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Teamwork and the Problem with 360 Feedback

By Patrick Lencioni - June 2017

Many leaders who have the best of intentions for making their teams stronger resort to doing a 360 feedback program. So they bring in a consultant who distributes surveys to team members, asking them to provide input about their manager and their peers. A few weeks later, those team members receive the results of those surveys from the consultant, and more often than not, everyone is left disappointed. I know because I’ve been involved in these kinds of programs myself throughout my career. And in many cases, the problems on the team actually got worse rather than better.

Here’s why.

First, it takes too long. This is a problem because it gives team members too much time to think about their input and to wonder what kind of input they’re going to get from others. It often becomes a game of “I’m going to say this about him, because I think he’s going to say this about me.” Or perhaps, “I don’t want to be too harsh about her, because I don’t want her to be too harsh about me.” In either case, honesty and truth suffer and politics can arise.

Second, it seems too formal. Because there is a report and data involved, team members can easily fear that it will be used to evaluate them in regard to promotions or compensation. This only contributes to the problems I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Third, it provides too much information. At the end of the process, team members are presented with a list of areas for improvement, forcing them to have to choose between disparate areas for development, instead of focusing on the one issue that is most important for them and the team.

Finally, it is handled by an external party. For some reason, we assume that it is better to hear about our challenges and issues from a stranger than from a friend or colleague. In reality, it can be demeaning.

Let me be clear, the basic idea behind 360 feedback is a good one. People need to understand how they are perceived and where they need to improve. And when it is done for individual development purposes, as opposed to team cohesion, a traditional 360 program can be quite useful.

However, when it comes to helping a team, there is a better way. It is faster, cheaper, and most importantly, more effective. In fact, it leaves people feeling closer than ever to the people providing their feedback. We call this better way the “Team Effectiveness Exercise.” It takes about 90 minutes, and we do it at the end of our two-day offsites with clients.

With everyone sitting around a table, we ask team members to write down the one thing that everyone sitting around the table does that makes the team better. We explain that we’re not interested in their technical skills, but rather their behaviors, especially as it pertains to how they interact with members of the team. Next, we ask them to write down the one thing that every other person at the table does that sometimes hurts the team. Again, one thing. The main thing.

Okay, depending on the size of the team, we find that it takes people about 15 or 20 minutes to complete their list. Once everyone has finished, we start with the leader and go around the table asking everyone to reveal, to the leader, what they wrote about his or her primary behavior that best serves the team. Inevitably, the answers are quite similar, and the leader feels quite affirmed in his or her primary strengths. Team members really enjoy giving this feedback, which isn’t a big surprise.

Then, we go in the other direction around the table, asking everyone to tell the leader what he or she does that sometimes derails the team. And this is where we are always surprised. First, the level of candor always exceeds what we would expect. As it turns out, people are far more likely, and comfortable, giving someone direct feedback about their behavior, especially after they have just told them what they appreciate and admire most about them. And the person receiving the feedback is almost never defensive. For one, the answers are almost always consistent, making it difficult for someone to deny the validity of the feedback. Secondly, after having just been affirmed about their strengths, they are reluctant to deny that they have weaknesses. Once everyone has provided their feedback, we ask the leader if he or she has any questions for clarity. Usually they say, “Nope. I think you guys were pretty clear, and I know this is an area of improvement for me. Thanks for the feedback.”

Then we move on to the next member of the team, doing the same thing. And 99.9% of the time, people are overwhelmed by the positive feedback and comfortably convicted by the constructive part. It’s crazy how consistent it is.

About an hour or two later, depending on the size of the team, the exercise is finished and there is a palpable sense of unity, appreciation and even affection among the team members. Team members are offering to help one another and seeking help from eachother in their areas of improvement. And they’re remarking how they’ve never given each other such direct feedback, and felt so good about it.

Why does this work so well?

First, it provides important context. Rather than simply asking team members to describe what they like or don’t like about one another, input is solicited specifically about their behaviors as they relate to the team’s ability to succeed.

Second, the leader goes first. Watching the leader take constructive feedback well, and positive feedback for that matter, makes it hard for others to balk.

Third, it demands that people prioritize the most important strength and weakness, avoiding a dilution of the key message, or the airing of petty issues.

Finally, input is given face-to-face, which actually enhances trust and provides a living example to team members that delivering difficult feedback is not only survivable, but necessary for growing as a team and holding one another accountable.

When would it be better to do a more traditional 360? Perhaps when it is focused on just one person, assuming that person is secure enough to receive it well, and committed to real improvement. Is there ever a time when we don’t recommend doing the Team Effectiveness Exercise? Yes. If there is a distinct lack of trust on the team, or if the leader is not AT ALL capable of being vulnerable, then it is probably not going to work.

But if the leader is generally vulnerable, and if the team has a baseline of trust (taking part in the first day of an off-site often provides that baseline), then this exercise can do wonders to quickly and effectively bring people together around improving individually, and as a team.