Management Development ForumVol. 1 - No. 2 (98)
Does 360-Degree Feedback Lead to Change
Sara Brown and Betsy Cole
spacing bar---------------------------------------------------------------
Management Development Forum Home | Search | Index | Exit frames
ESC Home


Sara Brown and Betsy Cole

So called 360-degree feedback processes are used extensively by organizations to improve leadership effectiveness. It is unrealistic, however, to expect 360-degree feedback as a stand-alone intervention to significantly change behavior and improve performance. Individual and organizational readiness and accountability for change influence the likelihood that change will occur. Also, individuals are more likely to benefit from feedback if they already suspect they have a problem, and if they receive coaching, support, and direction in the period immediately following the feedback. The technique of 360-degree feedback is more useful in the context of an urgent, compelling organization vision of change accompanied by executive support over an extensive period of time.


Multi-rater feedback, often called 360-degree feedback, is a process in which individuals receive feedback from others—typically managers, peers, subordinates, and sometimes customers—whose good working relationships are key to the individual’s effectiveness. When companies provide opportunities for employees to participate in a 360-degree process, they hope this broad-based feedback will positively influence performance. The premise is that feedback increases self-awareness, and that increased self-awareness leads to behavioral change, which in turn leads to improved performance. But the jury is still out on whether or not change actually does occur as a result of 360-degree feedback.

The key questions that concern managers, human resource professionals, and consultants are: Under what conditions is behavior change likely to occur; how can 360-degree processes be designed to motivate change, and is it likely that some behaviors are more likely to change than others based on an organization’s culture and readiness to change?

Readiness to Change

In “In Search of How People Change,” Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross (1992) identified five stages—precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance—through which individuals cycled (and often recycled) in order to change behavior successfully. Prochaska and his colleagues observed that certain change techniques were helpful at some stages of change but not at all helpful at others. For example, people at the precontemplation stage did not believe they had a problem, therefore, feedback might be lost on them. People at the contemplation stage were aware a problem existed, they were serious about wanting to overcome it, however, they had not yet made a commitment to act. Their research showed that it was at the contemplation stage when people were most helped by consciousness-raising activities such as 360-degree feedback. People at the action stage were taking serious steps to modify their behavior and were helped to change through supportive relationships and processes that reinforced their autonomy and willpower.

Individuals who profit most from 360-degree feedback are those who suspect they have a problem. Feedback then acts as a clarification of their previous suspicions. These insights, however, do not automatically lead to change.

There is a critical transition period between gaining insight and taking action. Prochaska et al. (1992) refer to this rather fragile period as the preparation stage, which combines intention and action. It is a critical stage in which individuals plan for change and begin taking modest steps to try out new behavior. This is the juncture at which many 360-degree processes break down.

Often individuals receive feedback and do not know how to interpret the results in light of their everyday relationships with their co-workers. Further, if they receive no training or support to reinforce new behaviors, the demands of change may be too great. They may not have sufficient will to persevere with the change, particularly if they perceive they are not being held accountable to change. When 360-degree feedback is not shared with an individual’s manager, lack of accountability can be a major deterrent to change.

Accountability for Change

Typically, 360-degree feedback is used for either developmental or performance appraisal purposes. If used for development, it is common practice that participation is voluntary and feedback is confidential—not given to a participant’s manager. Accountability rests with the individual’s desire to change. For instance, in “Enhancing 360-degree Feedback for Senior Executives,” published by the Center for Creative Leadership, Kaplan and Palus (1994) report that when 360-degree feedback is used for development it is the policy of the Center that “the executive owns the results, and the confidentiality of the results is a priority.”

When feedback is used for performance appraisal purposes and is available to a participant’s manager, accountability for change is increased. In studies of the effectiveness of multisource feedback, London, Smither, and Adsit (1997) found that feedback had little impact on change when ratees were not accountable for using the feedback. However, historically, organizations have been reluctant to ask individuals to reveal their scores to their managers, fearing the individual would be too organizationally vulnerable. Some critics of sharing 360-degree feedback results with a participant’s manager contend that doing so interferes with raters’ willingness to be candid or objective in completing the feedback inventories and, therefore, skews the results. Accountability does not rest solely with individuals, however. London et al. also found that feedback had little impact without management being accountable for providing resources to support behavior change.

