360-degree feedback is a critical tool in the arsenal of talent professionals. This process allows for a set group of stakeholders to provide confidential feedback on a participating leader which is then shared with the participant, typically in a feedback session facilitated by their manager, an external coach, or internal training or human resources (HR) support. While this can be a profoundly meaningful developmental experience, it is crucial to consider certain design and delivery aspects after collecting the 360-degree feedback.

These considerations ensure that this process has lasting benefits to the participating leaders as well as the organization sponsoring the work. While 360-degree data collection methods can vary (e.g., anonymous online survey, summarized stakeholder interviews), the following suggestions are meant to apply across different approaches.

 Step 1: Ensure the 360 feedback is both heard and understood.

  • Set the stage before diving into the data. Many leaders are apprehensive about coming into these 360-degree feedback meetings. To set them at ease, first, remind them that most leaders are sub-optimal at self-awareness, so if they come across critical feedback that surprises them, they are in good company!
  • Give the leader plenty of space to process in real-time. Give the leader ample time to read and assimilate the information, and then ask them broad questions to get them talking (e.g., “Was there anything in that section that surprised you?”). The facilitator needs to help the participant navigate through their emotional response and provide them a safe space to process what they are learning about themselves.
  • Remain non-judgmental. It is critical to focus almost myopically on the behaviors being discussed and their business impact. For example, helping someone better understand how they can delegate more effectively is much more productive than trying to understand the source of their “control issues.” The moment the participant becomes defensive, you risk harming your ability to help them hear and understand the feedback.
  • Carefully pick your spots to advise. While strong listening skills are paramount when delivering 360-degree debriefs, it is also important that the facilitator carefully choose moments to be prescriptive and offer “feedforward” suggestions (i.e., what to do differently in the future). Doing so tends to maximize the participant’s readiness to change, and targeting specific behaviors improves overall performance (Budworth et al, 2022). While it is important for the facilitator to demonstrate empathetic inquiry and not move too quickly toward offering suggestions, it is also important that the facilitator serve as a thought partner and does offer recommendations on how to move forward when the time is right.

Step 2: Move from insight to action.

  • Translate learning into a concrete action plan. After receiving the 360-degree feedback, it’s crucial to quickly translate the insights into a forward-leaning plan of action. The facilitator should prompt the participant to share their thoughts on the priorities to address before the session is over. This helps ensure the discussion doesn’t stay at a high level and drills down into clear next steps.
  • Define outcomes and establish mechanisms to track improvement. The participant should draft a succinct action plan outlining the specific areas they will focus on improving, the actions they will take, and how they will gauge progress within roughly two weeks. This plan should include 1.) The developmental target(s), 2.) Behaviors they will demonstrate to address the target, 3.) Defined success metrics (e.g., how will we know if they succeeded?), and 4.) A timeline for completion. Research shows that leaders are more likely to follow through on challenging goals when they have defined the outcomes and established a mechanism to track improvement over time. Moving with haste to get an action plan vetted and confirmed with key sponsors dramatically increases the chances of meaningful and lasting behavioral change.

Step 3: Create the conditions for sustained improvement and return on investment.

  • Encourage participants to share developmental goals and plan with their boss. When it comes to adult learning, people tend to be more committed to following through on challenging goals when they have a voice in shaping the developmental target, they share their goal with one or more colleagues, and they are given feedback on goal-related progress. We strongly recommend that participants share their developmental goals (based on what they learned through their 360 feedback) with their boss. The boss and participant need to align on the targets, understand how to best support each other, and establish milestones to track progress.
  • Establish “accountability partners.” We also recommend identifying internal resources who are made aware of the participants’ development targets and are asked to provide in-the-moment feedback when they observe behavior that is either in support of the goal or less effective behavior that undermines progress. These accountability partners (e.g., a mentor, peer, HR or training professional) can support learning and offer feedback, while also providing the leader a way to reflect and celebrate success.
  • Measure developmental progress. Establish a follow-up mechanism to track development progress and enhance accountability for improvement. Sending brief pulse surveys on behalf of the participants to those raters who originally participated in a 360-degree feedback session can be an effective means of increasing accountability, while also providing a useful source of input to help the participant calibrate the impact of their development efforts.

Today’s business climate requires leaders to rapidly manage and adjust to increasing levels of scale and scope. In this environment, self-awareness has never been more critical. Effective 360-degree feedback processes can be a powerful tool, providing leaders with the essential insights they need to enhance their impact and adjust to better serve their organizations.

By carefully designing and facilitating these feedback sessions, and then supporting leaders in translating the insights into targeted, accountable action plans, talent development professionals and executive coaches can help leaders at all levels have a more profound, positive impact on their teams and organizations. Embracing the principles outlined here can help unlock the power of 360-degree feedback as a transformative leadership development tool.