Your 360 degree feedback survey should make you uncomfortable

Published by Peter on

One of my clients observed last week that growth is uncomfortable. Sometimes painful. I’ve heard some say that while discomfort can exist without growth (more on that below), growth can’t exist without discomfort.

This idea became even more relevant for me this week as I started a new round of 360 degree feedback for a business client that has hired me to coach a few of its leaders. It got me thinking about my own experiences with feedback.

Eight years ago, I got a shock from my 360 degree feedback survey

Actual sign on a classroom at my kids’ elementary school, c. 2006

When I was a Senior Vice President at Wells Fargo, I benefited from lots of truly useful training and coaching. One of those, in 2014, involved a 360 degree feedback survey of 23 people who worked closely with me. The survey comprised more than 50 rating questions and a few open-ended questions about my strengths and flaws as a person and a leader.

That survey came back mostly positive. I’m grateful to everyone who took the time to help me with my professional development, and for their supportive comments and constructive criticism.

Although there was plenty for me to learn from, one phrase has stuck with me for eight years. It might as well have been branded in neon in my brain.

“Peter says one thing and does another.”

– anonymous survey respondent

Although I graded pretty high on integrity and character overall, (and several people said some version of “Peter is very ethical”), there was apparently one person who simply didn’t trust me. Integrity is pretty high on my list of core values. Talk about discomfort.

Human nature will reject the negative outlier

Before sharing the survey results with me, the coach warned me not to try to guess which of the 23 respondents said which things. He said it’s human nature to obsess about the most negative things and then manufacture reasons to dismiss them. (In my experience, that’s true.)

So I had a choice. Dismiss the comment as wrong-headed, or embrace the discomfort and dive into some self-examination.

I’m glad I had that coach to prepare me and interpret the entirety of the feedback. He helped me take that discomfort and turn it into growth rather than just suffer with it while trying to dismiss it.

“All 10s” is potentially harmful

The whole point of a 360 degree feedback survey is to help the person gain perspective and become more self-aware. That means the only useful response is an honest one.

Imagine if I had gotten responses that were 100% supportive, with every question getting a “ten” rating. (Top marks on everything! Peter is perfect at everything! Nothing to improve! Hurrah!) How would I have grown?

Negativity can send you into a downward spiral. (Photo: B&B in Paris.)

After working with the coach, I realized that “Peter says one thing and does another” had a lot more to do with miscommunication than with deception. In my mind, I was saying a thing and then doing the thing. It never occurred to me that the first part—saying the thing—could be misinterpreted, and therefore I was accidentally setting wrong expectations. The other person saw this not as miscommunication, but as deceit. If you know anything about me at all, you know that I think trust is at the core of every positive, productive, and successful relationship. Deceit is not welcome in my life.

Discomfort. Growth. Self-awareness. More attention to how I communicate and ensuring everyone is on the same page.

Imagine if I hadn’t been given the gift of honesty from that anonymous survey respondent. I might still be accidentally sowing mistrust when I think I’m creating trust. I’m not naive enough to think I’ve become perfect at this. It probably still happens, though I hope it happens less often and less severely.

I’m still working on that.

There’s nothing magical about a 360 survey

Every consultant and coach has their own version of a feedback survey. A google search of “360 degree feedback survey” yields in the neighborhood of 30 million hits. Most HR software has some kind of 360 built in. I have my own, which I customize for each client’s needs and culture.

Any well-crafted survey, executed properly, will provide the right starting point for a meaningful, productive discussion. The real value is in what happens after you get that first look at the feedback. I am grateful I had a skilled coach guide me toward productive actions and away from misinterpretations and emotional responses.

Are you interested in 360 feedback, either at work or in your personal life? If so, drop me a note and we’ll talk about what you’re looking for. I’m pretty sure I want to work with you because if you’re interested in honest feedback, then you’re already interested in gaining more self-awareness. And that’s the first thing we need for improvement, even though it can make us pretty darn uncomfortable.


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