Weathering the Storm of 360 Feedback

Are you using 360 feedback constructively? The author explains a better way to utilize it.

360 feedback is a whole pandora’s box on the leadership development front! From an organizational perspective it can be a great tool. It helps organizations see where their leadership development programs are working, where things are breaking down, and where employee strengths are—or, are not–aligned with organizational goals.

On the surface it sounds like a good thing. 

But most organizations are notoriously BAD at teaching individual employees (yes, even those senior management types) how to use 360 feedback constructively. What most often happens is some version of: Suzy or Sam Motivated Employee gets feedback from certain people that says, “this version of you is not fun to play with” so “you should go fix that about yourself.” So, Suzy or Sam M. E. trots off and tries once again to shove him or herself into some ill-defined pigeonhole to satisfy the needs of that particular feedback group and “work on that thing about you” only to further lose their true selves in the fog.  

Then a few years later, they get another 360 feedback that either has the exact opposite thing highlighted as the problem (you were too aggressive before; now you don’t speak up enough) OR — worse in my opinion — the feedback has become completely flat because the subject human has flat-lined into a robot.  

As a result, everyone wonders why people seem disengaged, tuned out, lost, unimaginative, unmotivated, and uncreative!  (Can you tell I have strong feelings around this topic?)

That said, I’m not willing to put the blame squarely on the organizations. While employee engagement may be an organizational problem, the solution lives inside each individual employee. 

This is what I mean when I say, “You not only deserve to have a job you love; you have a responsibility to.” 

Why? Because you are awesome. The world – especially the world of government service — needs you and your gifts. But those only come out when you bring ALL of yourself to work every day. 

So, what if we talk about a better way to use your 360 feedback? Here are a few pointers:

1. Start with your strengths. 

What you put your attention on grows. Pay attention to those areas that others have identified as strengths for you. Because those areas are so much a part of who you are, you might be surprised to see others recognize those areas as strengths. Furthermore, you might be confused as to why someone would consider such a thing a strength. In other words, what’s the benefit of my being <fill in the blank>? 

This is the place you want to lean in. And, trust me, it’s gonna feel a little weird because you actually want to ASK those people to tell you how and why you’re amazing in this area.

Yep. You need to ask other people to brag about you to your face. How is the way you do “that-thing-you-do” different from the way others do it, and why does it work so well? And then listen openly and generously to what they say.

Yeah, told you it would feel weird. Most people would rather take a beating than do this.

Here’s the thing. A key element of developing your personal leadership foundation is owning the value of your unique contribution. A big piece of “owning” it is allowing yourself to be recognized and appreciated for it so that you can also “market” yourself with it. But first you really have to get that it’s great.

2. Notice what feels most natural to you.

Ok, admittedly, doing Step 1 above probably didn’t feel natural at all. But, of those strengths that people highlighted, which ones feel most natural to you? What were those things that others appreciated that you didn’t even know you were doing?

Do more of that. Take those most natural aspects and begin to experiment with using them in different contexts. If you LOVE detail and data organization, where else can you bring that strength forward? If you have a knack for seeing unintended consequences in new projects, how can you share that insight in support of existing projects? If you have a gift for understanding what makes people tick (like me), how can you use that to navigate project negotiations?

As you move up in your professional career, you may notice that some qualities, skills, or behaviors are valued and rewarded more than others. (Incidentally, don’t be surprised if those qualities are NOT the ones the organization says they value and recognize.) As a result, you’ll find yourself unconsciously adopting some of those “rewardable” aspects. 

Nothing wrong with that. It’s a survival skill, and we all have it. Thank goodness!

The problem is that those adopted aspects, including the ones you’ve become particularly skillful at, come at a high cost in terms of physical energy, mental focus, and emotional bandwidth if they are not tightly aligned with your natural gifts. Result = burnout. How do you know? Pay attention to those that feel most natural and easy. Those are your gifts. 

3. Assume it’s all good.

That’s easy to say when you are reading the feedback around your “strengths.” It’s a little harder when you’re reading the “developmental areas.”

We’ve been conditioned to view “developmental areas” as aspects of ourselves that are somehow “broken” and in need of adjustment. Other schools of thought label these developmental areas as “strengths overused” – in the vein of “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

As with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. In many cases, the parts that other people don’t like – otherwise labeled as developmental areas — are also huge gifts for you. They hold the seeds to your greatest strengths. And, because those elements are generally tied to shadows, and other things you can never allow yourself to be, they come out all sideways.  (And that’s before we get into the discussion around perception, projection, and running into OTHER people’s shadows.) 

Did I lose you a little in that last paragraph? That’s ok. 

What you need to know is this: trying to “fix” your developmental areas or trying to “not be” whatever was in your developmental area list will NEVER work. Any time you try to “not be” something, you waste physical, mental, and emotional energy trying to navigate around part of yourself.

Talk about a waste of time and energy!

So rather than trying desperately to “not be that,” ask yourself, “in what context is that quality of particular benefit?”

Putting it Into Practice

I know I’m treading in the touchy-feely, borderline-woo stuff, so let me give you an example.

Let’s say your developmental areas section said something about, “when Suzy is really focused, she can be pushy and aggressive.”

If Suzy now expends her energy trying very hard to NOT be “pushy or aggressive,” she’s EITHER constantly holding herself back, second-guessing herself, and not expressing her opinion (AKA sharing her expertise), OR aggressively trying to prove she’s NOT pushy or aggressive, thereby inadvertently showing up as even more pushy and aggressive.

ARGGHHH!!! No wonder she’s frustrated, burned out, and pissed off…mentally shaking her fist at the whole dang organization.

Let’s look at this a different way. As Suzy begins to explore in what context “pushy and aggressive” would be of particular benefit, now the brain/body system is working in a whole different context. It’s in curiosity and experimentation mode.

First, new opportunities come to light in which “pushy and aggressive” are really good qualities to have.

For example: Crisis situations? Areas within her specialized expertise (meaning she really IS smarter than everybody else in this area)? Defending a softer colleague’s expertise against someone else who is pushy and aggressive? What others do you think of?

Secondly, since she doesn’t have to “not be” something, she has nothing to fight against (no resistance to push in to) so there’s no extra pushy, aggressive, or passive-aggressive leaking out on the sides. 

As an added bonus, Suzy is also being more of who she already is in all the best ways and is better equipped to position herself on a team that needs exactly what she brings to the table.

Now, it’s a win for Suzy – a win for the organization – and a win for our nation. That’s what Greatness In Government is all about.

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.