Multi-source, or 360-degree, feedback is becoming an increasingly popular component of leadership development initiatives across the world. This type of feedback assesses an executive’s performance through what management experts call self-other agreement, a system in which a manager’s analysis of his or her own performance is measured against the reviews of his or her employees.
While such assessments entered the corporate mainstream in the mid-1990s, they were until recently used to aid skills development. Firms have now expanded their use of such feedback to help them make decisions regarding raises and promotions. The goal for these companies is to encourage more honest and comprehensive work assessments and thereby foster a culture of openness, self-awareness and mutual improvement.
However, 360-degree feedback is not without its flaws and risks, especially when implemented outside of traditional development spheres. Concerns have been raised about the qualifications and impartiality of assessors, the method’s utility across different career sectors and the feedback’s vulnerability to employee manipulation, as has been reported at GE, IBM and Amazon.
But 360-degree feedback’s biggest weakness lies in assessors often reviewing co-workers based on factors that are, at best, tangential to work performance. Specifically, personality traits and gender both affect, through under- and overestimation, managers’ self-rating as well as how others rate the focal managers. This under- and overestimation, triggered by focal managers’ personality traits and gender, might reduce the assessment’s value as a tool for improvement, particularly among managers lacking in confidence.
Gender is an important factor in determining the outcome, and perhaps efficacy, of 360-degree feedback. A consistent body of research has found that female leaders exhibit greater self-other agreement than their male counterparts. Studies dating back to the early ‘90s through today have found women more than men consider both encouraging and critical external information to have self-evaluative meaning.
This greater responsiveness to the assessments of peers leads to self-ratings of women that are, on average, more congruent with the evaluating “others” than those of men. Ultimately, both men and women have higher professional opinions of themselves than do their employees. However, the overestimation is considerably less pronounced in women than in men.
Personality traits also have the potential to undercut the effectiveness of 360-degree feedback. Conscientiousness, or being proactive and committed to work, has an especially significant effect on feedback outcomes. Of course, conscientiousness is usually a popular and highly valued leadership trait. However, management experts have found that highly conscientious managers experience low self-other agreement relative to their less conscientious peers.
Why might the extremely conscientious be unaware of how others perceive them? You may not expect to find self-other disagreement among people whose performance at work is so vital to their self-image. It turns out that conscientious leaders may also tend toward excessive caution, scrupulousness that may be viewed as nitpicky, and other traits that turn off colleagues adept at detecting inhibition. When it comes to self-other agreement, it seems that widely desired traits have their drawbacks.
Neuroticism, on the other hand, is typically perceived to be a negative trait among those aspiring to leadership roles. However, neurotic individuals who are likely to experience psychological distress and who are insecure, anxious, depressed, and emotional are quite likely to undervalue themselves. Research shows that this underestimation, paradoxically or not, leads neurotic people to work hard in order to exceed their own overly modest expectations.
Does 360-degree feedback’s highlighting of the drawbacks of having desired traits undermine the shortcomings of the assessment method? Not necessarily. Assessment tools say a lot about somebody’s leadership abilities, but not always what they first seem to say. It is important for managers to be aware of the possible association between individual differences and self-other agreement in interpreting these results. Having a large discrepancy between self and other ratings in leadership may not necessarily reflect poor self-knowledge, but rather may be an arttifact of specific factors related to personality or gender.
Business leaders should take these findings into account when planning leadership development programs.
And if executives, managers and other employees do find themselves surprised by discrepancies between their self-assessment and their peers’ reviews, it can represent an opportunity to learn about and work on not just your work performance, but also on your personality.