Facilitating 360-Degree Feedback Interpretation: Average Scores or Normative Scores?

October 12, 2015 by Sandra Mashihi

“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” -Max Ehrman

All vendors tend to aggregate results from different rater groups in 360-degree feedback reports in some manner to facilitate the interpretation, understanding, and acceptance of data.  Most commonly, aggregate data is presented as average scores across all raters in a particular category.  Average scores simply allow comparison of all raters within a category to self-assessment scores, based on mathematical calculations of the mean scores of the raters.

The use of norms in a 360-degree feedback report can be represented by several standardized statistics to enable the understanding of differences between self-perception and others’ perception of the participant, relative to the specific norm group used.  For example, here are two standardized norm presentations that can be used in feedback reports: 1) z-scores (standardized score with a mean of 0 and standard deviation of 1) or 2) t-scores (standardized scores with a mean of 50 and standard deviation of 10). 

Might be worth just adding this “company specific” norming option (can still use either of the two standardized scores to summarize the data).

  • t-scores: Standardized t-scores are very common in psychological assessments.  They standardize the mean to be 50 and the standard deviation to be 10 (approximately 68 percent of everyone in the database will have t-scores between one standard deviation above and below the mean).
  • z-scores: Standardized z-scores are less common in psychological assessments.  They standardize the mean to be 0.0 and the standard deviation to be 1 (approximately 68 percent of everyone in the database will have a z-score between one standard deviation above and below the mean).

Some vendors also provide normative, or benchmark, scoring based, on global, industrial, or company-specific groups within a database that can be used for external or internal comparison. With these norms, either of the two standardized scores above can still be used to summarize data. Many benchmarks are geared around the use of their own norm (e.g., by using a group of high potential talent as the norm group or a large sample of current leaders participating in a companywide program).  This can be problematic if the definition and selection of “high potential” is not done well and it gives no outside reference (e.g., what if one company’s high potential talent is really less competent than another company’s?). This may also defuse using external benchmark norms that interfere with accepting the feedback (e.g., getting asked in a feedback meeting in a defense manner “who exactly is in the norms being used?

The use of norms in 360-degree feedback reports should not be taken lightly as a report preference, despite the size or representation of the norm group being used.  In some cases, simple average score comparisons are best to help facilitate the understanding of self-other differences.  In other cases, having an internal or external normative benchmark might be useful and desirable in comparing how self-others differences compare to these normative groups.

Coach’s Critique:

A common debate that comes up about utilizing 360’s has to do whether to use average scores or normative scores. Many clients seeking 360s approach us, wondering which one adds more value to the 360 program. Most people assume that normative scoring is preferred because it provides a comparative metric for whether a score is high, low, or average relative to a sample group.

There are some challenges with utilizing normative scores as a way of interpreting 360s. While utilizing vendor norms may include a sufficient sample size, as a coach facilitating the interpretation of my client’s 360, I find that engaging in a conversation about benchmark scores can raise defensiveness on the part of my client. Clients want to know who exactly who they are being compared to. Often times, they don’t trust that the comparison group is an accurate representation of them, so as a result, they are likely to shun the scores all together.

Others utilizing 360s, may utilize a company specific set of norms. While this sample may be more representative in that it accounts a company’s culture and job requirements, it is challenging to get enough of a sufficient sample size in order to make sure the data is valid.

So, whether to use vendor norms or company specific norms is a “toss-up”. For this reason, when comparing between average and normative scores, I find average scores to be more useful when I am coaching my clients. I find that when they are not being compared to a group, they are less resistant and more open to the feedback.

What are your thoughts about whether to use average scores or normative scores in 360-degree feedback?



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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