Do you remember your first job?
My first proper job was in radio. I’d had so much fun at a student radio station that I went for a job with a radio group straight after leaving University.
My boss there was a wonderful mentor, he was up for taking a chance with someone young, inexperienced and enthusiastic. He sent me to Northamptonshire to be part of a small team launching a new station. We were all in our twenties, all untested. It’s kind of astonishing that my boss let us loose with so few constraints. It was great fun.
He gave me lots of advice, including this suggestion for team meetings: “Always start with the negative things, get the bad stuff out the way first, so that you can finish on the positive stuff.”
I took this on board.
So on Wednesday mornings after the breakfast show came off air, we'd all gather - six of us - in a tiny little office and I'd say, “Right, what problems have we got this week? What's not going well that we need to deal with?” And then we’d talk about what was coming up.
Months later, in one Wednesday meeting as normal I said, “what problems have we got this week?”
The gang roll their eyes, look at each other and wait for someone to say something.
And no one says anything…
So I said, “What? Come on…” they throw shifty looks at each other, and then someone says, "Go on Rob, you say it."
Rob pipes up, “Well the thing is Steve, there is a problem... and it's you.”
My ears start ringing and my heart starts pounding. “What do you mean?” I ask, shocked.
“Yes,” says Rob getting into his stride, “did you know that we all meet in the studio in the morning and draw straws for who has to find out what kind of mood you're in?
“You're a nightmare…. one minute you're cracking jokes and being a laugh. The next minute you're all uptight. Shouting. Really angry. Super aggressive. Nasty. We don't know whether we're coming or going. It's horrible working with you Steve. We hate it.”
I was really young. I was really stressed. And I was not very self aware.
“I had no idea,” I said, pausing while the enormity sinks in. “That's quite hard to hear.”
“I really appreciate that you told me… Maybe… er... could we all go away and think about what’s going on?”
Clutching at straws, I manage to come up with a quick plan while desperately wanting to get myself out of the situation: “Why don't we make a list of all the things that are wrong with working here? And then think about what each of us could do, personally and together, to make it better? I'm going to think about that hard too. If everyone writes their thoughts down and emails it in, we can think about it together next week.
But I've actually got another appointment I've got to go, so do you mind if we cut this meeting short because I need to go and see a client.”
I extricate myself and run to my car, feeling very shaken up.
Panic stricken, I rang up my boss, tell him what’s happened and ask if he can help.
He calms me down, and tells me it’s really good that I’d asked everyone to write down what was wrong and what they could do to help make it better. He makes a suggestion: “why don't you add another question: what do you love about working at the radio station?”
So I do that… and the next meeting is totally different. A really positive experience. The air had been cleared. The unsayable had been said and everyone took some responsibility for making things better. Turns out it wasn’t all on me. Though I did need to change some stuff, and be a bit more considered about what I was unconsciously communicating.
When we came to share the stories about what we loved about the station, so much positivity came out and we had a frank and open conversation about everything - we actually became a closer team.
It was a lot easier to talk about stuff after that, and we did really good work together.
I’ve never forgotten this lesson.
Especially the importance of finding out from your colleagues how they experience you, so that you can face up to your weaknesses, grow and change, and all sorts of positive stuff can be released.
But how hard it is to have those conversations!
The problem with 360 feedback reviews
As much as I value the feedback I received back then, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the way workplace feedback has been systemised in more recent times.
One of the things I’m asked to do as a coach is help clients find out how they’re being received by their colleagues - the good and the bad things. If they’re from a larger organisation they might have been directed to complete an annual 360 degree feedback review. This typically involves using off-the-shelf 360 degree feedback software popular with HR teams around the world. The result is a glossy PDF report with lots of scores and bar charts, it might be as much as 75 pages long.
When I’d review these reports in advance of a coaching meeting, I would spend quite a lot of time analysing the bar charts and the scores but I could never quite get my head around what on earth the report meant. What does it actually mean that someone's been scored 5.5 for ‘Actively builds and maintains a professional network’ or they've got a mean value of 4.5 for ‘Seeks to improve systems and processes’?
Once I got into the coaching meeting clients would say things like, "I feel really uncomfortable about this particular question that I've only scored five and a half out of ten on. I really feel it's not fair, I can see that one person scored me a two. I bet I can tell you who it is. They've got it in for me. And if it hadn't scored a two that score would have been six point nine, nearly a seven. So really, I should just ignore this."
I'd be wondering what the point of this conversation was, because we were definitely not talking about their development.
In all of the overwhelming volume of data in the report, I was not getting any sense of what the client’s strengths and weaknesses really were. Or how different people might actually be experiencing them. Instead they were showing a lot of resistance to a set of abstract ratings against an idealised list of perfect management attributes (like “Demonstrates drive and determination” as though they were a bounty hunter on the clock).
