Are 360° feedback models the answer to higher employee engagement?

Examining the flaws in traditional employee reviews, and how organizational culture impacts engagement


Recently, the EMS Leadership Academy conducted an informal survey asking EMS leaders their opinion on 360° feedback assessments. The results were not terribly surprising. Just over 50% of respondents had ever participated in a 360° assessment and over 1/3 said that they did not know what a 360° assessment was.

Poll via EMS Leadership Network/LinkedIn
Poll via EMS Leadership Network/LinkedIn

A post-survey response by I. David Daniels, president of ID2 Solutions, LLC, and longtime public safety professional, really stuck with me. He said, “360° feedback for performance is only as effective as the culture where it is used ... but, absent numerous important cultural elements, these models can produce emotional and psychological damage to members of the organization.” 

The fact is, he hit the nail right on the head. As an EMS human resources consultant/employment attorney, I am often asked which is the best performance feedback model to adopt that drives business results. What most truly want to know is what feedback model is most strongly associated with strong employee retention. Universally, the answer is an ongoing multi-dimensional employee feedback model. However, that alone is not enough. No matter the performance feedback model your organization employs; it will fail without a company culture that supports the model you choose.

Important role culture plays in performance feedback

Culture has become quite a buzz word in the employment context. It gets tossed around the workplace often and we all act like we know what is meant when someone uses the term. I have learned that this term means different things to different people. 

Culture is the foundational element that will drive the success of any performance feedback model. Harvard Business Review defines culture as “the ways people in the organization behave and the attitudes and beliefs that inform those behaviors.” These attitudes, beliefs and interactions color all performance related feedback.

If an organization’s culture is geared towards transparency, accountability and trust, then the environment is right for the giving and receiving of feedback. Alternatively, if the organizational culture is not open and honest, it will create both emotional and psychological barriers that will prevent feedback from being received and digested, and ultimately having organizational impact. 

Annual performance review/feedback models

First, we should tackle the elephant in the room. How effective are traditional annual performance feedback models at driving performance or employee engagement? Have you ever received an annual performance review that truly inspired you to improve?

A 2019 Gallup survey of U.S. workers revealed that 55% believed an annual review failed to improve their performance and 30% began looking for a new job following negative feelings about their review. In fact, a recent Harvard Business Review article stated that “if performance reviews were a drug, they would not meet the FDA approval for efficacy.”

360° Feedback models

The 360° feedback model is a step in the right direction. At its core, it is a process intended to compile feedback and ratings regarding an employee’s work performance from multiple individuals, including supervisors, coworkers, subordinates and the employee themselves. The strengths of a 360° feedback model are that employees operate in a business/personnel ecosystem. One employee’s performance affects an entire team and the organization. To offer feedback from the supervisor alone ignores the impact the employee’s performance has on the entire team.

All feedback models, if done right, require a fair amount of time and effort. However, 360° feedback models tend to be time intensive and require a fair amount of logistical support. Research suggests that feedback is often inaccurate and based off the evaluator’s recollection of performance over the last 6-8 weeks. Additionally, these ratings are deeply influenced by the evaluator’s understanding of what success looks like. This idiosyncratic rater effect impacts everyone and accounts for great variations in performance rating outcomes, which significantly impacts the employee’s confidence in the value of the feedback received.

The bottom line on performance reviews

Organizations need to be moving towards a true 360° performance feedback model – one where the leaders are seeking feedback on the company’s performance as an employer. Companies are in a fierce battle for workers and need to demonstrate what an employee can expect when they are hired. Employees are feeding that information to your potential workforce every single day, and job candidates and your existing workforce acting on it.

Surveys have shown that the most effective performance feedback model is regular and ongoing, focusing on broad performance related themes and primarily highlighting an employee’s strengths. Performance generally only changes about 10% when feedback is delivered ideally. Feedback will have greater impact if you focus on strengths, as you likely make someone who is good at something, even better, rather than attempting to make someone who is poor at a non-critical skill a little less poor.

The reason regular and ongoing feedback models are more effective is that they force frontline leaders and the employees to develop a relationship. The employment relationship is like all other relationships in life, friendships, marriages, etc. Most great relationships are not created and fostered with one encounter per year. Nor do they blossom when only one person is committed to working on the relationship. The best relationships, including work relationships, are nourished through regular and ongoing honest communication, care and attention. When trust is the foundational element in your company’s culture, people achieve great things together. 

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