Clearly, the organizational context, culture, and systems in which the individual receives feedback is important to the success of a 360-degree process. Therefore, for change within an organization, a model of change that only addresses individuals’ readiness to change is insufficient. Managers’ motivation to change will be highly influenced by factors within their organizations. If there is inadequate support and emphasis from senior management expressing urgency for change, the perceived need for an individual to be accountable for change based on 360-degree feedback will be seriously diluted. Both readiness and accountability are needed for change to occur.

One way senior management can demonstrate accountability is through what John Kotter (1996) describes as communicating a sense of urgency. Kotter considers it a serious error to allow complacency (low accountability) from managers and employees when attempting to make organizational change. Without unrelenting pressure from the top accompanied by a compelling vision to guide change, managers often remain stuck in the status quo.

Culture and Change

The values that underlie an organization’s culture may also make change difficult. Kotter (1996) recommends that change become anchored in the culture as the final step in instituting an organization’s change process. If a leader’s vision for change is at cross-purposes with long and deeply held organizational values, change may not “hold” once the urgency for change is relaxed. For example, if an organization has historically embraced an authorization, command and control leadership philosophy, attempts to gain improved interpersonal skills might not receive encouragement and support long enough for an individual to cycle through the stages of change—particularly through action and maintenance. The time required for individual and organization change—usually years—is often underestimated. And frequently in the rush to implement change, the vital link between organizational values, culture, and change is overlooked.

The Planet

The following case demonstrates the problems in using feedback to stimulate change. The presentation documents the first two years of an organization’s attempts to use 360-degree feedback to enhance leadership development.

In 1995, Sara Brown & Associates designed a 360-degree feedback process for 30 senior managers from three different media companies connected by common ownership—to be called here the Planet companies.

The centerpiece of the process was the Leadership Competency Inventory (LCI) created by Sara Brown in the late 1980s for managers at the Miami Herald. The LCI was based on client focus groups as well as research conducted to determine the competencies possessed by superior managers as documented by Richard Boyatzis (1982) in The Competent Manager.

The Planet’s 360-degree process was designed to take into account the consultants’ experiences in using the LCI in organizations as well as the then current literature, particularly literature from the Center for Creative Leadership. For example, to increase trust in the process and candor in the responses, the LCI feedback was used for developmental purposes only (results were not used for performance review). Participants collaborated with their managers to select their subordinate and peer respondents. Participants and respondents were trained to understand the purposes of the 360-degree process and how to complete the inventories. The LCI instruments were completed by the participants and their managers, peers, and subordinates and were tabulated by an external data processing service.

After reviewing their confidential reports, participants had a private coaching session with a consultant to help them assimilate their feedback and prepare for a developmental meeting with their manager. Participants met with their managers to share the highlights of their feedback, but not the actual feedback reports, and to prepare collaboratively a developmental plan.

A report consolidating the feedback data of all the participants from each of the three companies was also presented to the participants and their managers at group meetings. This report included a list of the competencies most frequently identified by each participant and his or her manager as being “critical” to the participant’s job, the ten competencies rated overall highest and lowest, and recommendations for management training to develop skills where patterns of deficiency were apparent. During the presentations the consultant’s comments about the strengths and development needs of the 30 respondents were positioned in light of the companies’ strategic goals and missions.

To increase accountability for change, participants were required to re-take the LCI one year after receiving their initial feedback. During the intervening year, 1995 to 1996, quarterly reminders were sent to participants encouraging them to check in with their managers about their progress on their development plans. In addition to ongoing supervisory training routinely offered by the Planet companies, situational leadership workshops were also offered.

In 1996, the 30 senior management participants completed the LCI again. The managers, peers, and subordinates were similar, but due to some staff changes, not identical to those who responded in 1995. For a few participants there were some fairly dramatic improvements. But as a group, the overall pattern of responses was not significantly different in 1996 than in 1995.

Insights from the Planet’s Experience

A pattern of competencies rated high and low in both 1995 and 1996 provides a snapshot of the Planet’s organizational culture. (In fact, the patterns also held true for a group of 16 middle managers from the largest of the Planet companies that completed the LCI in 1995.)

