360 Feedback: A Transformational Approach by Elva R Ainsworth – A Review

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I have to say at the outset that 360° Feedback is a book that has surprised me; I was expecting a somewhat dour and tedious tome, but instead I have found a wonderfully informative book with many outstanding features. To name a few of them: the book is thorough, erudite, fluent, insightful, practical, compassionate as well as being passionate – Elva is a true advocate of the 360° Feedback process; not only has she read deeply in and around the topic, but she has also, as her text makes clear, done some serious work with serious organisations in enabling them to gain considerable benefits from the process. On top of all that, Elva has a real talent for one-liners or one sentence that perfectly encapsulates the core of what she wants to say. For example, “Acceptance of things the way they are is the route to happiness and satisfaction”, or “if you are highly commercial, for instance, you are highly unlikely to be very empathic”. This is a very direct and effective style of writing.

So what does the book cover? There are 11 chapters and we start with understanding change and what the conditions are for true, transformational change. Some of this may be familiar, but sometimes it is necessary to go back to basics: be clear on intentions, understand forces of resistance, design the intervention that leads to change that sticks – because it forms new actions, new habits. But from this base we move into 360° Feedback in chapter two and what it provides: data. Citing Craig Mundie, “Data is becoming the new raw material of business”, she goes on to identify the kind of data that works – that works at triggering effective change. For HR this data must be: Reliable, Valid, Credible, and Opinions, which a ‘well-constructed 360° tool’ provides, must comply with these three criteria. Step by step Ainsworth draws out the implications of data: what does it tell us, and what does it mean should be done? Alongside this, there is also plenty of illustrations of the kind of distortions that creep into data analysis, and which must be resisted.

Chapter 3 goes into the deeper philosophy of 360° Feedback and it is great to report that Ainsworth’s reading is not just the usual management suspects; she has read widely across a whole range of fields, so that, for example, Ken Wilbur becomes a frequently quoted guiding light in her deliberations. Then in chapter 4 we learn how to construct a 360° feedback assessment tool. There is some fabulous advice and insight in this chapter and anyone in HR or elsewhere seriously wanting to construct their own assessment must read this chapter. For example, the advice on the number of questions likely to be useful in covering a competency: 12 for leadership being a minimum but still too many, so then how to go back and re-define the competence. This chapter is quite brilliant in enabling the reader to understand how a 360° Feedback tool needs to be constructed.

Now the focus shifts: in Chapter 5-7 we consider how the feedback makes the individual subject feel, for if they are left feeling negative, then the whole process has become counter-productive. This is a huge issue; for it will come as no surprise that it is very easy for human beings to take a dim view of the process that is being done to them. We come to explore Ainsworth’s best techniques for preventing mishap, then. Effectively, the advice is really relevant not just to consultants, but all managers and coaches who have to feedback any aspect of an individual’s performance, but in this case it is specifically feedback from all across the organisation. There are too many good ideas to cover in this short review, but perhaps for me the most striking observation are the ones about the double-sided coin of listening and asking good questions. Doing this kind of work really does require advanced interpersonal skills, including the ability not to be phased under pressure.

Chapters 8-9 explore how the data can be misinterpreted and what to do about it. Finally, in chapters 10-11 we cover getting buy in from a ‘partner in the cause’, preferably someone senior; and a chapter on getting us to realise that unless 360° Feedback is integrated into some higher purpose is will not fulfil its potential for the organisation. It is in other words a feature contributing – hopefully – towards a much bigger benefit. All in all, then, a fabulous book.

That said though, I have to say that I have 3 reservations, not about the book per se, but about 360° Feedback generally; the book does not remove my reservations.

First, 360° Feedback seems to me, despite the claim that it can be done for ‘nothing’ – “It can be delivered at no cost” – an incredibly expensive undertaking. Forget even the cost of consultants and do it yourself, still the time taken to construct a really effective – reliable, valid, credible – instrument would be enormous; time taken to brief and get buy-in would be even more; and then we have all the time taken getting people to report on each other; and then the time taken to analyse the results and ensure correct data interpretation; followed by feedback and implementation itself. Phew! I mean, who can afford all this?

And second, I dislike 360° Feedback for another reason: namely, it seems to me a usurpation of the manager’s central function – to give feedback to his/her team members in order either to improve performance or enhance personal/career development. Why are we paying managers to do that if we need 360° Feedback to cover its tracks? Put another way, why aren’t the managers better? It’s as if we have a problem but rather than tackling the real problem we sort out another one instead.

But third, and this is where the book alas – because it is so good – only reinforces my prejudice: you need a PhD to implement 360° Feedback!!! How the everyday HR professional can find the time to master all the knowledge and skills they are going to need to make this happen flies in the face of reality so far as I am concerned. Sure, there will be those few – as there are for some a-typical psychometric or other esoteric tool or idea – who will love this stuff: indeed, getting their CEO to sign off on it will all be part of their own personal development programme – job done – but I cannot see this ever becoming mainstream as dynamic as it potentially is.

Thus, I conclude that this is a wonderful book, well worth reading, and mining for good ideas, but I am sceptical as to whether this really is a viable solution for any organisation (unless it has very deep pockets) to use to transform itself. There are other, I think, more effective tools, but here’s to Elva Ainsworth: I love her expertise and her enthusiasm, they are very contagious!

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