It’s Time to Rethink 360 Degree Reviews

by Nathan Wike

The Military Times recently published an article discussing the usefulness of the 360 degree reviews in assessing leaders. This study (which was not included in the article) concluded that 360 degree reviews “probably should not be used as a part of the formal military evaluation and promotion process.” It cited “a long list of legal, cultural and practical concerns…(and that) Stakeholders were overwhelmingly against using the tool for evaluation.

Given the integration and widespread use of performance feedback tools, this topic is clearly relevant. This year the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum asked its followers and readers to offer their opinion.

Here is my take.

360

Nathan Wike is an officer in the U.S. Army, and an associate member of the Military Writer’s Guild. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

The study that The Military Times referenced (but did not provide) can be found here. Here is the conclusion, offered after 88 stimulating pages:

The services collectively do not believe the 360 degree reviews should be a factor in a leader’s evaluations. They do believe the 360 degree reviews are a good tool for personal development. They are in agreement that implementation of the 360 degree reviews is on the right track.

The general message is this:  leaders do not have to worry about their 360 degree evaluations coming back to haunt them professionally; the emphasis in on the individual to use the tool properly; and the status quo will remain.

Basically, the survey reaches no significant conclusions and offers no helpful recommendations. This is a disservice to the 360 degree assessment process, and the larger leader development program. It is part of the duty of every service member to steward the profession, and the 360 degree assessments are a basic and fundamental part of that. The conclusions offered by the study lull one into a false sense of security that all is well. This is a mistake. There is a great deal of room for practical, sustainable improvement of the 360 degree assessment process.

The Army’s 360 Process

It is important to first describe the current 360 feedback process. Each service implements a different 360 degree assessment, but my perspective is of the Army’s feedback program, which is said to be the most developed.

An Army officer must complete a 360 degree assessment every three years. They visit the Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback website, fill out a self-assessment, then select a certain number of respondents who have 30 days to respond to the same questions as the self-assessment. Only the officer generating the event knows who has been selected and no one knows which responses belong to whom.

After the assessment concludes, the officer may request results-based coaching from a Army-provided senior mentor. Coaching is almost always done online or over the phone, facilitated by an “expert” (DA civilian) from the Center for Army Leadership. He/She reviews the report and generates a plan of action that includes follow-up coaching sessions. The Army does not require the assessed officer to receive coaching, nor to my knowledge does the MSAF system does not track whether an officer has ever even completed a 360 degree assessment.

Let’s take a closer look at the study’s conclusions.

The services collectively do not believe the 360 degree reviews should be a factor in a leader’s evaluations.

This first conclusion may frustrate some, understandably. But, as things currently stand, it is the right answer. Some who receive a request from a leader to fill out a 360 degree assessment look at it as an opportunity to exact some sort of vengeance, or a chance to lambaste a toxic leader. One time, I received a request from someone I felt was a toxic leader and proceeded to roast them in the assessment and the comments — then watched as they continued to advance in their career.

Recently I received my own 360 degree assessment, which included my time as a commander. I cast a wide net and got disappointingly few responses (more on that later). But one or two of the comments I did receive painted me as some sort of emotionally incompetent, tyrannical dictator — a hard thing to read when my own self assessment was so positive.

Regardless, anyone who has been in command or who has been in charge of something knows how difficult it can be to get things done. The timeless phrase of “leadership is not a popularity contest” is constantly extolled as a guideline. Leaders should look after their people, their property, and accomplish the mission — sometimes that means doing things the followers do not like or understand. Is it really fair to put a leader’s evaluation at risk because a respondent on a 360 degree assessment was immature, selfish, or blinded by anger, especially without context? I think not.

Now, I can hear people ask “what about toxic leaders?” It is true, the military has a problem with toxic leaders, and its members should be working to rehabilitate or remove them. But if a respondent’s plan is to eliminate a toxic leader in an anonymous assessment with no context or frame of reference, then I suggest they go back to the drawing board.

Many articles have been written on toxicity and how to deal with a toxic leader. Also, if the supposed toxic person is in a command position, there are command climate surveys and open door policies that people can use, chaplains and inspector generals, etc. Shrouding yourself in another anonymous survey that will most likely only be seen by one person does not lend strength to your effort.

They do believe the 360 degree reviews are a good tool for personal development.

The second conclusion — easy in theory, but difficult in practice. It relies on the premise that all leaders are concerned with self-improvement and that respondents will not allow their biases to interfere with their assessment. Did that leader from my past send me an evaluation because he thought I would say something different, or because he knew I would be honest? To this day I suspect the former, but it could just as easily have been the latter. That person could have taken my words to heart and went on to change their leadership style for the better. From what I hear, however, this is not that case.

