Understand how to build an effective approach to performance management, including the tools that can support it
360 feedback is a method of performance appraisal which gathers feedback from a number of sources, including peers, direct reports, more senior colleagues and customers. This variety of feedback can offer line managers a wide-ranging perspective and help to make performance management a more objective and fair process.
This factsheet offers guidance on how to make 360 feedback work and identifies a number of factors to consider when building a 360 feedback process, including an overview of feedback questionnaires and feedback reports, and an analysis of the potential benefits of adopting an online system.
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What is 360 degree feedback?
It’s important that employees receive regular, honest feedback on their performance. 360 degree (or 3600) feedback, sometimes simply called 360 feedback, is a performance appraisal method that gathers feedback on an individual from a number of sources. Its supporters claim that this gives managers and individuals better information about skills and performance, as well as working relationships, compared with more traditional appraisal arrangements based on line managers’ assessments.
The rationale for gathering 360 degree feedback is that, in complex organisations, managers will not fully understand the contribution of the people they manage, as they may be part of many different teams and engage in autonomous or semi-autonomous relationships with customers or colleagues. There is therefore a strong argument for obtaining wide-ranging information to form an accurate picture of performance.
In 360 degree feedback, typically between 8 and 10 people complete questionnaires or give structured feedback describing the performance of the individual under review. The reviewers represent different types of work relationships with the individual: they could be peers, direct reports, more senior colleagues, or customers – hence the term ’360 degree’ feedback.
The 360 degree questionnaire usually consists of a number of statements clustered against the competencies that the review intends to measure.
The reviewers rate the statements on a scale, for example from one to five, and can often include free text comments. The ensuing report should summarise the ratings given for each statement, as well as averages for each competency, and any written comments. To preserve the anonymity of the individual responses, the report often provides the scores in an aggregated form, although some organisations today welcome more open and transparent exchange of feedback to enable individual development.
Before the review process begins, it’s important to establish a clear and consistent understanding of ’good’ performance across the organisation, as well as to ensure that the organisational culture enables individuals to give and receive feedback in a constructive manner.
A range of terminology may be used to describe those individuals giving and receiving feedback. Examples are ’rater‘ and ’ratee‘ or ’appraiser‘ and ’appraisee‘. In this factsheet, the term ‘recipient’ is used for an individual receiving feedback, and ‘respondent’ for an individual giving feedback.
Making 360 degree feedback work
If 360 degree feedback is to make a difference to performance, it needs to be carried out sensitively and fairly with the individual remaining in control of the process. Those giving feedback should be encouraged to do so in an objective, positive way using examples to back up perceived opinion of performance, and respecting confidentiality of all participants at all times.
When using 360 degree feedback, it’s important to make sure that certain central principles are followed:
- The questions are short, clear and relevant to the person’s job.
- The respondents are credible to the recipient (in many instances recipients choose the respondents).
- Respondents are given guidance about the information they should be providing, for example using specific examples of certain behaviours or only providing comments that can be supported with evidence.
- Feedback is only given by individuals trained to give it.
More detailed information is set out below on the design of effective 360 degree feedback systems.
However, as timely and frequent feedback is critical to performance improvement, the full 360 degree approach may appear too time-consuming to conduct on an ongoing basis. There are other ways to gain value from multi-source feedback collected on a smaller scale and more informally, for instance, via brief discussions with or written feedback from several key stakeholders on a recent project.
An important role for 360 degree feedback is its capacity to challenge recipients’ perceptions of their skills and performance and to provide the motivation to change. This can happen in three main ways:
- the feedback on an aspect of behaviour is the opposite of what the recipient expects
- an aspect of behaviour is shown to be more (or less) important as an explanation of individual performance than the recipient perceives to be the case
- findings can highlight specific relationships between aspects of behaviour.
In common with other forms of performance appraisal however, 360 degree feedback should not bring any great surprises to individuals. Its focus should be on helping them understand how their behaviour is perceived by others and confirming the behaviour that is most likely to get results.
If implemented appropriately, it can achieve several key objectives:
- identifying differences between the way individuals see themselves and how they are perceived by others
- establishing differences between the perceptions of different groups of respondents (for example, do the recipient's direct reports have a different view to his or her line manager?)
- in so doing, helping to make performance management a more objective and fair process.
Overcoming employee concerns
If individuals are to trust the 360 degree feedback process, practitioners must ensure that:
- issues of confidentiality are clearly communicated, detailing who will have access to the data and for what purpose
- it's clearly stated how feedback will be given and by whom
- the process for identifying respondents is clearly set out with recipients having some opportunity to input
- there's sufficient time to pilot the process and to consult with individuals and employee groups on both the design and implementation of the process
- both recipients and respondents are adequately briefed on the process, on aims and objectives of the exercise and how to complete the relevant forms
- adequate opportunity is given for people to comment and raise their concerns
- people are not forced or coerced to take part by managers
- feedback is never attributed to an individual without their permission, feedback reports and developments plans are kept secure and data protection rules are obeyed
- the process is constantly monitored and evaluated, with all concerns acted on and any changes adequately communicated
- recipients are always offered support to act on the feedback.
