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What I Learned From My 360-Degree Assessment

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It was finally complete and I was unexplainably anxious. I’d received my first annual review, which was extremely complementary. I was rated in the top 5 percent of my peers, but this next report had me nervous.

What had me so worked up was my 360-degree feedback, where my peers, my direct reports, and several others would anonymously answer questions about my leadership, my character and my professional competence.

According to my organization’s website, the assessment is meant to help me with individual development. It felt like little more than an administrative requirement. I had done well in my supervisor’s eyes, but I was nervous about how my peers and subordinates viewed me. Was this going to be good, bad, or ugly? Would someone use this as a chance to settle a score? What would my boss think of the report?

It started with a fancy header and some non-descript opening paragraphs, but I wanted to get to the meat of the report. What did they say about me? There was some numerical feedback ranking me on a scale of one to 10. There were some 8.5 averages, some 9.0 averages and a 7.8 average (ouch). I wasn’t really sure what all of those numbers meant, so I went straight to the narrative feedback where people say what they really think.

I quickly scanned the statements. Clearly one was from Jenn. She doesn’t really like me anyway. There’s a nice comment; I bet it’s from Alan. He’s a great guy and one of the best on my team. Wait a minute. What is this comment? “He needs to spend more time on developing subordinates.” What the hell? That was one of my focus areas. I spent a lot of time on this. That comment made no sense and I was immediately defensive. Who would write this? How would my supervisor read this? He’ll see it and make me develop an action plan—for something I’m already doing!

Then I noticed a small button on the bottom of the page: Request a coach.

Why not? I clicked and immediately received an email telling me that someone would contact me. A few back-and-forth emails later, my coach and I set up an appointment. I later learned that he’s conducted over 200 such sessions. He’s received training on interpreting these reports. It was his job.

Our session lasted nearly two hours. He told me what the numbers meant, how I scored compared to my peers, and what he had seen in the past. Through it all, I really wanted to know his thoughts about that one comment. His insight was enlightening.

“If you look at this question, it relates to these three numerical questions [the data I skipped] where your score is higher than your peers,” my coach said. “That narrative comment is an outlier. I wouldn’t worry about it.” 

Without his coaching, experience and understanding I would have focused on the wrong things. If this report had gone directly to my supervisor, we both might have focused on the wrong things.

As 360-degree performance tools become more widely used, their interpretation cannot be left to the uninformed or untrained. Tracey Durham, a former HR Executive with Bank of America told me that “ideally a development plan is produced and there is continued coaching, but where I have seen others falter is the results are delivered without the coaching or it is used punitively. If you don’t get the coaching or executive follow-up, it just goes in a desk drawer.” Which is exactly what would have happened without my coach. 

Recently my organization, the U.S. Army, published a policy requiring select commanders to share their 360-feedback with their immediate supervisors. This directive had to overcome years of resistance and fear that the reports would be used against officers in their evaluations.

According to Dr. Melissa Wolfe, a research psychologist with the Center for Army Leadership, the Army requires supervisors to discuss the first 360 report with a leader development coach at CAL before delivering the report. This is “to ensure a consistent interpretation of the report.” The coach helps the supervisor determine a development plan and act as a sounding board for the supervisor. Although this is a one-time requirement for the supervisor, it is available for future sessions.

Tony Gasberre, the Army’s coaching program director, states that professional coaching is the most expensive portion of the Army’s 360 program and only allocates 2,000 coaching sessions for the entire force. But, a quick poll of 20 former commanders shows that only one of them had ever requested a coach. Few were even aware of this option.

The Office of Personnel Management currently provides a fee-based 360-degree leader development tool to 34 government agencies or sub-agencies. Agencies can purchase coaching hours for additional fees, but based on shrinking budgets, coaching may not make the cut. 

If we believe 360 reports are valuable and that investing in people is critical, then professional coaching cannot be overlooked or delegated.

Shawn Schuldt is an active duty Army officer with 22-years of government experience currently assigned as a National Security Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.

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