What's actually involved?

With the right approach, any employee performance review will recognize accomplishments, help managers and individuals pulse-check goals, and identify future growth opportunities. 

But when performance reviews go wrong, they can inflame internal tensions and fuel imaginary revenge montages for weeks. That’s why collecting feedback from all directions is so important. 

It’s also why a 360 review process might be the antidote to appraisal anxiety you and your management team have been looking for.

A 360 review typically includes the following feedback types:

  • Upward feedback from direct reports
  • Peer feedback from close coworkers
  • Top-down manager feedback
  • Customer or client feedback

The 360-degree review provides a comprehensive portrait of an employee, and it’s that much more powerful because it’s based on peer insights – not just your supervisor’s opinion.

“A 360-degree method collects feedback from an employee’s subordinates, peers and superiors, offering a holistic view of their performance,” says Leigh Burgess of Bold Industries Group, Inc. in a recent article for Fast Company. “By incorporating multiple perspectives, you minimize biases and deliver fairer evaluations. This comprehensive approach promotes a more equitable environment, fostering trust and growth within teams.”

The pros and cons of 360 performance reviews

A 360 performance review is more than just a feedback process – it’s a checkup for the whole organization.

But like any performance appraisal approach, it has its drawbacks. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of this unique employee development tool:

Collects diverse, well-rounded feedback Can be challenging to administer
Keeps reviews anonymous and candid Feedback will be irrelevant if it isn't solicited from the right people
Identifies gaps and opportunities at both employee and company level Time-consuming to conduct
Holds managers accountable Must consider the context of negative feedback

When to use 360-degree feedback

Multisource surveys initially began as a way to assess leadership. Then, like most things in the world of HR, 360s slowly morphed into an overused, overly-systemized way for employees to take shots at one another.

But responsible employers are realizing that the faults often lie in the administration of the process, not the process itself. When done right, multisource reviews like 360s can be an agile way of achieving well-rounded feedback while giving employees a voice.

Let’s explore a few scenarios where a 360-degree review might make sense.

1. When you’re deep in succession planning

According to HBR, hiring external leaders rather than promoting internally is one of the biggest succession planning mistakes.

However, spotting high-potential talent isn’t always easy. But with 360-degree reviews, you can identify internal talent and give them the guidance they need to grow – especially if you start well in advance. 

Take it from Robin Elledge, CEO at Janus Coaching + Consulting:

“I had a client last year with outstanding results, yet he had been passed over for promotion more than once. He knew that collaboration was an area he could improve, but he didn’t understand why it was important. It wasn’t until he received his 360-degree feedback results that he understood the impact it was having on the team,” Elledge writes for Forbes

Armed with 360-degree feedback from his superiors, the client was able to boost his teamwork skills and earn that promotion. This example is a clear case where, by identifying areas of improvement early on, the employer was able to provide better support for future leaders.

2. When you’re setting goals for the future

360 reviews are the perfect testing ground for development initiatives because they solicit actionable feedback from all directions – peers, subordinates, and supervisors.

“The best way to make year-end performance reviews more worthwhile is to make sure that they are the first step in the goal-setting process for the new year. The process should review the good—and not-so-good—and take time to identify strengths and areas of improvement. Use the development areas to then build goals to drive improvement in the new year,” says Zane Stevens.

Using insights from your annual, bi-annual, or quarterly 360 review, you can pinpoint areas ripe for growth and tailor development initiatives to address them head-on. Picture a targeted training session to enhance communication skills, or a leadership workshop to address managerial challenges

3. When you’re prepping for annual performance reviews

When integrated into the annual performance review process, 360-degree reviews can be transformative. And they can also save you oodles of time.

“When department heads align the evaluation and feedback received from the 360 reviews with their monthly, quarterly or annual Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), the data becomes a powerful tool to drive continuous improvement within the department by highlighting areas for growth and development for both individuals and teams,” Dmitry Malin, COO of Cloudike and Novakid, writes for Forbes.

By gathering employee feedback from all stakeholders, 360 performance reviews provide a rich understanding of an individual's contributions.

For a simple survey everyone can chime in on, follow the SKS format:

  • Start: New actions or strategies for improvement.
  • Keep: Effective and beneficial practices.
  • Stop: Unproductive or harmful behaviors.

