Mugged by 360 degree Feedback

Mugged by 360o Feedback

Frank Wagner, PhD

Have you ever been assailed by a gang on the street?  Feedback from all sides, in the form of 360o feedback, can feel akin to such a confrontation.  Surrounded on the street, the more vocal assailants seem downright combative.  Other gang members appear bored, yet still dangerous.  A few seem amused.  The one thing all members of the gang share in common is anonymity from their prey.  This is not unlike the respondents to a leadership survey.  In the business of providing leadership feedback one of the paramount rules is protection of the identity of the respondents (which, by the way, is how it should be).

Now, it should be pointed out, not everyone receiving a report on their leadership behavior are roughed up by the experience.  Probably an equal number of people receive the exact opposite type of feedback.  Their experience more closely parallels a celebration.  The primary outcome from this coronation is a commemoration of leadership excellence.  People receiving such data have their own challenges when it comes to planning next steps.  But, that’s the topic of another article.

Obviously, for the vast majority of recipients of the 360o feedback process, the results are neither life threatening nor a coronation.  They are somewhere in the middle.  Some of the feedback is positive and encouraging.  Other aspects are less favorable than would be preferred, even if expected.  What this article focuses on helping those who are, or at least feel, they were mugged by their data.  And, this is aimed for those who are in a position to help someone who has just received hard to swallow feedback.

Why spend the time with these few people?  Thirty years of consulting supports the viewpoint that your most memorable, and satisfying, experiences come from helping people perceived as poor leaders make a fresh start.  Helping someone make a seemingly “miraculous” recovery is not miraculous at all.  It is hard work.  At the critical point of receiving devastating feedback, what can the H.R. professional do to help with a genuine turn around?  Here are seven suggestions.

  1. Build in enough “soak time.” When 360o feedback is provided at a training program, there is often an expectation of developing an action plan during the training program.  This is an unrealistic process for someone who is not ready to accept, and deal, with their feedback.  This is to be expected by anyone receiving very low scores.  The goal of the 360o feedback process is to jump start a positive change in a leader.  Until someone reaches a certain “will to change,” planning is premature.  It may be wise to switch the task from the action planning process the rest of the class is following to a more thorough investigation into why people might be reacting so negatively to the leaders behavior.


  1. Coach the person on what “not to” do. Often, when receiving poor results, the mugged person winds up acting in inappropriate ways.  Do not assume they know what to do when they go back to work.  What are the key actions not to take?  Do not ask those who gave feedback to break their anonymity.  Do not ask them about the opinions of other people.  Do not joke about the process?   Do not complain, or make excuses, about the feedback.  Do not seek revenge (unless you want people to lower their scores even more).  Revenge is a powerful motivator.  One task you have is to ensure this does not happen.  Even when the person is not so motivated, others in the workplace may think so.


  1. Counterbalance the feeling of isolation created by the poor feedback. Everyone wants to feel special.  With a sizable amount of negative data, a person often feels misunderstood, undervalued, derailed from their normal productive outlook, and completely without any outside support. Emotionally, they feel drained.  It takes a lot of energy to swallow negative feedback.  The antidote?  Make them feel special.  Commit more time to them.  Open your calendar and slot them in for extra time and attention.  Nothing communicates a person is important than the genuine commitment of time.


  1. Focus their attention on the “whole” picture. Human nature seems drawn to the bad news.  Our focus gravitates to the low scores and gives them a disproportionate amount of attention.  Whether the scales used to provide feedback are effectiveness, frequency, or satisfaction the mugged person fails to recognize that the scores are not a universal indictment but made up of a distribution of responses.  Not everyone landed blows.  It is very beneficial to have the person force their attention on the positive news within their report.  Require equal air-time for exploring the higher scoring areas.  Sometimes you have to physically put your hand over the low scores and divert attention and focus to what the critics said “good” about the person.


  1. Appeal to their higher instincts. Very quickly in the process you want to remind the receiver of poor results that what he, or she, does next is more important than all the behavior leading up to their current report.  Responding in a positive manner to negative results is the sign for everyone to take notice of real leadership.  Why?  It requires courage to face the music.  It requires honesty and admitting past mistakes?   It signals a visible commitment to change?  As Woody Hayes, the legendary football coach was fond of saying: “If it comes easy, it’s not worth a darn.”  Remind the mugged person that getting up now is an opportunity to show what they are truly made of, what their character really is.


  1. Get more into the details of action planning. Do not go to delegation with action planning.  Set up a series of meetings to discuss what steps the mugged person will take.  One meeting is rarely enough.  The plan to implement will not likely be perfect.  An iterative process will allow for debriefing early parts of the plan and revisions based on what has, and hasn’t, worked.  Be willing to provide specific suggestions on what to do with whom.  On critical steps be willing to rehearse how it will be done.


  1. Build in quicker follow-up. With most 360o feedback, the business of follow-up is rather loosely handled.  This is unfortunate.  Feedback is the key.  Some organizations do provide a formal resurvey 6 to 12 months later.  When someone feels mugged, it is paramount to build in success much sooner.  Work out a plan that will provide structured feedback very quickly.  A formal review within a few months may provide a wealth of needed reinforcement.  Personally, you may want to invest some time in the mugged person’s workplace drumming up support for the change the person is trying to make.


Enlist others on the mugged person’s team to actively look for success and provide immediate reinforcement.

When the organization experiences positive change in behavior from a very unlikely, often written off as never to improve, leader the spillover can be highly contagious. The streets are safer for everyone. Old baggage gets thrown away.  Gangs disappear. People start seeing new possibilities.  The whole culture feels more compelling and attractive.  It all starts because someone who appeared to be mugged was actually helped.