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White Paper #2

The Uses and Abuses of 360° Feedback Assessments Within a Performance System Model

The rapidly changing global economy dictates needs for organizations to adapt to market conditions and to continuously improve their products and services. The challenge for trainers is to provide training that is relevant and cost-effective. Trainers can only meet these needs by collecting relevant data to identify training needs compared to the organization’s mission and goals; to measure the effects of the training: and to analyze the outcomes of training compared to broader organizational outcomes. Training based on a performance system model can help meet these needs.

Although there is currently a wealth of research illustrating the effectiveness of a performance system model to enhance training and on-the-job performance, practices based on these research findings are neither widely nor systematically adapted. In fact there is often resistance to the idea of behavioral or human perforn1ance technology.

At the same time, there is rising interest related to 360° feedback assessments and their use for providing feedback about job-related behaviors to individuals and teams. The problem is that such assessments are based on the perceptions of people as reported through a paper and pencil instrument, rather on data collected on observable, measurable behaviors.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss if and how to use 360° feedback assessments within a performance system model. The following questions are addressed:

  • What is a performance system model and why is it significant to trainers and consultants?
  • What attitudinal barriers interfere with the use of performance-based training systems?
  • What are 360° feedback assessments and how are they useful in overcoming barriers?
  • What are possible abuses of 360° feedback assessment?
  • How can trainers and consultants effectively use 360° feedback assessments within a performance system model?

What is a Performance System Model and why is it significant to trainers/consultants?
A performance system model incorporates theories of general systems and behavioral analysis. This framework allows for systematic analysis of the factors influencing the system as a whole. There is an emphasis on: 1) the collection and use of timely and relevant outcome data for problem-solving and decision-making, and 2) feedback used with positive reinforcement to effect behavior change and self-management.

The performance system modc1 is useful for trainers. consultants, and managers because it works. For over 30 years, researchers and trainers have described the benefits of a performance system model (Brethower,1964,197L Brethower and Smalley. 1992; Daniels. 1989; Gilbert, 1978: Odiorne. 1965: RummIer & Brache. 1995: Stolovitch ands Keeps, 1992). There is clear evidence that a performance system model provides valuable tools for identifying training needs. deve1oping and delivering training, ensuring integration of training within the work environment. and effecting positive changes on-the-job. Training based on a systems model helps to maximize productivity at the individual. group, and organizational level. and helps the organization adapt to rapidly changing markets.

An adaptive performance system is comprised of components that are interrelated. interactive and form a whole (See Figure I, Markel. 1974). The components include:

  • inputs (i.e.. settings, expectations, goals. resources, mission)
  • processing system(s) (i.e., persons, tasks. processes) outputs (i.e., tasks or observed results)
  • receiving system(s) (i.e., those who receive the outcome, products and services)
  • internal and external feedback (i.e., performance-based information about progress towards a goal and the significance of that performance to those receiving the performance/outcome

Figure 1: A Performance System Model (Markel, 1974).
Fig. 1: A Performance System Model (Markel, 1974)

Woven throughout the system are consequences. These are the positive or negative effects experienced by individuals, teams, or the entire organization as they work towards or accomplish their goals. Research studies indicate that feedback is a critical element to consider but that feedback in combination with positive consequences helps to maximize performance (Balcazar, Hopkins and Suarez, 1985: lIgen, Fisher, and Taylor, 1979; Chapanis, 1964).

People in organizations report that they do not receive adequate feedback on their performance. They lack specific, timely, and relevant information for decision making and problem-solving. This lack of adequate feedback tends to thwart an organization’s attempts at training for continuous improvement.

The trainer’s role within a performance system model is to focus on performance, as defined by observable and measurable behavior. Using long- and short-term data on performance and system outcomes, trainers assess needs, analyze performance problems, design training, and measure progress towards goals.

By using performance data as a guide there can be a closer fit between training and the requirements of job responsibilities. Training is aligned to the mission of the larger system and integrated within the job environment.

The trainer’s responsibility is to design training based on relevant feedback and to show the benefits and positive consequences of training at the individual. team, and organization levels. The manager’s or executive’s responsibility is to ensure that positive consequences occur following the positive outcomes of training. Thus. training and management efforts are aligned and are most likely to yield maximized performance.