In organisations that don't have a tradition of open feedback or upward communication, it's likely that 360 degree feedback will be seen with greater levels of mistrust. Addressing the issues identified above can help to overcome this problem, though there may also need to be some pertinent challenges to the prevailing culture to establish higher levels of trust.
More generally, an organisation may not be ready for 360 degree feedback at a time when it is undergoing a change programme that includes downsizing or restructuring, as the aims and objectives of the exercise might be misinterpreted.
Drawing up questionnaires and reports
The process of 360 degree assessment usually centres on a questionnaire for respondents to complete, together with a report setting out the findings of the exercise.
The criteria for choosing the questionnaire wording for 360 feedback reflect the general principles of designing performance appraisal systems and criteria, including:
Questions should be relevant to the recipient's job. If they are not, the recipient will not be motivated to change or indeed understand which changes are required.
Each question should be concise, use plain English, and omit qualifiers, such as ’when appropriate‘ and ’as necessary‘. Vague, complex questions rarely produce clear feedback.
Each question should relate to a clearly-defined competency and follow a uniform structure, as muddled competencies make for muddled feedback.
Questions should set clear and appropriate standards, for example ’makes decisions‘ is a poor criterion as the decisions made could be unclear, late, autocratic or wrong.
‘Free text’ questions
Open questions provide the opportunity to add comments in support of the answers to the rated questions and can be particularly helpful. The recipient is able to look for frequently used words or phrases and for common themes that explain or expand on the report’s findings. When wording such questions, it’s important to avoid the use of HR jargon and use clear language – for example ’what does the recipient do well‘, and ’what does the recipient need to improve?’
A performance scale, from ’poor‘ to ’excellent‘ for example, usually works best. Sometimes a frequency scale is used (for example, from ’never does this‘ to ’always does this‘). However, one problem with this type of scale is that it may confuse ability with opportunity, in that people may not have the opportunity to use certain competences.
What does a helpful feedback report look like?
The most helpful feedback reports:
are concise and simple to understand – lengthy or complex reports simply add to employees’ workload
are visual – they use graphics to make findings stand out, and make it easy to see patterns and to explore differences between questions and different respondents
are self-explanatory – they need almost no explanation or interpretation
avoid averages, statistics or factors – focus instead on the ratings and written comments given by individual respondents (as averages may hide important information).
Individual recipients of 360 degree feedback should also be given guidance and support to ensure that they understand and act upon the feedback they receive.
360 degree feedback online
Traditionally, 360 degree feedback has been collected using paper-based questionnaires, and this approach is still in use. However, the opportunity to undertake 360 degree feedback online has achieved more than simply reducing the time and effort required to distribute questionnaires and collate the answers.
Many employers now make use of online systems for 360 degree appraisal which can bring the following benefits:
Recipients can choose the competencies on which they wish to receive feedback.
Confidentiality is improved, as questionnaires and reports can be protected by passwords.
Accuracy is enhanced as online system settings can ensure that essential data is provided.
Data entry settings can also improve the quality of feedback by, for example, requiring that a minimum number of questions are answered and stipulating minimum percentages of critical and positive feedback.
Reports are available online; answers can be collated instantly, so reports are immediately available and up-to-date, while they can also include comparison with previous feedback.
The amount of administration required is much reduced as individuals can be responsible for managing their own feedback, requesting feedback and chasing late questionnaires.
Demographic information can be collected and fed into the production of summary reports.
Books and reports
CHURCH, A.H., BRACKEN, D.W. and FLEENOR, J.W. (2019) Handbook of strategic 360 feedback. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
SILVERMAN, M., KERRIN, M. and CARTER, A. (2005) 360 degree feedback: beyond the spin. Brighton: Institute for Employment Studies.
ASUMENG, M. (2013) The effect of employee feedback-seeking on job performance: an empirical study. International Journal of Management. Vol 30, No 2, March. pp373-388.
BRACKEN, D.W., ROSE, D.S., and CHURCH, A.H. (2016). The evolution and devolution of 360 feedback. Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Vol 9, No 4. pp761-794.
SEMEIJN, J. H., VAN DER HEIJDEN, B., and VAN DER LEE, A. (2014). Multisource ratings of managerial competencies and their predictive value for managerial and organizational effectiveness. Human Resource Management. Vol.53, No 5. pp.773-794.
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This factsheet was last reviewed by Steve George.
Steve George: HR Content Manager
Steve joined the CIPD in 2016, bringing his wide experience and expertise in developing online learning programmes. He works across the HR portfolio on managing and developing content for our qualifications, short courses and publications. Steve is an Associate member of the CIPD and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
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