To put best foot forward, look around

When you want feedback from the boss, at a minimum you can look forward to a performance review. But finding out how you're viewed from the next cubicle, or by the people you oversee, is not so simple.

The higher you ascend on the leadership ladder, the more your effectiveness depends on the perceptions of your colleagues. And the more difficult it becomes for them to tell you honestly when they think you're falling short.

The solution? Be brave and subject yourself to 360-degree feedback: ratings collected confidentially from those you supervise, your peers, and your bosses. To complete the circle, and for comparison's sake, you also rate yourself.

Started three decades ago, 360-degree reviews reached fad stage by the early 1990s. The low quality of some of the surveys and consulting left a number of companies disillusioned, but 360s have since emerged as a mainstream employee-development tool. For $200 to $400 per person, corporations or individuals can hire top-notch companies to guide them through the process.

"Any kind of development, as a leader or as an individual, has to have a starting point - an open and honest look at your own strengths and weaknesses," says Craig Chappelow, a senior manager at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C, a nonprofit group that develops 360-degree feedback surveys and helps people interpret the results.

The prospect of negative feedback makes people nervous, Mr. Chappelow says, but that doesn't outweigh their desire to improve, especially if they plan to compete for higher-level jobs and need to master not just technical skills, but the nuances of relationships as well.

When businesses started using 360-feedback in the 1970s, it was the first time psychological research was applied to determine what kinds of questions would elicit useful feedback for leaders. It's that link to science that sets 360s apart from informal feedback.

"Sometimes people want to be helpful ... but if they don't know what it's like to be an executive, their feedback might not be useful," says Paul Connolly, president of Performance Programs in Old Saybrook, Conn. "A structured 360 highlights what's important."

"Interpersonal savvy" was the category that caught the eye of Erik Ahlgren, president of the Minnesota boat-dock company ShoreMaster, during a recent 360 process. When asked how well he tailors his communication based on others' needs and agendas, he rated himself a 3 on a scale from 1 (deficient ) to 5 (exceptional). But those directly reporting to him gave him a 1.9. There was a similar gap for how well he understands his impact on situations and people.

The challenging part is understanding what those perceptions mean. "It's kind of like reading tea leaves" Mr. Ahlgren says. It's tempting to probe for who is dissatisfied and exactly why, he adds, but that would violate the confidentiality that makes people willing to give their feedback in the first place.

Looking through the lens of the survey, Ahlgren can recall being brusque and putting off a discussion of a project - without realizing that staff might take that to mean it wasn't worth doing. "It's more the subtle signals you're giving off," he says.

The 360-degree feedback is a valuable supplement to the open culture he tries to create, Ahlgren says. "I work at that, but at the same time, I know if I ask someone, 'Am I doing this right?' it's hard for them to say 'No.'"

Organizations also sometimes gather 360 feedback on a large group of managers at once, to help set their training agendas. This year, about 500 supervisors, managers, and officers at Aflac in Columbus, Ga., are undergoing their first reviews by peers and subordinates. The Booth Company in Boulder, Colo., is administering the process. It has three decades of experience with 360s.

"One of the first things the managers will see in the feedback reports is how they compare to tens of thousands of their peers worldwide," says Jim Krause, a senior corporate trainer at Aflac. "We get a very extensive report card."

Most Fortune 500 companies use 360s, but the quality of the surveys available varies widely, says Frank Shipper, a management professor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md.

To do a 360 well, he and other experts say, the consultants and the companies hiring them should build in follow-up support. The person receiving feedback should be able to focus on one or two key changes to make.

"When you think you are good at things and others don't see it that way, it brings people up short sometimes," Chappelow says. But he has rarely seen people react angrily, or even tearfully. "You're kind of the last one to know, but once you get past the blush of it, you have a better idea about how to be effective."

Some people resist because they think it's an attempt to change their personality, he adds, but he assures them that it's a matter of how people perceive their behavior. "Let's say they find out they're blunt and abrasive. My goal is not for them to become Mr. Hug. But maybe they can set a specific goal: 'Stop interrupting Mary in the first hour of your Tuesday morning meeting.'"

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