Delivering challenging 360° feedback

Sometimes delivering feedback can be difficult. In this article Jacqui Burke describes a case study involving a middle manager who was faced with some very challenging feedback in his Appraisal360 report. She shares her tips on how best to support people in this situation.

Some of the organisations that make a decision to introduce 360 degree feedback do so without appreciating the readiness of people receiving feedback to receive it. In an organisation where there hasn’t previously been a culture of open and honest feedback the Appraisal360 process may be the first time that individuals have received honest feedback about their performance and behaviour.

Providing appropriate support for that feedback is therefore essential to ensure the process has a positive impact.

Case study

I recently supported a government department who wanted to prepare a number of middle managers for a management training course. The HR team recognised that open feedback had not been a feature of the organisation and that as a result many of the managers who were due to attend the training programme would not fully recognise the ways in which they needed to change their management practice. The purpose of the Appraisal360 process was therefore to prepare them by helping them to understand more about how their management practice impacted on those around them.

We used the Appraisal360 Middle Manager Questionnaire as this was a good fit with the competencies that the training programme was designed to develop.

Jeff had been employed by the department for most of his working life and had risen up through the ranks through internal promotion. At the time of receiving his Appraisal360 report he was in his early 50s and operating as a Regional Manager with 6 Managers reporting into him.

The people he chose as his respondents were very slow to complete the questionnaire, needing a few reminders. One of them made a point of ringing the office and asking for reassurance that her feedback wouldn’t be attributed to her name. I guess alarm bells should have started to ring at that stage.

My heart sank when I read his Appraisal360 report. In his self-assessment Jeff clearly saw himself as having very strong leadership qualities and being able to inspire and motivate others. He described himself as “a great motivator” whose team was successful, regularly exceeding targets.

Whilst feedback from his line manager was in agreement with his self-assessment, feedback from his other respondents variously described him in less positive ways including:

“he’s a bully”

“he constantly harasses staff about targets”

“I’ve had to take time off sick with stress because of the way he speaks to me”

“I’m desperate to find another job because I can’t cope with him as my manager” 

My practice is always to support people’s feedback with a face to face feedback session to help them to interpret their feedback report. This is particularly important in organisations where open and frank feedback has not been the norm.

At Jeff’s feedback session I began by introducing the concept of feedback as I always do. In this introduction I stress that looking into the mirror is difficult for most people and can result in differences in perception. I suggested that if he comes across feedback in his report where their view of themselves differs from others’ view of them, they should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is their perception a reality – could they be right?
  • If not, what might have caused this perception?
  • Does it matter – how important is it for you to change this perception? 

I asked Jeff to talk to me generally about how he felt he performed as a manager, what his management style was and what he was expecting to see in his Appraisal360 report. He described himself as being “a strong leader…good motivator…someone who inspires confidence”.

I recognised that I needed to manage his expectations by indicating that his report contained challenging feedback. I reminded him that it’s ok to disagree with the feedback given but that he should consider how to shift the perception of others.

On reading his report Jeff became quite distressed. He couldn’t understand why, in 20 years of management, no one had ever given him this sort of feedback before. He truly believed that the behaviour described by others as bullying was him being strong, motivational and inspiring.

We established that his various line managers over the years had used similar styles and that he had modelled his behaviour on theirs (hence why he’d never received any feedback to indicate that he should do things differently) and that the style he was using had always resulted in excellent results).

We agreed that because he was upset we would speak again on the phone a couple of days later. We also agreed how he would cope with working with his colleagues in the meantime.

When we spoke later he’d had a chance to assimilate the feedback and was able to acknowledge how his behaviour could have been misinterpreted by others. This allowed him to acknowledge that he needed to change his behaviour in order to change people’s perceptions without having to admit to being wrong for all those years. This was really important to his self-esteem.

The outcome of this process was that he attended the training course with a much clearer understanding of the impact of his behaviour was having on others, and an appreciation of the need to modify it. During the training course we enlisted the help of colleagues within the group to give him feedback whenever they felt that his behaviour was becoming inappropriate. It was a challenging couple of days for him but his feedback after the course was that he had begun to understand which aspects of his behaviour tended to upset people and how he needed to behave differently.

Tips for delivering challenging feedback

Remember that receiving feedback can open a Pandora’s Box of Emotions for the recipient – these could include:

  • Feeling angry
  • Feeling upset, hurt, disliked
  • Wanting to get their own back
  • Feeling they don’t deserve it
  • Being in denial (It’s not true or It’s not relevant)
  • Arguing that it’s not how they normally behave

Ask for their reactions using questions like:

  • What do you think / feel about your feedback?
  • Was it different from / the same as you expected?
  • Were there any surprises?

Explore what the report is actually saying:

  • Does the individual’s view of themselves match how others see them?
  • Is there something in the narrative that might account for the responses?
  • Is there one negative which they are focusing on within an overall positive report?

Help them to understand that the report is dealing with perceptions

  • Help them to understand that looking into the mirror is difficult
  • Ask them if other people’s perception might be right
  • If not, get them to consider what might have caused this perception
  • And if the mis-perception matters – how important is it for them to change that perception?

When discussing feedback

  • Focus on the positives first (but beware of what’s known as the S*** Sandwich!)
  • Be specific and direct rather than general and long-winded
  • Focus on behaviour that they can do something about – not personality
  • Use observation and perception statements such as:
    • I notice that…
    • I get the feeling that…
    • I wonder if…
    • I’m sensing that…
    • I feel that…
    • It looks to me as if…

So in summary, don’t be alarmed about supporting clients with challenging feedback in their Appraisal360 report. Helping our clients to acknowledge and accept their feedback is the first critical step in helping them to improve their performance. With the right approach even the most challenging of feedback can be viewed positively if it results in positive change.

Jacqui Burke

September 2013

Jacqui Burke is Director of People Development business Flourishing People and uses Appraisal360 in support of her coaching activity with middle and senior managers working within a range of organisations.