8. 360s vs. direct talk in the spirit of mutual advocacy

360s are...

Blunt instruments.

Instead of giving us a rich, complex, inspiring picture of ourselves, they give us a paint-by-numbers, dumbed-down version of who we are.

360s are not at all the best way to develop strong working relationships, and that's because they're...

Evaluative not relational.

Which is what makes 360s feel impersonal and kind of cold. The raters are scoring you, they're judging you, and, really, where's the love in that?

So why then have 360s become so popular? Why have they turned into a big business? Why do we tolerate them? Especially given that most of us have mixed or negative feelings about them.

I think the first answer is that we do need feedback.

We're a social species so it matters to us what other people think about us and where we stand with them and how we fit in with the people we spend our days with.

And we're complicated, developmental beings. We have so much to learn growing up, especially about ourselves and about relating to others. And the learning is still going on long after we've become adults. Which means we each have our own blindspots, and the definition of a blindspot is that we can't see it ourselves. So we need other people to help us see what we're missing.

And then there's this:

We default to 360s because direct talk seems too scary.

We've all seen direct feedback go wrong. Feelings get hurt. Correction conversations blow up. Recriminations start flying. Relationships get damaged. Sometimes permanently.

So it's not dumb of us to resort to a safer alternative.

But do we really want to surrender to fear? Especially those of us doing social change and social justice work. Aren't we trying to change how our society works? Aren't we trying to make the world a more loving place? And don't we have bigger ambitions for ourselves and our teams than to settle for 360s as our primary way of talking with each other about our working relationships?

Direct talk is indeed scary—if it's done without skill and without care. But direct talk can be welcome and nurturing and uplifting...

If it's done in the spirit of mutual advocacy.

The most effective teams, the ones that go soaring, operate in the spirit of mutual advocacy. They don't allow any relational aggression. They don't just settle for passive support. On those teams, people actively champion each other and love doing it.

And the same is true in the best supervision relationships. A skilled, caring supervisor can make the kind of difference in the lives of her supervisees that no 360 can match. And that's because she's taking the whole person into account, and the whole context they're working in. She champions them. She holds them in her heart.

Check out what these leaders have to say about feedback...

If I were to give you an appreciation, I'd take a lot of time with it. I'd describe it in some detail, exactly what I see in you. I'd want you to settle in with the appreciation, so you could really own it and integrate it into your view of yourself.

I usually just give people one piece of feedback at a time, because if I overdose them with a bunch of pluses and minuses all at once they don't know what to do with them.

When I had to address her communication style with Annie, I didn't just lay it on her and walk away and leave her with it on her own. I made sure we had plenty of time to talk. I asked her which of her strengths she could bring into play to improve her communications. She lit up, took charge, and was suddenly motivated to solve the problem. Cold information about a problem rarely works, while stengths-based advocacy almost always does.

If I give feedback, I want her to ask me questions. I need to have a back-and-forth conversation. Go deep if necessary. I need to know she's not misreading what I'm saying to her.

With Tomas I brought up his issue with always coming to meetings and workshops two minutes late. Just a little bit late, but always always late. I just touched lightly on the issue, then shut up. There was a pause. A long one. Then he jumped into the silence and said, "I know I do that and I wish I didn't." So now he's leading the conversation and it's not a correction anymore. I'm just there helping him with something he wants to change.

Timing matters. Knowing what's going on with a person. Know their readiness. Three weeks ago Joellen's daughter was in the hospital. She's still dealing with that. Not the right time to address an issue I want to bring up with her. But yesterday Jorge told me about a triumph and how much he enjoys building his chops. Perfect time to segue into a conversation about the next area where I think he could make some progress. It was just plain fun helping him roll from success to success.

Compare the warmth of this kind of nuanced, vigorous, loving advocacy with a 360 printout.

360s are not designed to do relationship work. Unlike masterful supervisors, they can only provide information, and only information of a very limited kind.

On this page I'm going to be pretty hard on 360s because I believe we can do so much better and that we have a compelling need to do better.

Still I want to acknowledge that 360s can sometimes be useful. I've worked with people who were very thankful for the feedback they got from a 360 even if they didn't really like the process much.

I worked with a leader who told me, "I love feedback! I'll do a 360 anytime anywhere. The more the merrier!"

I know of a team that because of a 360 woke up to how bad things were. At first they were shocked, then they got fired up and made things 100 times better.

And I really do understand that creating a culture of direct talk in the spirit of mutual advocacy can take serious time and not every organization is ready to do that and in the meantime you need to do something about feedback and so you decide that even though 360s are second best they're something you can do right now and hopefully get something out of.

Which brings us to...


Taking charge of your 360
I recommend preparing yourself in advance. You might want to ask yourself...

Best case scenario, what might I learn from the 360 that would be most helpful. Who do I need to pick as my raters to get the kind of feedback that will help me move forward in my work? Who are the people in my work circle who I do not respect and would not want their feedback?

Worst case scenario, what could happen? What if I get feedback that is unkind or even attacking? How do I want to handle that?

Who do I want to debrief my 360 with? Do I want to have someone right there with me as I read it? Who can help me make sure I don't let one negative outweigh a dozen positives? Who can help me think strategically about what I want to do as a result of what I learn from the 360?

I also recommend keeping the 360 in perspective. One thing that really helps with this is to make sure you have you own development plan that you've designed yourself. This is one of the keys to long-term success as a leader anyway.

In creating your development plan, you might want to ask...

How can I be proactive about building on my strengths?

