Circle of Trust or NOT: How to Keep the Confidentiality of 360-Degree Feedback

June 8, 2016 by Sandra Mashihi

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” -Friedrich Nietzche

Group of stylized blue people with teamleader

Confidentiality is an important aspect of 360-degree feedback for both participants and respondents. It is necessary to ensure that everyone that participates feels able to answer honestly and candidly. If there are any doubts around confidentiality, then raters tend to feel more anxious about completing the 360 assessment, and they may question the real purpose of the feedback process or the use of the data.  In fact, research suggests that ratings tend to be inflated when raters do not perceive their input is completely anonymous.

When raters think that their ratings will not be anonymous, rating are significantly inflated, and, more importantly, become less correlated with job performance (Wimer & Nowack, 1998)1. Antonioni’s study (1994) of upward feedback (ratings of the supervisor by direct reports only) found that direct reports whose ratings were not anonymous rated their managers significantly higher than direct reports whose ratings were anonymous2. Additionally, a study of 58,000 performance appraisals, scores went up significantly in appraisal processes that were completely confidential (Jawahar & Williams, 1997)3.

Coach’s Critique:

Here is something to keep in mind when implementing 360-degree feedback systems: An ineffective implementation of a 360-degree feedback program can actually lead to do more harm than benefit. One of major contributors of a “disastrous 360-degree process” has to do with the breaking and/or neglecting of confidentiality and anonymity. Here are just a couple of things at stake:

Raters Trust: Even when confidentiality and anonymity are in place, participants and raters run the risk of being exposed to a certain degree. Even then, raters are often suspicious of what will come of their honest and candid feedback. This fear often leads to them faking ratings. Just imagine how much they would be reluctant to be truthful knowing their results are not anonymous.

Participant’s Trust: The participant is already placed in a vulnerable position of having essentially everyone he or she works with to evaluate him or her. Not only is it hard enough to receive feedback from everyone this person works with, but now the participant is left in a vulnerable position to be exposed and talked about.

360 Implementer’s Trust: The person implementing the 360-degree process (HR, management, or external coach) that breaks confidentiality is bound to lose credibility and accountability and may never really be trusted again. This not only runs the risk of NOT promoting effective future development, but also runs the risk of minimizing people’s openness to the so called “trusted individuals”.

A confidentiality sound 360-degree feedback program would consist of the following:

(1) A large enough sample of individuals to rate the participant, so that no one single rater response gets revealed or singled out.

(2) A guarantee to the raters that their results are anonymous and would not be revealed or singled out.

(3) The approval and acceptance of the participant as to whether he or she would like results to be provided to management; based on that approval, results can be shared with management.

As the old saying goes, “trust is delicate like glass, once broken, it will always show the cracks.” Therefore, individuals implementing the 360-degree program should keep in mind that those involved come first. They should communicate the tool’s anonymity, and obviously, keep their word about who would see the results of the program. It’s particularly important to consider that since the tool is for the participant’s development rather than appraisal, revealing results isn’t really worth it, because the tool is intended to provide the participant with feedback about patterns of strengths and development areas, rather than specifics of what every individual person thinks of the participant.

What has been your experience with confidentiality of 360-degree feedback programs? What else do you find to be useful in keeping the confidentiality and trust of the program?

  1. Wimer, S. & Nowack, K. (1998). Thirteen common mistakes in implementing multi-rater feedback systems. Training and Development 52, 69-80. []
  2. Antonioni, D. (1994). The Effects of Feedback Accountability on Upward Appraisal Ratings. Personnel Psychology, 47, 349-356. []
  3. Jawahar, I.M., & Williams, C.R. (1997). When All the Children Above Average: The Performance Appraisal Purpose Effect. Personnel Psychology, 50, 905-925. []

Dr. Sandra Mashihi is a senior consultant with Envisia Learning, Inc. She has extensive experience in sales training, behavioral assessments and executive coaching. Prior to working at Envisia Learning, Inc., She was an internal Organizational Development Consultant at Marcus & Millichap where she was responsible for initiatives within training & development and recruiting.. Sandra received her Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology from University of California, Los Angeles and received her Master of Science and Doctorate in Organizational Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology.

Posted in 360 Degree Feedback

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