The themes among the ten most highly rated competencies may be indicators of what is rewarded at the Planet and might be summed up by the phrase “good character.” On a five-point Likert scale, the top ten competencies averaged between 4.41 and 4.09. The themes among the ten were: (1) positive customer relations, e.g., “Represents the company favorably in the community”; (2) ethical behavior, e.g., “Demonstrates truthfulness and integrity as a personal value”; (3) task focus, e.g., “Demonstrates the energy to work as long as needed to achieve results”; (4) autonomous achievement, e.g., “Strives to do things better compared to previous personal performance, or a standard of excellence.”

Contrasted to the consistently highest rated competencies, the themes of those rated lowest were the leadership attributes commonly called “people skills” and “big picture thinking.” For instance, “Motivates, stimulates, or inspires people” was the lowest overall rated competency in both years. Among the ten lowest competencies overall, and the lowest of the 56 competency statements for participants alone, were “Notices how others appear to be feeling,” “Acknowledges others’ feelings,” and “Provides feedback on performance and interprets its consequences.” Competencies reflecting the participants’ skill in explaining the companies’ strategic thinking and helping employees see how their jobs fit into the big picture were also among the participants’ ten lowest.

It is important to note that the response scores for the lowest ten list ranged from an average of 3.32 to 3.59. On a Likert scale these scores were in the middle, which made it easy for participants and their managers to say, “Well, it’s not so bad.” These scores did not motivate an organizational sense of urgency to change these behaviors at the Planet companies. Unfortunately, these interpersonal and strategic thinking skills are precisely the leadership skills required to lead an organization through change. Kotter (1996) identified developing and communicating the change vision as a key step in an eight-stage process of creating major change.

A John Wayne Culture

Perhaps most telling about the likelihood of change occurring at the Planet companies based on this feedback is one particular competency that appeared among the lowest ten, that is, “Identifies and seeks help or activities to remedy own weaknesses.” This result suggests little readiness to change and that participants will need to be held accountable by the company for change, because otherwise they are not likely to do it voluntarily.

The Planet’s organizational culture is one of independent, ethical self-reliance—a “John Wayne” culture. Self-reflection and personal change has not been a nurtured value. Participants may have even seen it as risky to admit weakness. And based on the Prochaska et al. (1992) model of individual change, participants need supportive relationships and clear direction to help them move from the insights gained from 360-degree feedback in the contemplation stage through the preparation and action stages, in other words, the competencies that tend to be less rewarded in the Planet’s culture.

Time to Change

Another insight from the Planet’s experience is that significant change cannot take place in a year. By the time participants received their feedback in 1995, prepared their developmental plans, and met with their managers, at least two months had elapsed. A number of the participants felt they needed training, particularly in interpersonal skills. By the time training was offered and participants started practicing new behaviors, it was time for them to re-take the LCI. In many cases, their attempts at new behavior had not had a chance to be noticed by their raters.

Also, more than half of the participants failed to initiate the voluntary quarterly check-in with their managers to discuss their progress toward achieving their developmental plans. Failing to check in reduced participants’ accountability to change.

Perception of Benefits

In spite of the factors working against behavioral change at the Planet and a lack of change in the overall ratings, when polled after receiving their feedback in 1996, the participants were enthusiastic about the 360-degree feedback process. They believed there was no other way they would have received feedback of this quality. And many of them were ready to put the feedback to work quickly, demonstrated by arriving at their private coaching sessions with fleshed-out action plans. All the participants felt the process had been personally valuable and recommended that the managers reporting to them be offered the opportunity to be involved in the program.

One of the participants whose scores did reflect a significant positive improvement explained the change in his response by saying, “I was ripe for it. I knew I was having problems, and I wanted to change.” His response would seem to support the contention by Prochaska et al. (1992) that individuals in the contemplation stage of change are most helped by consciousness-raising activities.

It is also possible that for other participants, re-taking the LCI moved them from the precontemplation stage, where they did not perceive they had problems to remedy, to the contemplation stage, where they were then willing to consider seriously how they might plan for change. In fact, some participants commented that seeing the same pattern of responses a second time had been a sobering experience that caused them to take the feedback far more seriously than they had taken it the first time. This would suggest that a second re-take of the LCI might be a better indicator of a trend toward change than the first re-take.

