We Need To Do A 180 on the 360

Weiss Advice Issue: 206, September, 2020

It’s spinning so out of control you can call it a “ten-eighty”

I’m dizzy from dealing with coaches who operate as if they’re running a grocery store, hauling items off shelves to meet customer requests.

There are some interventions which are just ridiculous. I’ve found purported personality profiles that rely on forced-choice responses to be ludicrous with the results reading like some kind of horoscope. “You’re nice to people except when you’re not.” To me, that’s like being “on the cusp of Mercury with Leo tendencies.” In other words, I don’t find an iota of value in either statement.

Usually, these are used to explain away behavior, not try to understand it. “What do you expect from an INTJ?” How is that less defamatory than, “What do you expect from a woman?” or “…from someone his age”? I think, to most true professionals, “high D” and “blue” and “introverted, progressive analyst” are truly laughable.

The 360 spinning top

But some things are not so obviously ridiculous and have edged their way into holy grail status. Such is the ubiquitous “360-degree review,” wherein, supposedly, peers, superiors, and subordinates (and perhaps others, such as customers) are interviewed to provide feedback for the subject of the coaching. Presumably, everyone is honest, they believe their confidentiality is sacrosanct, and their feedback is accurately supported by empirical evidence. Oh, and the interviewer is skilled in more than just asking rote questions.

In other words, we have here, theoretically, a jury influenced only by facts and not by lawyer rhetoric or courtroom drama. (It’s the lawyers who advise to argue a case on its merits, but if you don’t have the merits argue the law. Consider that the venues are “courts of law” and not “courts of justice.”)

We all know this is beyond ludicrous. And it’s particularly loony when “coaches” are using off-the-shelf 360 tools to conduct these interviews instead of at least attempting to tailor them to the client environment. The off-the-shelf stuff, which often includes the personality testing above, is just an attempt to try to enhance appeal and stature (and income) by using “tools.” And, of course, many will have a coaching “university” certificate which will further attest to their standing. That “diploma” and about two dollars might get them on a New York City bus. (Every excellent consultant I’ve ever met has to have been an excellent coach, as well.)

But did you tell them that?

I was comparing notes recently with a colleague, who is both a pre-eminent clinician and corporate consultant. I asked her if she used 360 reviews in her corporate work. Her answer was fascinating:

“When someone tells me something negative about the executive being discussed, and provides evidence of the behavior, I ask, ‘Well, have you told him that?’ The answer is they almost never have. That’s what I want to change about the dynamic, to create honest interpersonal feedback, and not merely give questionable feedback from sources who believe they’re safely anonymous.”

My friend, co-author, and über-coach, Marshall Goldsmith, uses 360s but only when every person providing feedback goes through the same process herself or himself. He believes that to give feedback properly under these conditions, you must receive it properly yourself.

Why the 360 is dizzying

With rare exceptions like these, and both people cited are tops in their fields, I believe we need to stop believing that the 360 review is mandatory or even useful in executive coaching in most instances, primarily because:

  • People giving feedback are often describing how they’d prefer to be treated instead of how the subject interacts with people. Everyone deserves respect, of course, but not promotions and higher pay when they’re not performing as well as others.
  • Responders feel obligated to comment, even when they actually have nothing to say, no complaints, no high praise, just a feeling of well-being.
  • The interviewer often biases the responses by repeating past comments, trying to search for patterns. “Have you noticed that she cuts people off in meetings?” will often prompt a willingness to agree.
  • Opinion isn’t always backed up by evidence or observed behavior. “He’s just not a team player.” Really? By what metric?
  • Vindictiveness, retribution, and revenge are often not filtered out. Interviewers seldom ask, “What prompts you to be so critical? Do you and your boss have any particular history that colors your response?”
  • Respondents aren’t candid because they fear identification. I met a woman who wanted to complain to a consultant during a 360 about very poor accommodation for people with serious medical conditions and her boss not acting on the situation, but since she was the only one who fit the description she was positive she’d be identified and treated even worse.
  • Cultural accommodations are rarely made. Some people are very forthright, but some are very reserved and are not comfortable speaking less than positively about others, especially to strangers.
  • The process serves as a palliative, and obviates the more honest and useful approach of providing candid feedback in a timely fashion. It’s also seen as an “event” and really has little lasting impact on long-term behavior change.
  • It can easily create hard feelings and exacerbate poor conditions rather than improve them. The process can actually undermine trust, not improve it.

Thus, it’s time to do a 180 on the 360 and return to what great coaches do best: observe, cite evidence, provide corrective actions, and monitor for improved behavior, which should then be reinforced.

Get out of the rut

Let’s face it: Is a coach telling you that, after interviewing 16 people among your inner circle, the findings were that you’re aloof and a poor listener, going to cause you to change your behavior or try to change their behavior?

Enough 360s and you’re in a spiral that will corkscrew you right into the earth. Then you’ll need a legitimate coach and a sound process to help you back to the surface.