Does 360-Degree Feedback Even Work?

May 4, 2016 by Sandra Mashihi

“I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed.” -George Carlin

There are mixed reviews about 360-degree feedback systems and its effectiveness. Organizations and consultants are quick to use it without understanding whether it has worked or not. They may be using it because it’s the latest fad in management development.

This is obviously a difficult question to answer, because it’s effectiveness really does depend on various factors. Like anything, it can be effective, if it’s done well. However, 360-degree feedback can often fail or have negative consequences because it’s not implemented well.

For instance, a meta-analysis of over 3,000 studies (607 effect sizes, 23,633 observations) on performance feedback found that although there was a significant effect for feedback interventions (d=.41), one third of all studies showed performance declines1. The authors speculated that performance feedback sometimes led to an actual decline in performance, because it led to individuals feeling hurt, disengaged and emotionally upset.

People do change following feedback, but the magnitude of change can sometimes be quite small and practically insignificant. Much of the research on the impact of 360-degree feedback is generally supportive that is has more positive, than negative, impact on performance and development2. For example, a more recent meta-analysis of 26 longitudinal studies of multi-rater feedback indicated significant performance improvements3.

Other researchers evaluated the impact of an upward feedback program for 2 ½ years and found evidence of performance improvement that was unrelated to the number of times managers received feedback and not entirely due to regression to the mean4. Atwater, Waldman, Atwater & Cartier (2000) found that improvement following an upward feedback intervention for 50 percent of the supervisors who received it5.

Taken together, there is supporting evidence that feedback is a necessary and important condition for successful behavior change and most useful for those with low levels of self-insight and performance.

Coach’s Critique:

Obviously, the research demonstrates varied results in terms of its effectiveness. In my coaching experience, I have found 360-degree feedback worked best when the person being rated was open to the process, when the company communicated its purpose clearly, and used it for development purposes.

I often noticed that when ratees were not open to the process, and pressured to participate, their level of resistance, suspicions, and disappointment of the feedback greatly increased. In fact, research suggests that pain that is associated with feedback effects people the same way as feeling physical pain6.

So, if research demonstrates this, and many feedback processes actually resulted in performance declines, then shouldn’t companies assess their participant’s level of willingness before placing them in such a vulnerable position?

  1. Kluger, A.N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 254-284 []
  2. Nowack, K. (2009). Leveraging Multirater Feedback to Facilitate Successful Behavioral Change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 61, 280-297 []
  3. Smither, J., London, M., & Reilly, R. (2005). Does performance improve following multisource feedback? A theoretical model, meta-analysis, and review of empirical findings. Personnel Psychology, 58, 33-66 []
  4. Reilly, R. R., Smither, J. W., & Vasilopoulos, N.L. (1996). A longitudinal study of upward feedback. Personnel Psychology, 49, 599-612 []
  5. Atwater, L.A., Waldman, D., Atwater, D., & Cartier (2000). An upward feedback field experiment. Supervisors’ cynicism, follow-up and commitment to subordinates. Personnel Psychology, 53, 275-297 []
  6. Dewall, C.N, et al. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 21, 931-937 []

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