How to Maximize the Impact of 360-Degree Feedback Interpretation

June 1, 2016 by Sandra Mashihi

 “The past is behind, learn from it. The future is ahead, prepare for it. The present is here, live it.”

-Thomas Monson

An interesting study by Robert Hooijberg and colleagues, looked at what makes coaching effective, surveyed 232 managers from diverse organizations (Hooijberg, & Lane, 2009)1. One of the key questions asked was: “What did your coach do that you found most effective?” From the view of the client or participants, three major categories determined feedback success:

1) Interpreting results (34.8%)

2) Inspiring action (27.5 %)

3) Professionalism (23.3 %)

The majority of clients thought the best coaches were those who analyzed strengths and weaknesses, helped assimilate feedback, and made concrete developmental recommendations.

This study seems to contradict much of the coaching literature and suggests that participants using 360-degree feedback expect and want their coach to take a more active role in interpreting their results and making developmental recommendations. This finding is consistent with the concept of “feedforward,” developed by Marshall Goldsmith, who suggests letting us know what we can be do more, less, or differently in the future to become better and more successful.

Coach’s Critique:

Interpreting feedback on 360s can be challenging. The approach, process and “spin” on a feedback conversation can essentially make or break what the participant believes about him or herself as well what he or she does with the information.

It is not uncommon for participants to walk away from the feedback conversation feeling negative and hurt.  Smither and Walker (2004) analyzed the impact of upward feedback ratings as well as narrative comments over a one-year period for 176 managers2. They found that those who received a small number of unfavorable behaviorally based comments improved more than other managers but those who received a large number (relative to positive comments) significantly declined in performance more than other managers. These individuals were more disengaged and emotionally upset as a result of the 360-degree feedback process.

Furthermore, newer neuroscience research speaks about why perceived negative feedback is potentially emotionally harmful. Recent studies confirm that emotional hurt and rejection, whether part of social interactions (or poorly designed and delivered feedback interventions) can actually trigger the same neurophysiologic pathways associated with physical pain and suffering3.

Therefore, coaches, managers and/or those interpreting 360-degree feedback must be cognizant of the impact of feedback. They need to strike a balance between helping participants understand strengths and weaknesses and to utilize constructive criticism as a means to set future goals. In my coaching experience, I have noticed some of my clients that have a tendency to “beat the drum” about their newly formed negative perceptions about themselves. It is my just as their coach to ensure that they are able to focus on their strengths and utilize all constructive feedback as a means to set goals for the future. I try not to devote too much time to “dissecting” the past, but rather to utilize their feedback in a positive way to take action for positive behavioral change.

What are your suggestions about maximizing 360-feedback interpretations?



  1. Hooijberg, R. & Lane, N. (2009). The five-factor model of personality and managerial performance: Validity gains through the use of 360 degree performance ratings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1498-1513. []
  2. Smither, J. & Walker, A.G. (2004). Are the characteristics of narrative comments related to improvement in multi-rater feedback rating over time? Personnel Psychology, 89, 575-581. []
  3. Eisenberg, N., Lieberman, M. & Williams, K. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292. []

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.

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  1. Jeff Harris, CPC says:

    Sandra, thanks for the great article.

    I’d like to accept your invitation for suggestions about what works for my clients.

    I take the following 3 step approach:

    1. Review with the client the 20-40 skills being measured by the 360° instrument, and ask if they can validate that the skills seem like plausible measures for leadership (or EQ, depending on the tool). This invites early buy-in by the client.
    2. I ask them to select three skills upon which to focus in coaching, based upon how important they are to the leader’s success. I may challenge, without bias or agenda, the selections in order to minimize avoidance of tough subjects. But I never insist that these be the 3 lowest scores.
    3. I then suggest that we go through the narrative feedback, looking for any comments that are relevant to the three chosen areas for development, and suggest that remaining comments be “archived” without judgment or perseveration, for unpacking at a future time in the coaching or perhaps later in their career. This way, the leader is self-selecting the feedback s/he will encounter and explore with me.
    The validation for this method is that I have found clients are typically willing to participate in coaching for an average of ten sessions after the 360° review, with little backsliding.

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