360 degree feedback – a great way to improve leaders’ self-awareness

By Simon Shaw, Chartered Occupational Psychologist at the Kade Consultancy.

The importance of self-awareness in leadership

There’s a lot of research and opinion among psychologists about the traits that make a great leader.  Communicating effectively, being honest, making good decisions, showing integrity and having a vision are some that are widely discussed.  While these are undoubtedly important, there’s another, less glamorous leadership quality that’s commonly overlooked: self-awareness.  360 degree feedback is a great way of helping organisations to develop this important quality in their leaders.

Self-awareness is hardly a new concept in the fields of psychology and leadership development.  In 1955 the Johari window model was proposed as a way of describing the degree of awareness that we (and others) have about ourselves.  However, 60 years later we still experience some of the problems it describes.

According to the Johari Window we all operate within one of the four quadrants at any given time.  Which quadrant we fall into depends on:

  1. How aware we are of ourselves – e.g. about our motivations, feelings and the impact our behaviour has on others and
  2. How obvious these things are to our colleagues.

Of course we all move around these four positions in any given day, but by improving our awareness of our impact (“known to self”) and sharing more of ourselves with others at work (“known to others”), we can spend more time in the “Open” space.  On the flip side, we’ve all known people who seem to live perpetually in the Blind Spot.  These are the people who in the mirror and perceive themselves very differently to the rest of us.

Research suggests that these blind spots can be very dangerous as they have the potential to act as ‘career derailers’.  Known derailers include being overly eager to please, aloof, attention-seeking or emotionally volatile.  Most of us have had some experience of working with people like this.  How did your time working with these people make you feel?

Fortunately, most of us welcome the opportunity to get a real sense of how we’re seen by our colleagues and psychological research has proven that one of the best ways of doing this is through 360 degree feedback.

What is 360 degree feedback?

360 degree feedback is a method of gathering information – typically from middle manager level upwards – about how you are perceived by others in your workplace.  The information that’s gathered usually relates to the competencies (i.e. behaviours that individuals must exhibit to perform effectively at work) that the organisation has decided are important for its leaders.

A range of people who work closely with you – including your line manager, colleagues, direct reports and possibly customers – provide feedback, in the form of numerical ratings and written comments, about their perceptions of how you measure up against each of the competency areas.

Once data has been collated from all of those different people (known as ‘raters’), this can be compared with your own ratings to identify areas of high performance as well as any developmental needs.  Previous research indicates that managers often tend to rate themselves more highly for management competence and leadership effectiveness than do their colleagues.

Some studies have also suggested that whereas leaders’ ratings of their own leadership fail to correlate with future performance and readiness for promotion, the ratings of their direct reports did.  The message? Leaders and managers who are willing to a) receive and b) act upon this feedback are likely to enhance their performance and career prospects.

Discrepancies between our own and others’ perceptions can be particularly enlightening as they help to identify blind spots that are inadvertently sabotaging your performance as a manager or leader.   Feedback is usually provided by an experienced psychologist.  This helps to ensure that feedback to recipients is objective, constructive and that any resistance to difficult messages is managed professionally.

Once completed, a useful next step is to produce a professional development plan to identify how any development needs can be addressed (and strengths enhanced).  Ideally, this should be supported by suitable ongoing development activities such as leadership development programmes, coaching, action learning sets or mentoring.

Benefits of 360 degree feedback to individuals and organisations

360 degree feedback provides many benefits, both to the leaders receiving the feedback and their organisations.  For example, it has been shown to:

  • be an excellent way to generate candid insights about how you’re perceived by those you work with most closely (which they may be unwilling to give face to face)
  • develop stronger working relationships, help teams to become more united and create better working environments
  • provide both the insight and motivation for you to grow as a leader and act as a foundation for your professional development plan
  • expand your personal awareness and highlight negative behaviour that has the potential to become a ‘career derailer’
  • provide objective data to help you ‘triangulate’ how you’re really perceived
  • establish training and development needs and inform succession planning.

Good practise for using 360 degree feedback

When used in the right way, 360 degree feedback can be a fantastic way to improve your leaders’ self-awareness.  Use our checklist below to ensure that your organisation can maximise the value of the process:

  1. Is there a clear purpose about why the 360 degree feedback is being introduced and how the data will be (and will not) be used? The majority of organisations use 360 degree feedback for development, rather than as part of recruitment or performance appraisal process.
  2. Has this been clearly communicated to those involved?
  3. Is there visible commitment to the process by senior management?
  4. Have the raters who will be giving the feedback been clearly briefed about the purpose and methods of the 360 degree feedback process?
  5. Is there an established organisational culture that supports giving and receiving feedback?
  6. Will feedback to managers and leaders be provided by appropriately trained internal staff/experienced psychologists? Difficult messages should not be avoided as these can unlock the greatest learning, but they should be delivered as sensitively as possible by a skilled professional who can manage any resistance that may occurs
  7. Do the line managers of those receiving feedback have the time and skills to support the production of a professional development plan and action planning?
  8. Are there sufficient organisational resources available to meet the development needs identified? 360 degree feedback is most effective when incorporated into a wider development context – for example to identify areas of strength and development need prior to a leadership development programme, as the basis for an executive coaching programme etc.

About Me

I’m Simon Shaw – a Chartered Occupational Psychologist with over a decade of experience of working with organisations. I’m accredited with the British Psychological Society and the Health and Care Professions Council and have professional qualifications in psychometric test use and executive coaching. I’ve worked on a wide range of assessment and development projects, including:

  • designing and delivering assessment and development centres,
  • using ability, personality and career development psychometrics,
  • delivering leadership development programmes and psychometric test training
  • providing executive coaching programmes.

Read more about me here.

Contact us to find out more…

If you’d like to know more about whether a 360 degree feedback process would be suitable for your organisation, please contact the Kade Consultancy team on 01422 372222 or email info@kadeconsultancy.org.uk.

The Kade Consultancy team is currently developing our own in-house 360 degree feedback tool.  If your organisation is considering using a 360 degree tool, we are looking for partners in our trial.  If you’re interested in partnering with us, please contact us for an informal discussion.

Further reading

  • Brotherton, P. (2012) ‘360 instruments are the most popular way to assess leadership’, Talent and Development, volume 66(8), 18.
  • Lepsinger, R. and Lucia, A.D. (2009) ‘The art and science of 360 degree feedback 2nd ed.’, San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
  • Russell, L. (2015), ‘Focused feedback’, Talent Development, volume 69(2), February.