From my perspective, I take my 360 degree assessments seriously. I always try to select respondents who I think will provide the most constructive feedback — which is not necessarily what I want to hear, but what I need to hear. Some leaders attempt to stack the deck with respondents they believe will give glowing recommendations. That way they can continue on, wrapped in a false sense of security that there is no way they can improve. Sadly no one is perfect, and a pristine 360 degree assessment would be more questionable than one that has a few outliers. As in all things, there are those who take it seriously, and those who simply check the block.

But, as I alluded to, respondents are not necessarily reliable, no matter how carefully chosen. The system is partially to blame. The multiple choice feedback (strongly disagree — strongly agree) is restrictive and lacks context, and the comments are limited to a set number of words, forcing respondents to walk the line between succinct and generic. Regardless, an assessment takes 5–10 minutes to complete, but everyone always seems to have something better to do.

“33 people missed a chance to help a leader improve.”

Of 40 people I selected (5 seniors, 10 peers, 25 subordinates), I received 7 responses (1 senior, 2 peers, 4 subordinates). I appreciate those 7 who did respond (whoever they are) — I will use their ratings and comments to help improve. But 33 people missed a chance to help a leader improve. What if I were (am) toxic, and truly needed all the feedback I could get? They would have failed me, and failed the profession. Once I had a supervisor who bragged about how he always deleted the numerous 360 degree assessment requests he received. How many leaders did he pass on the opportunity to mentor? How many of them lost any faith in the assessment system because of it?

They are in agreement that implementation of the 360 degree reviews is on the right track.

The third conclusion, keeping the status quo, is one I cannot fairly write about as I cannot speak for all services. I know that the Army site was down for a long time this year, and still has a warning banner due to unexpectedly high volume, or some such. The RAND study tells us that:

Experts in the field of personnel research agree and caution that overzealous use of 360s without careful attention to content, design, and delivery can be harmful to an organization and not worth the time and money spent on them. Thus, mandating 360 assessments force-wide, even for development purposes, is not necessarily the right answer to solving leadership problems within the services and could waste significant resources. Rather it is more advisable to allow the services to continue on their current paths, expanding the use of 360s in a way that is tailored to individual service needs and goals.

That is no recommendation at all. It seems to say that whatever, possibly haphazard method(s) being used are working. Yet my own experiences, and those of others I worked with indicate otherwise. It was beyond the scope of the study to make any recommended improvements. I, however, have some recommendations of my own — hopefully with “careful attention (paid) to content, design, and delivery.”

Recommendations

  • The Army should require all leaders to completed a 360 degree assessment prior to receiving their annual evaluation — completion should be a requirement.
  • The date of the last completed 360 degree assessment should auto-populate onto the rated leader’s evaluation. Leaders should be tracked by the MSAF system as completing full 360 events.
  • Raters and senior raters should not be privy to the raw data of the assessment. But should the leader request to receive coaching, then the rater and/or senior rater should be notified and play a role in the plan of action.
  • A preponderance of negative feedback should initiate a mandatory coaching session.
  • Respondents should receive system-generated reminders to complete the assessments. If they (the respondents) fail to complete a certain number of assessments, the unit personnel officer should be notified [though not for whom the assessment(s) is for], who can then inform the appropriate supervisor, and that knowledge should be grounds for a negative counseling.
  • The word limit in the comments should be eliminated — leaders generally gloss over the numbers/averages but read the comments and want to see some substance.
  • Leaders should still be able to pick respondents. But an equal number should be randomly assigned based upon unit personnel rosters from the previous year.
  • Questions should be intelligently designed to account for differences in rank and duty positions of the respondents.
  • There should be a statute of limitations on who can be a respondent for whom— a major who has been on division staff for two years should not be able to request an assessment from a PFC (who hopefully also progressed in rank) that the Major had in his/her platoon 10 years ago and has not seen since.
  • Some leaders work in jobs with little to no interaction with anyone who could be considered a subordinate or a senior (beyond their immediate supervisor). Leaders in this position should be able to opt-out of those categories in favor of more peer respondents — this method would especially apply to various year-long schools.

There may not be a perfect solution, especially given the incredible crush of competing assignments, as well as the military’s ethical concerns. These recommendations are not an instant cure, but I want to stimulate a discussion on real solutions.

Regardless, leaders at all levels should emphasize the importance and utility of the 360 degree feedback mechanism. Any reform must be ultimately embraced at the individual level, and the 360 degree assessment is currently one of the few methods of feedback relevant to an individual. Leaders should be encouraged to learn from the assessments and taught the importance of honestly assessing others. This is stewardship of the profession at its most basic level and we owe it due diligence.

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