What attitudinal barriers interfere with the use of perfonnance-based training?
Many people in the work force are antagonistic to a systems, performance, or data-based approach to training for various reasons:

  • Some people do not like an analytical approach. They feel hampered and slowed down by a step-by-step process. These are people who prefer holistic and non-sequential approaches to problem-solving and training.
  • Some people are inclined to think of themselves “people persons.” They believe that if people can learn to get along, then the job will get done.
  • Some people do not like the language of a performance system model. The jargon (i.e., systems, inputs) mystifies them or turns them off as too mechanistic.
  • Some people are uncomfortable with numbers or any hint of measurement, appraisal or accountability. They feel that data can be used against them. that performance of significant behaviors can not be quantified or measured, and that improvements or change can not be attained no matter what.

There are negative attitudes that interfere with the effective use of a performance system model even within the ranks of those who advocate its’ use. For example, there are some people who are analytical thinkers or who are more comfortable dealing with numbers and tasks than with dealing with other persons. With the push towards teamwork and customer service, some of these people lack polished skills in the area of interpersonal interactions. They may be comfortable with a performance system model but uncomfortable with measuring or teaching social skills. Such attitudes pose barriers to the full implementation of a performance system model. If feedback and positive reinforcement are keys to improving performance, then social skills training is an important training objective. even for otherwise competent persons who prefer to avoid such training.

Trainers and consultants have a model that works. How do they market the performance system model? How can it be introduced to those who reject it out of hand? How can social skills training be viewed as valuable to those who prefer the more objective world of numbers? How do trainers and consultants show the relationship between “soft” skills and system performance? How can interpersonal skills be measured and the results of such assessments be integrated with other feedback?

360° feedback assessments may provide way to address these questions. Such assessments may provide an introduction to the use of feedback for people who label themselves either as “people” persons or “numbers” persons.

What are 360° feedback assessments and how are they useful within a perfornIance system model?
360° feedback assessments or multi-rater/multi-level feedback assessments are questionnaires, usually in the form of multiple-choice questions, that ask people to assess an individual’s behaviors in certain key areas. Persons are asked to rate the perceived effectiveness of themselves, their teams, and their leaders. Information is collected about self- and other’s perceptions. Interviews may augment the survey. Some 360° feedback assessments include surveys and/or interviews with those outside of the organization such as suppliers and customers.

Reports are generated and distributed to individuals and teams. The reports usually include summaries of the findings for a number of job categories such as problem solving, planning, managing self, managing others. and communicating. The reports provide lists of greatest strengths and vulnerabilities and provide recommendations for the improvement of individuals and teams. Summaries of the results are often illustrated using computer-generated, color-coded graphs. For example, one company provides reports including a set of graphs that summarize the findings about the team and each team member. The profiles are compared to each other and to a norm group composed of previous clients. (Teamware. 1995).

Figure 2: An example of a Team Profile Generated from a 360 degree Feedback Assessment
Fig. 2: An example of a Team Profile Generated from a 360° Feedback Assessment (Teamware 1995)

Some advantages of 360° feedback assessments are that they are easy to administer, attempt to deal with specific areas of behavior. both analytical and interactive, and arc relatively inexpensive. The reports to individuals and teams provide a direct message that can act as a catalyst for change, an objective for general training, or as a basis for self-development. Unlike performance appraisals, these assessments provide feedback to and from peers, and direct reports and are not tied to pay or promotion.

There are some major disadvantages to 360° feedback assessments. Unlike the information collected within a performance system model. the information gathered from multi-rater assessments is based on what others think or perceive about behavior not actual data on performance. The directions on surveys may ask participants to comment about the frequency, effectiveness or importance of specific behaviors but the behaviors are not defined or analyzed as they would be by a behavioral technologist.

Despite the disadvantages associated with 360° feedback assessments, they should be considered as one source of feedback within a performance system model. These multi-rater assessments may open doors to a population of the work force that would not otherwise be examining the behavioral aspects of their performance in any quantifiable way. For example, the use of 360° feedback assessments may provide opportunities to examine and provide feedback on the “soft skills” of leaders and their teams. The nature of the feedback, including color coded.


Figure 3: An example of a Team Member Profile Generated From a 360 Degree Feedback Assessment
Fig. 3: An example of a Team Profile Generated from a 360° Feedback Assessment (Teamware 1995)

Many training programs designed to improve social or communication skills are too general in nature. They are not tied closely to job situations and tasks. Multi-rater assessments can highlight specific skills that are in need of improvement (i.e., providing positive feedback on performance to team members). Training becomes more cost-effective when performance gaps and needs are pinpointed and tied to specific jobs or team projects.

