Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Four Essentials for Improving Management Performance with 360 Feedback

This summary was written by Diane Byington, Ph.D. and is based on a paper by Frank Shipper, Investigating the Sustainability of a Sustained 360 Process, published in The Best Papers Proceedings of the Academy of Management Annual Meeting, August 7-11, 2009, Chicago, Illinois.

What can an organization do to help managers to improve their management skills through 360 feedback? Are two cycles, or more, of 360 feedback more effective than one?

This research study followed 13,661 middle-level managers of a large multi-national technology-driven firm over approximately 15 years. The managers were divided into four cohorts that participated in 360 feedback between two and four times during the time of the study. The research design used action research, meaning that the research was not an experimental design, but, rather, took place in an ongoing business setting. No attempt was made to randomize participants into various groups, and interventions (with the exception of the 360 feedback tool) changed over time.

The study found that organizations can do four things to improve management performance through 360 feedback: (1) choose a standardized, reliable survey and stick with it over time, (2) maintain active executive participation and support for the process, (3) ask managers to take the survey approximately every 18 months, and (4) provide organizational support for management improvement in the skills measured by the 360 feedback tool. These will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

Choose a standardized, reliable survey and stick with it. This study used the Survey of Management Practices (SMP), written by Clark Wilson and administered by The Booth Company. This survey has 48 items which are broken down into multiple item scales, or dimensions. The instrument has been found to be psychometrically sound through numerous studies.

The instrument was based on Wilson’s Task Cycle theory, which has been validated and demonstrates the impact of particular skills on managerial performance. These skills include goal setting, planning and problem solving, coaching, conducting a performance appraisal, exercising control, and reinforcing performance. Managers were given skills and performance feedback in the form of a report summarizing the data from boss, direct reports, self, and peers. Results were confidential and were used for development purposes only.

The same 360 survey was used throughout the organization during the entire time of the study, allowing the longitudinal research to study meaningful changes.

Maintain active executive participation and support for the process. In this instance, the Chief Executive Officer and an organizational task force reviewed a variety of instruments and selected the SMP for use throughout the company. The CEO and other top administrators remained supportive of the program throughout the time of the study. Individual data or reports were not revealed to corporate or divisional officers, but aggregated results were reviewed at the corporate level and at divisional levels.

The 360 process also became part of the culture of the organization, both formally and informally. The Managerial Task Cycle, based on Task Cycle theory, was adopted as the organization’s model of what good managers do, and training programs were linked to specific phases of the Task Cycle.

Managers at all levels were aware that their executives supported this program and were following their development. This step is crucial for institutionalizing the 360 process.

Ask managers to take the survey approximately every 18 months. Managerial skills are learned and developed over time, and this length of time between iterations seemed to be the most effective in terms of measuring a significant change in skills.

Four cohorts of managers were followed as they progressed through at least two iterations of the 360 feedback assessment (Figure 1). The study’s highly statistically significant results indicated that notable changes in managerial effectiveness did not occur until participants had been through the 360 process at least twice, and that additional iterations increased the participants’ effectiveness. For example, the earliest cohort included managers who took the assessment four times over a period of years. These participants increased their managerial effectiveness from 39% to 60% between the first and fourth iteration. Over the period of the study, starting effectiveness levels increased, probably because of the support shown throughout the organization for the 360 process. The latest cohort increased their effectiveness from 46% to 53%, after only two iterations. The other two cohorts’ results fell in between.

The author concludes that major change is not likely to be demonstrated based on a one-shot participation in 360 feedback. Follow-up organizational support and efforts of the individual managers led to significant changes in managerial effectiveness.

Provide organizational support for management improvement in the skills measured by the 360 feedback tool. The organization found that the most effective support included a one-day in-situ management workshop with the majority of managers from the same work site. In this workshop, participants received a report of their results and instructions on how to interpret it. This was followed by a discussion on the resources available to managers to improve specific skills, how to develop such skills, and what skill to focus on for the biggest payoff.

By the end of the day participants were encouraged to have created a preliminary learning agenda. Participants were encouraged to share their results with their boss, peers, and direct reports and to ask for input on which to base their final learning agenda. As part of the learning contract, participants were expected to experiment with different skills and techniques, to practice them, and to receive feedback from direct reports and peers. The organization also provided training support via a variety of sources.

As part of the study, managers were interviewed to identify why some of them made significant improvement and others did not. The results were that 100% of the managers who had developed learning contracts had improved, whereas the same was not true for those who did not develop learning contracts.

Finally, managers from the same facility were organized into intact teams, asked to share problems and to develop action plans to solve them. Members of the team who scored high on their skill profiles were asked to serve as mentors to others.

Thus, the 360 process was integrated throughout the organization and supported on every level.

Finally, meaningful change yields a competitive advantage for managers. Previous research has shown that improvements in managerial effectiveness can yield improvements in productivity. Thus, an ongoing 360 process can be a valuable business practice that leads to sustainable improvements in managerial effectiveness.

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