Right at the end of each report, there were usually tiny sections where some people tried to give them a piece of advice. Having spent ages trying to understand the data and making lots of notes, I’d read these open comments. They were much easier to understand and always contained a few nuggets of gold. But my clients would always want to focus on the data.
The need for proper conversations
It made it really hard to talk to the client about what could be better or what could be different. Or how they could do this or that, or what they really want in life and why. Things that would make the conversation useful.
I know some people like numbers: they feel scientific. Numbers feel like a hard point of truth. But in my experience they don’t actually help you understand how you are doing.
Numbers reduce something complex and nuanced to something that seems fixed, definite, and objective, when it’s not. Someone will score you a two for “demonstrates drive and determination” and someone else will score you a seven. Which one is true? Well, neither or both of them: different people experience you differently depending on their perspective.
That perspective is coloured by their priorities, experiences, biases, any number of things. You don’t have access to any of that context so the number doesn't tell you anything useful, particularly when it’s shown as a mean score.
Most of the dimensions explored in standard 360’s don’t actually reveal anything about your true competencies or what it is like to work with you as a colleague.
360 reviews should be a way into a conversation. A collection of feedback from your peers, bosses and direct reports to give you an all round view on how you are doing.
So what if we just got rid of all the numbers? What if we simply asked people to share their story of what they notice and what they experience when working with you. If we could get those stories out we could get a lot closer to the really important things that need to be talked about.
Three years ago I decided enough was enough. I didn’t want to get involved in 360 feedback reviews that used numbers. Why reduce something complex and nuanced to something that seems fixed, definite, and objective, when it’s not.
So I started researching tools I could point my clients to use...
It was so disappointing. There are over 43 million Google results for “360 degree feedback tool”. I didn’t look at them all but broadly speaking the tools I found fell into one of three categories:
- They were all about the metrics. These ones seemed to compete with each other on the look of their bar charts, pie charts - or the old favourite spider diagram/radar chart.
- They were made primarily for performance management. Often selling the fact that HR got to see the results before the subject of the feedback.
- They were designed for large organisations. As a coach making an enquiry you’d find out after a long winded sales call that their minimum contract was impossible for you to agree to.
I imagined having a tool of our own.
It would have questions that encouraged people to open up with different perspectives about strengths, about weaknesses, about expectations. It would tell you how you are doing, things you could start or should stop. It would put the subject first ensuring they had complete control over who got to see their feedback. It would cost a fraction of the fee I charge for a coaching session.
I really wanted to build our own tool but we didn’t have the skills or resources to do it. And I was very mindful of the risks associated with new software projects.
So I went for a low-fi option. I wrote a series of questions designed to prompt a colleague, a manager or a report to really think about what feedback or advice will help you. And we just built it in a Typeform survey. The questions we used resulted in some incredible outcomes for the people who used it. But we found ourselves with an admin nightmare on our hands, and an inbox nightmare for people participating.
Initially the subjects of the 360 could simply send the feedback form directly to their nominated participants themselves but that resulted in two problems:
- They’d have to remember to remind people, or we’d have to chase them to chase their participants.
- Nominees felt exposed to the subject, raising fears their feedback might not be anonymous, and in some cases they felt irritation towards the subject if they were hounded by reminders.
Giving our clients the job of chasing their participants didn’t sit well with us. It can be a stressful enough experience as it is without adding more to people’s full to do lists.
And while many leaders strive to create high-trust cultures where anonymous feedback isn’t necessary, the reality is that it's extremely rare for 100% of people to feel safe to speak their mind and sign their name. So we believe 360 feedback is best when it’s anonymous - that helps people feel safe enough to be honest.
Addressing the issues
We took some time to address these issues using web based tools to manage all the steps. We took version 2 to a couple of our larger clients and deployed it in some quite large groups.
And we discovered these reports - these 360’s done well - can be very powerful.
What we got was incredibly rich feedback that led to properly good development conversations. Once we dropped the pretence of objectivity it became really hard to avoid something negative and argue it away as a statistical anomaly. Our tool brought together a range of different perspectives. All of them were true, and none of them alone would be definitive. When several of the narratives correlated it had real weight, for good or bad. Where experiences diverged they helped make sense of unexpected responses, gave some clues about alternative ways to do things.
I found we could actually talk about how and why people experience you in a certain way, whether there were things to stop doing, whether there were strengths that weren’t being acknowledged. Sometimes even what your purpose really was, where you were heading, and what you really wanted. These were much more profound conversations. And they were genuinely helpful. These 360’s were helping people develop themselves, not measuring them against a sterile ideal of excellence.
Whether that be the client who learned that people didn’t believe them capable of managing others because of their rigid style. They came to understand how others experienced them, which gave them options to try alternative ways to communicate. Within a year they had left to lead a team to great success.
Or the example of a client who received clear feedback that they were experienced as brutal and diminishing by others. Though painful to hear, this led to a clearer understanding of what triggered the behaviour and a constructive conversation with their manager about pressure and workload. We explored strategies to use in the moment so they could more consistently be the person they wanted others to experience.
