"To create a reliable 360 survey," Marcus Buckingham concludes in his recent blog on this site, "The Fatal Flaws With 360 Surveys," all you need do is...ask the rater to evaluate himself on his own feelings." Since you are an expert on your own feelings, your responses have to be solid.
That seems logical, and yet I could not disagree more with this conclusion. In an effort to give equal time to the other side of the story, and to clarify some misconceptions, let me share with you the reasons why not getting 360-degree feedback may actually be fatal. (But here's hoping that in the course of this debate there are no fatalities.)
Leadership effectiveness is in the eye of those who are led. "Rate me on 'Marcus is a good listener' and we learn whether I am a better listener than you," Buckingham writes. But in my work with Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman analyzing the 360-degree feedback from tens of thousands of leaders, that's not been our experience. What we find is: ask me to rate "Marcus is a good listener," and we discover whether I think Marcus is listening to me. That's certainly not objective data. But it doesn't have to be. If Marcus is my boss and I think he's not listening to me, that certainly plays into how effective he is as a leader, no matter how subjective my judgment is.
Subjective 360 data can correlate to objective business results. What I think about my boss wouldn't matter if it had no relation to business success. But our analysis of the data from those thousands of 360s shows that it does, empirically. We have correlated the leadership-effectiveness scores we've collected with a variety of business outcomes — profitability, turnover, employee engagement, customer satisfaction — you name it, we probably studied it. What we've seen is that 360 data are an incredibly reliable measure of business success, frequently showing a lock-step correlation between the effectiveness of a company's leaders, as measured by those subjective 360s, and the company's objective business results.
You don't have to be great at everything. "Most 360s are built on a logical non-sequitur," Buckingham suggests, "namely that since a particular group of exemplary leaders possesses all the competencies measured by the 360, therefore the best individual leader is she who possesses all of them." I agree that's a non-sequitur, and that would be a problem if you used the full range of leadership skills on the assessment as a one-size-fits-all definition of the perfect leader. But our research suggests that's not necessary at all, even if it were possible. When we analyze the most effective leaders in the world, we find that the truly extraordinary ones need only excel at a relatively small number of competencies — three to five. For us, the purpose of taking the 360 is not to see which leadership skills you lack so you can complete the set. Rather, it's to find your best self — that is, the particular leadership skills you should focus on to become uniquely extraordinary.
You are not the best judge of you. Several years ago, while working on my first project with Joe Folkman, I asked him what was the most interesting finding he'd seen in his years of studying 360s. He responded, with a wry smile, "The average leaders don't think they are." Thus we, too, find leaders subject to "benevolent distortion." But we don't find it that benevolent. Our data show not just a gap — but something closer to a canyon — between people's perceptions of themselves and how other people see them. "How could that be?" you might ask: After all, you are the only one there for everything! No doubt. And yet, our data tell us that you are a notoriously bad predictor of your own leadership abilities because it is so difficult to consistently know what impact you are having on others. In that regard, other people are experts at knowing how they feel about your effect on them. Ironically, we find, the best leaders in our database frequently rate their performance lower than their peers, bosses, and direct reports. From the perspective of inner strength and psychological health, it's terrific to have confidence in your own views and convictions. But when considering your strength as a leader, doing so in isolation is, from where we sit, downright, fatal.
I'll be the first to agree that a 360 assessment is no panacea and that the tool can be over-, miss-, and incorrectly used. But in my experience, there's simply no substitute for getting feedback from the people who are the most influenced and affected by your actions, talents, and skills. Applied creatively, a 360-degree feedback process can be an incredibly powerful tool to help you identify your strengths, grant you insight into how you can make them even more effective, and alert you to any behavior that might be severely detracting from your effectiveness. Are the 360 data objective? No. But even so they can help leaders create an objective, personal plan of development. And they're certainly more effective than just asking yourself.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 11/15/2011.