This feedback data can be combined with your weekly check-ins and other reviews for a complete picture of an employee’s performance that doesn’t take hours to compile for end-of- year reviews.

But, be warned. When camaraderie is low, soliciting “honest opinions” can easily turn into comments that just aren’t constructive. In this instance, a 360 approach may not be appropriate.

4. When leading career development discussions

360-degree performance reviews are a powerful tool for enabling individual growth. By soliciting structured feedback from peers, these observations serve as a mirror, allowing employees to gain a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. 

But with so much feedback coming from so many angles, it’s important to carefully guide team members through these comments.

“The abundance of feedback can be overwhelming, particularly if it’s unfavorable or contradictory. This is where having a coach during the 360-degree feedback process becomes invaluable…helping them to extract insights, prioritize areas for improvement and translate their priorities into actionable steps,” Robin Elledge writes for Forbes

When managers offer clarity and context, 360 feedback feels meaningful – not adversarial.

How to conduct a 360 performance review: 6 steps to follow

At the organizational level, 360 reviews can have a big impact, but you’ll need a solid action plan to nail it.

Here are six steps to a 360 review system that does exactly what you need it to.

1. Plan and define objectives

Before you do anything else, take time to determine the purpose and set clear objectives for your new review process.

“The success of 360 feedback relies on the work at the start. Putting in time and effort before inviting people to give feedback is crucial. This initial stage makes all the difference in what you'll eventually hear. It's about setting things up right from the get-go,” says Brian Houp, coach and CEO at ReZone Coaching.

Here are some key areas to consider when planning your 360 process::

  • Identify key competencies such as critical skills and behaviors for success.
  • Set clear goals and objectives for the review.
  • Develop a detailed plan that includes review timelines and responsibilities.

Consider what competencies are important to your company and how you will measure them. 

Will you be evaluating only c-suiters and directors? Or will your 360s include managers and junior employees? How will you present and follow-up on the data? Start with a clear game plan to keep the process streamlined down the road.

2. Communicate the process

Once you decide which metrics to measure and which raters to involve, it’s time to start talking to your team. Kick off the conversation by clearly communicating the purpose of your review, especially if this is your first time launching a 360 review. Is it for basic development purposes or a specific performance issue? Is anyone’s job at stake?

Without a clear sense of purpose and process, you may unintentionally cause confusion or cause employees to doubt their performance. But if you communicate why you’re conducting the review, how it will be administered, and what exactly you’re measuring, you can reduce anxiety and create a clear sense of purpose.

The following steps will help you keep the conversation productive:

  • Explain the purpose and communicate the reasons for the review.
  • Stress that feedback should be candid and compassionate – especially in small teams where even anonymous feedback can be attributed to a coworker.
  • Ensure confidentiality and explain privacy measures.

“Employees are naturally nervous about the repercussions of sharing feedback with leadership, especially if it is negative,” Loren Margolis, Executive Coach at Training & Leadership Success LLC, tells Forbes. “Use methods that guarantee anonymity through online surveys and focus groups conducted by an external vendor. Even old-fashioned methods like suggestion boxes, or having teams write confidentially on a whiteboard will ease their minds and enable genuine, truthful feedback.”

Remember, this step isn’t just about providing guidance – it’s also about ensuring confidentiality where necessary. Let participating employees know who will see their feedback, and whether or not it will be anonymous.

3. Select participants

Three out of four HR pros agree that performance reviews are more accurate when paired with peer feedback. But which peers should you choose to give their testimony during review season?

While the right feedback formula depends on the person, there are four general types of coworkers whose opinions you should consider according to Gartner:

  • Coaches: People in a similar role with similar skills but who work on different projects than the reviewee.
  • Mentors: People with different skills and a different role who work on different projects than the reviewee.
  • Collaborators: People who work on the same project as the reviewee but in a different role or function.
  • Enablers: People with the same role or skills as the reviewee who work on the same projects.

Make sure each of the above stakeholders is clear on the rating scale in your feedback surveys and prepared to offer high-quality feedback. For example, you could train raters to understand how to better communicate ‘constructive criticism’ in any open-ended questions.

