How to design an effective feedback program

While employee feedback can be a powerful talent/leadership development tool, businesses must implement feedback programs properly to achieve the significant benefits.

Traditional talent/leadership development systems rely on top-down ratings, and only include one or two formal discussions between employees and managers. Employees prefer more structured feedback that lets them make ongoing adjustments.

While many companies understand the need for a feedback program, they sometimes fail due to easily avoidable mistakes.

For example, they forget to define a purpose for the program beyond ticking a feedback box. 360-degree programs, which by their name are all-encompassing, must also collect feedback from the people employees work with to deliver the right results.

A 360-degree program can help staff development, succession planning, performance appraisal measurement and occupation certification.

I have identified six key steps to design and implement effective 360-degree feedback programs:

1. Define the purpose of your program

Pull in senior leaders and stakeholders early to determine which business outcomes should drive the program, then identify which employees to target with the program.

For example, the aim of the program may be to help high-potential employees understand areas of focus, to improve their performance.

2. Design the workflow of your program

360-degree programs require a commitment from various people, so it’s important to understand how each person’s contribution fits into the overall program.

There are some key questions to answer during this phase:

  1. Who nominates evaluators?
  2. Do managers have to approve nominations?
  3. Do evaluators have an opportunity to opt out?
  4. Who receives reports?
  5. Who is responsible for initiating an assessment debrief meeting?

3. Build a competency model

Subjects should not be rated directly on competencies, but on specific behaviours associated with each competency.

If there is not already a competency model in place, businesses should start by conducting focus groups with incumbents and leaders to identify the key characteristics required to be successful in certain jobs or at certain levels in the business.

4. Write behaviour-based assessment items

An assessment item captures an important aspect of a key competency. Each item should focus on a single behaviour and start with a verb, such as 'motivates', 'listens', etc.

They shouldn’t include jargon or overly technical language and they should be able to be acted upon if they are identified as weaknesses or opportunities.

Organisations should avoid including too many assessment items: 40 to 50 items should be the maximum.

Open-ended questions should be used sparingly, and combined with frequency scales to get the most useful mix of information. It is best to use one open-ended question per competency, which could be a final commentary box at the end of each competency.

5. Adhere to best practices in reporting

Reports should provide robust data for employees but be easy to digest, so employees can take action based on the insights.

They should provide meaningful comparisons with internal benchmarks so employees know where they sit in relation to colleagues, and they should include the information from open-ended questions.

6. Follow up on results

The process shouldn’t stop when the reports are distributed. To ensure lasting behavioural change, it is critical to conduct formal and informal follow-ups on results and behaviours.

This includes goal-setting, as well as ongoing conversations regarding development. It is usually helpful to hyper-focus on one or two areas at a time to make change manageable, rather than overwhelming.

By approaching the 360-degree program strategically, and designing it carefully from the start, businesses can create a highly effective, extremely powerful talent/leadership development program that helps employees feel connected to their own success.

If employees aren’t getting a range of feedback, they aren’t being given the opportunities to develop. That hurts both the employee and the business.

Bill McMurray is the managing director of Qualtrics, Asia Pacific and Japan, a software-as-a-service company that provides survey platforms for businesses.

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