The Planet companies reported two additional benefits from the 360-degree process. The consolidated report of all participants’ responses acted as a leadership training needs analysis and has provided a benchmark for improvement.

Multi-rater Feedback as Part of Systemic Intervention

In another example, Betsy Cole, manager of organization learning for a medical technology company, used multi-rater feedback as part of an overall, systemic intervention to reinforce values and leadership behaviors that executives believed employees needed for the company to be competitive. The feedback was embedded in a five-day leadership development program. As part of the process, the leadership behavior questionnaire (LBQ) (completed by participants, peers, and subordinates) was given one month before and three months after the leadership training. The purpose of using the LBQ was to provide participants’ feedback and to measure the training’s effectiveness.

In this case, significant behavior change did occur among all of the 80 participants who completed the training. However, an analysis of the training’s effectiveness showed that the change was not based on the feedback alone. Behavioral change was attributed to three elements: the specific feedback from the LBQ, the influence of the training, and the concentrated reinforcement of the training’s content by executives over a two and a half year period.

The LBQ responses at this company revealed some similarities to those of the Planet companies. Most striking was the statement, “I ask for feedback about my own performance as a leader,” which was the lowest rated statement both prior to and after the leadership training program, with average scores of 2.52 and 3.02. (At the Planet, the similar low-rated competency statement was, “Identifies and seeks help or activities to remedy own weaknesses.”) The perceived tendency for these managers not to seek feedback supports the potential benefits of using a 360-degree feedback process. But it also raises a number of questions about the difficulty of change in organizational cultures that do not nurture self-reflection.


It is the combination of individual and organizational readiness to change and accountability for change that improves the likelihood of change.

In many organizations, as was the case for the Planet companies, managers are attempting to develop the leadership skills Kotter and others believe are required for organizational change. Often these skills are interpersonal—empathy, trust, inspiration, etc.—and organizations frequently downplay the importance of these skills compared to those more easily translated into results. There is little organizational readiness or urgency to improve leadership/interpersonal skills. This deficiency is compounded by voluntary and confidential 360-degree processes where participants are not held accountable for using the feedback, and participants’ managers are not held accountable for providing coaching or other resources to support behavioral change.

In order to stimulate behavioral change, particularly of those behaviors the organization may undervalue, e.g., interpersonal skills, it may be necessary to hold participants and their organizations accountable for change by eliminating the voluntary and confidential aspects of 360-degree feedback processes. For example, the results of a third re-take of a feedback inventory might be available to the participants’ managers and be used as part of performance decisions.

However, it is unrealistic to expect a 360-degree feedback process as a stand-alone intervention to change behavior significantly and improve performance. Individuals are most likely to benefit from 360-degree feedback if they are ready to change and already suspect they have a problem. They are more likely to attempt changes in their behavior if they receive coaching, support, and direction in the period immediately following the feedback.

Further, it is essential that an organization’s culture reinforce reflection and personal growth, preferably in the context of an urgently stated, compelling organization vision of change. Finally, as was reinforced from the experiences of the medical technology company, 360-degree feedback is useful as part of a systemic intervention accompanied by executive support over an extensive period of time.

Suggested Readings

Boyatzis, Richard E. (1982). The competent manager. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Kaplan, R. and Palus, C. (1994). Enhancing 360-degree feedback for senior executives. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

Kotter, J. (1996). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

London, M., Smither, J. and Adsit, D. (1997). Accountability: The Achilles’ heel of multisource feedback. Group and Organization Management, 22 (2), 162-184.

Prochaska, J., DiClemente, C., and Norcross, J. (1992). In search of how people change: Applications to addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, (9), 1102-1114.

Sara Brown, PhD, is president of Sara Brown & Associates, Hamden, CT, an organization development and human resource consulting company serving media companies, professional firms, not-for-profit organizations, and entrepreneurial enterprises. She specializes in organization change, problem solving with management teams, succession planning, team building, and management training.

Betsy Cole, PhD, is the manager of employee and organization development for Beck Coulter, Inc., a global biomedical laboratory instrument company in Fullerton, CA.

spacing bar---------------------------------------------------------------
SUNY Empire State College