The following pointers will help you get everyone on the same page:

  • Identify key raters: Select a diverse range of participants who regularly interact with the reviewee.
  • Ensure representation: Choose raters with different perspectives and relationships to the reviewee.
  • Communicate selection criteria: And explain why participants were chosen.

Here again, it’s all about transparency. The goal is to make sure both your raters and reviewees are clear of what’s expected and why.

4. Collect feedback

Whether positive or negative, employees crave feedback. But without a clear and consistent performance management process, even the most positive feedback can feel meaningless.

For a safe and trustworthy space for feedback collection, many companies use an online survey platform or performance management system. Tools like these help you standardize your questionnaires with a specific set of questions covering the relevant competencies, skills, and behaviors you’ll assess within each team, role or department.

Here are some best practices to keep in mind:

  • Use a standardized questionnaire for uniform feedback.
  • Set clear deadlines and communicate them to all stakeholders.
  • Provide guidance to raters on how to give constructive, specific feedback.

Before you send out your survey, be sure to set a clear deadline and schedule a couple of email reminders to encourage full participation.

5. Analyze data

Once you’ve recorded respondents’ replies, it’s time to unpack the data. That means compiling responses, identifying themes, and preparing the reports. 

During this step, you also need to consider how you’re going to present the data. Some employers assign a letter grade or other rating scale, while others go totally qualitative, letting peer comments stand as-is. The reality is, there are pros and cons to both.

To transform your 360 review data into actionable feedback:

  • Compile and organize feedback to identify common themes.
  • Create actionable reports with clear recommendations.
  • Balance ratings with comments, considering both quantitative and qualitative data. 

“It can pose problems of interpretation when comments are personal or highly idiosyncratic,” Maury Peiperl, Director of Cranfield University’s School of Management, writes for Harvard Business Review. “But without specific comments, recipients are left with no information to act on and with little sense of what might help them get better at their jobs.”

However you choose to present the information, make sure the insights you share are relevant, empathetic and genuinely supportive of the individual’s professional development.

6. Provide feedback

Once you’ve broken down the data, it’s time to schedule your employee feedback sessions. One common tip to take the dread out of these meetings? Try a ‘feedforward’ approach.

Rather than emphasizing what went wrong, feedforward is all about identifying what “better” performance actually looks like.

It’s the difference between “Stephanie says you’re always late to meetings” and “Next meeting, can you try being a few minutes early so we can start on time?” Because at the end of the day, it’s about improving performance – not passing judgment.

Follow these steps when preparing for your feedback session:

  • Schedule one-on-one sessions in a quiet environment (including out-of-office locations like a local coffee shop or restaurant).
  • Focus on development and actionable improvements using a ‘feedforward’ approach.
  • Encourage self-reflection and help employees create personalized action plans to take control of their professional development.

“Feedforward helps clarify what better looks like, leading to higher levels of confidence and conviction,” writes author and leadership coach Adrian Baillargeon. “When giving both [feedback and feedforward], your people will grow quicker.”

5 example questions to include in your performance review

Still not sure where to start? 360 reviews don’t have to be jam-packed with custom questions for each function or team.

Keep it simple with the following sample questions:

  1. What are the top three skills this employee excels in?
  2. What are the three areas this employee could develop?
  3. Does this employee consistently meet deadlines?
  4. How well does this individual communicate progress on team goals and projects?
  5. How effectively does this employee juggle multiple projects?

When it comes to performance evaluations, sometimes the simplest approach works best. No matter what questions you include in your feedback surveys, make sure your process is clear, consistent, and genuinely helpful to all involved.

Done-for-you performance reviews everyone can learn from

According to Breezy’s latest Hiring Challenges report, 54% of employers still rely on informal check-ins and 35% default to tools like Google Forms and Excel for their employee review systems.

But great performance doesn’t happen in a siloed, fragmented system. Instead, why not get a repeatable, ready-made process with Breezy Perform.

Perform’s templates and conversation starters help you keep your sit-downs light but on-point, with past feedback data easily viewable in one simple, scrollable dashboard.

Share constructive feedback to help your team blossom. Learn more with a free 30-day trial of Breezy Perform.