360° feedback assessments can help trainers and consultants to have a set of “soft skills” directly related to the job situation. to identify training needs from such assessments and then to compare those needs with needs identified by data collected on actual performance and productivity outcomes. The visual representation of the results of questions can be used as a marketing tool to introduce measurement of social skills to “people persons”, invite numbers-oriented persons to look at the effect that interpersonal skills may have on their performance,and compare information from 360° assessments with other information.

What are possible abuses of 360 feedback assessment?
The possible abuses of 360° feedback assessments arc similar to the possible abuses of any evaluative system.

The questionnaires may not be based on a sound, well researched theoretical model or they may not actually measure what is purported to be measured. The individual items may not describe specific, observable behaviors. may focus primarily on negative behaviors or ask about behaviors not directly experienced by the person answering the questions.

The results may not be shared with participants or the results may be used as the sole indicator of progress towards goals. The results may take on an undeserved credibility because they are reported using graphs and norms. There may be inadequate safeguards to respondent confidentiality. and the use of the results may be as an evaluation tool rather than a feedback tool.

The reports, may be too simplistic to provide significant insights or too long or complex to understand. They may lack a focus on more positive or important aspects of job performance, may provide profiles that are statistically inaccurate. or may interpret data inappropriately (i.e., exaggerate the strengths or weaknesses that are not in the average range). Other problems may exist. The reports may not clearly identify feedback from different perspectives, provide recommendations or options for sel£lteam development, and explain who were included in the samples of the population employed to create the norms.

The process may be flawed during the collection phase. For example, the purposes and goals for the assessment may unclear. some people may be excluded from the planning while others may feel coerced into participation. In addition, there may be inadequate information about how the process will be implemented or what consequences may result from its’ use.

During the reporting phase there may be inadequate time to discuss results. Sometimes a trained facilitator is unavailable to help with interpretations or the appropriate or integrated use of the information gained from interviews. Also, norms may be devised using samples of the population unlike the population of participants who are completing the questionnaires. Lastly, participants may not be provided with resources. training opportunities. or coaches to help them enhance performance.

There are a variety of problems and potential abuses related to the use of 360° assessments or any survey which asks for opinions. Any assessment instrument, even those that are well-researched, may be used inappropriately. Those who administer evaluative instruments are responsible for protecting the rights of the participants and using the information in a professional and sensitive manner. When abuses occur, however. often it is not the instrument that is flawed, but it is the person or the process that has failed.

How can trainers and consultants effectively use 360° feedback assessments within a performance system model?
To effectively use 360° assessments within a performance system model. trainers and consultant need to avoid abuses and follow some basic guidelines.

  • Avoid Jargon
  • Believe the phrase, “One picture is worth a thousand words.” First, be ready to sketch or have a graphic depicting a performance system model. Second. have sample reports of individual and team profiles generated from a 360° feedback assessment. Words are often inadequate to explain the components of a systems model or the relationship between self, other’s view, and team averages as described in a 360° assessment feedback report.
  • Do your homework. Familiarize yourself with a variety of multi-rater assessments (i.e., Bracken. 1993; Lepsinger & Lucia, 1997 : Yuki & Lepsinger, 1995), review existing instruments (i.e., Van Velsor & Leslie. 1991, 1997), read what the experts say about the selection of assessments (i.e., Van Velsor & Wall, 1992), and analyze implementation strategies (i.e.. Ward 1997; Jones & Bearsley, 1996: Shaver. 1995).
  • Focus on the behavioral outcomes that are needed/desired and identify the feedback that provides information about progress to these goals.
  • Consider the benefits of 360° feedback assessments. Remember that what people think is important. Although 360° feedback assessments are based on perceptions about behavior, information yielded by these multi-rater/multi-level assessments can provide insights and a way of introducing the use of feedback within a systems model.
  • Remember the potential problems of 360° feedback assessments. Such assessments provide information about how people perceive themselves and others at one point in time as assessed with a paper and pencil instrument.
  • Avoid using anyone measure as the sole basis for problem-solving and decision-making. Collect feedback on performance and outcomes from a variety of sources.
  • Discuss the components of a performance system. Ask to see a statement of mission. values and goals. Ask if and how performance feedback is used. Ask if and how other indicators of job performance are used (i.e., customer service surveys, performance appraisals, 360° feedback assessments). Discuss the competing values, demands and consequences within and between systems. Ask about progress towards organizational goals and the most effective aspects of training efforts thus far.
  • Discuss studies describing the effectiveness of performance-based training projects and illustrate ways in which performance-based systems can be used for problem-solving and decision-making.

Following these guidelines, 360° feedback assessments can be an effective tool for trainers and consultants who wish to deal with the attitudinal barriers surrounding the use of a performance system model.