Then there’s the person who was wracked with self doubt who was blown away by the strength of appreciation and respect felt by colleagues. They came to see themselves differently and their confidence grew.
By using narrative and not numbers, the result is a really considered 360 report. We also noticed that people are really considerate. They are candid but respectful, appreciative as well as unflinching about concerns. It was clear that people were putting time and care into their responses: saying what needed to be said whilst remaining supportive and constructive. You can read the questions we used to achieve this here.
As a consultant friend found when he tried it, it's not always easy to hear some of the feedback. But I've yet to see anyone get a review that is all glowing whitewash or saying only how brilliant they are. None of us is perfect. There's always room for improvement and actually being open and able to think about that is really helpful.
And the reports do contain a lot of warmth and good stuff. You can bask in the glory of how great you are, but this is the warmth of friends and colleagues who also feel safe enough to say, “actually yes, Steve, you're great, but it is really annoying that you do this, or that you don't do that.”
And if you could work on those things, my goodness, the things you could achieve.
Developing a solution
At this point the tool wasn't seamless. In the early days we had to do quite a lot of holding buckets under the leaks to make it work. As we used it more and more we were increasingly frustrated by some aspects of it:
- We had to do a couple of hours of setup for each client or group of clients. That’s time that could have been spent coaching people or taking a break from our computers.
- We had to keep a close eye on it at every step of the process to make sure it wasn’t sending too many reminder emails. Knowing we (as non-technical people) were responsible for that working correctly and securely resulted in my waking up in cold sweats on too many occasions.
- Once the feedback was in there we still had a manual step to create the PDF reports. Our freelance developer was available to turn these around quickly enough but I worried that one day we wouldn’t get the timing right and I’d have to reschedule a coaching session.
But the worst thing about it was that there wasn’t an easy way to share what we had created with people who weren’t our clients. Have you ever had the experience of someone breaking a formula in a shared spreadsheet? The potential for upset with a system like we had setup was even worse. And given the sensitivity of people’s responses we couldn’t take that risk with it.
I thought back to all those off-the-shelf tools I’d researched, and imagined what I would have purchased in a heartbeat. What I wanted was:
- To take away all the admin of running a 360 feedback review.
- To know that everyone’s data and email addresses were in safe hands.
- To know that a report filled with rich, qualitative feedback would be ready whenever we needed it.
And, critically, it should be available and affordable for anyone to use. No waiting for a sales demo, setup or committing to a long term contract.
Need to use it just for yourself? No problem. Have one or two client’s that would benefit from it? Go for it. Want to run it with your whole team? No need to bother the procurement department about it!
Last year I shared all this with Jonathan Markwell. I’ve known Jon for over a decade. He’s a software developer turned CTO and has been instrumental in the creation of three profitable software businesses - CoverageBook, AnswerThePublic and Vestd. It turned out he was working on a new project that was a perfect fit for what I wanted to create.
Long story short, together we built version 3. It’s called AdviceSheet - 360 degree feedback reviews done right.
With AdviceSheet you can:
- Set up a 360 degree feedback review for yourself, a client or a team in a couple of minutes. Don’t take our word for it. Start a stopwatch and head over to AdviceSheet.com. You don’t even need a credit card to start inviting people in.
- Sit back and relax while you wait for feedback to come in. Gentle email reminders reassure participants that their responses are anonymous. We’re seeing more high-quality feedback than ever before.
- Focus on the honest conversations people most need. With the mechanics of gathering feedback done for you, you can concentrate on the most important part of 360 feedback. Coaching to help you, your clients and your teams to become more effective.
It wasn’t enough for Jon to build the software. He also put himself up as a guinea pig… and wrote about it.
“The answers were heavy and humbling. 39 pages packed with insights and advice. I was warned in advance that it wouldn't make easy reading… I was mortified by the language used in some areas while being blown away by the positivity in others.”
You can read Jon’s experience of asking 46 of his closest colleagues for feedback here: https://jonathanmarkwell.com/a-360-of-me
Now we know that it works and that it’s really good, we’ve gone ahead and built the service out properly - led by our new CTO, Jon Markwell. We’ve called it AdviceSheet and it’s available for you to try here.
AdviceSheet has since been used by teams at The University of Oxford, Bristol City Council and Breathe. Breathe loved it so much they also added it to their marketplace of HR tools.
AdviceSheet surveys are easy to use, though they do take a little effort to take part in. Good questions are not necessarily easy to answer. You can’t knock out your feedback in five minutes. This is really important stuff and deserves considered attention.
It’s attention that’s worth giving.
Steve recently co-hosted a recorded webinar with Breathe's CEO, Jonathan Richards, about the importance of feedback in the workplace, where they discussed many of the themes and points raised in this article.
Posted on 3 March, 2021