How will I address my areas of limitation? What do I want to learn next and how will I learn it?

Who do I want for a mentor and when will I ask her and what exactly will I ask for?

What kind of success team or PLN might I build around myself?

What special trainings do I want to take?

How can I engage in the daily practice of mastery so I learn from everything I do all day long every day?

If you're charging ahead with your own game plan, then a 360 doesn't seem like such a big deal. If it yields you helpful information, great. If not, it doesn't matter because you've got so much other learning going on. You're in no way dependent on the 360 for your professional growth.

And one more recommendation...

Please don't give a 360 authority it doesn't deserve.

I think it helps to understand just how blunt an instrument conventional 360s are...

So you don't take away the wrong lessons.

And 360s don't have advocacy built into them, so...

Please be your own fierce advocate.

In the spirit of keeping perspective, let's zip through the key problems with 360s...

1.  The numbers are not standardized.
What one person means with a 7 can be very different from what another person means.  There are hard graders: "I never give anyone a 10 for anything unless they've created the cure for cancer." And there are easy graders: "I like her so much I just gave her a 10 on everything."

How informative can a rating be if you don't know what the raters are thinking and you can't ask them questions about their scores?

2.  The qualities or skills that are rated have no specific definition.
Ask a dozen people to tell you what "initiative" means to them and what do you think you'll hear? One focused, coherent definition or a continuum of different definitions.

Or take a skill like "communication." How is it possible to rate that without the context? Are we looking at how you communicate with your staff, with the street kids in your program, with donors at a fancy event, in the newsletter you send out each month, in a tough negotiation with a competing nonprofit?

And what if you're really good in some contexts and not so good in others, but it all gets smooshed together under a single rating, what can you learn from a smoosh?

Also, some people give ratings based on personal preferences that have nothing to do with job performance, or worse, are contrary to effective job performance...

"I gave him a 10 on communication because he's always super polite and never makes anyone uncomfortable. He always finds a way to say yes. He's a people-pleaser and I like that.

"But my last boss I rated a 2 because she was direct and forthright and I didn't know how to respond to her. I couldn't keep up with that. That's not what we ever did in my family."

But what if effectiveness as a leader means you have to say no sometimes, big noes, and you have to be forthright so people know what you mean when you're talking with them?

3.  If you combine numbers that don't have any defined meaning with terms that have no defined meaning, you get an indeterminate result.
A lot of the ratings on a 360 could be read as: "You got a something on something."

4. 360s are not science. Apart from the comments section they are imprecise renderings of opinions.
The beautiful four-color charts and the graphs with the tick marks and spider webs are minimally meaningful because there's nothing about a graph that gives it any kind of scientific authority if the input is mushy.

5.  Averages hide more than they reveal.
Here's a snippet of a 360 debriefing conversation...

Isabel, you got a 6.6 on communication.

A 6.6?! That's all? That bums me out. I work really hard at communication. All my friends say I'm the best. How can I be so bad at it here at work?

Well, I happen to have the actual numbers. Let me read them to you and see if it makes any difference. The individual raters gave you scores of 9, 10, 10, 2 & 2.

Wow, that's quite a spread.

What does it tell you?

Three people think I'm in the top range so that's reassuring that I'm not crazy.

And the two 2s?

Oh. I wonder...


I have two staff who I've been having very serious correction conversations with. Their jobs really are in jeopardy. But I don't know for sure if they gave me the 2s.

That's right, you don't know for sure, but if they did what would that mean?

That might mean that maybe I was an excellent communicator, clear and direct, but they didn't like at all what I was communicating to them.

6.  Some raters think deeply about the people they are scoring, others do not.
Some raters are in an advocacy mood when they're thinking about you, some are not. Who prepares the raters? Not all raters are good at assessing skills. If we rated the raters on rating how would they fare?

And who teaches raters the best way to score you so the 360 can be as helpful as possible? Does anyone teach them the Golden Rule of Evaluation...

360 unto others as you would have them 360 unto you.

7.  Sometimes the context makes a rating irrelevant.
From a debriefing...

Pete, you got a 2 on delegating.

That stinks, but I'm not surprised.


Because when I took over here as program director things were a mess. I'm here to turn things around.

Have you done delegating in the past?

Yes. I'm actually known for being very good at that. At my last organization I got a 10+ for delegating.

What's different here?

There's no one I can trust to delegate to. When I tried it during my first month on the job, staff dropped the ball in really serious ways that would have jeopardized our funding if I hadn't stepped back in.

And what's ahead?

I've made development plans with six of my staff and they're following them. It's going to take some time, but I think they might actually become competent enough so I can delegate serious responsibility to them and they will be able to follow through at the level we need. But there are two who are fighting me tooth and nail and I don't see a future for them here. They're also the most vocal about wanting more authority.

So then this rating...

Means nothing. The 360 didn't know what my assignment is and what my plan is.

So what are you going to do about it?

See that shredder over there....

8.  Number rating systems tend to push people into a more judgmental, less empathic mood.
One time I did a workshop which I limited so six participants so we could get personal and go deep. It was intense and exactly what I hoped for. Afterwards a woman came up to me, with her eyes glistening, just short of tears, and said, "This is going to change my leadership in a profound way. I'm going to be so much happier."

But then when I looked at her evaluation (her name was on it) she rated the workshop a 3 out of 5. I didn't know what to make of that. Did she think her happiness was only worth a 3? Was she lying when she was talking to me? It sure didn't seem like it. But I didn't know what to make of the difference, so I let her rating and her comments cancel each other out.

However I suspect that in person she was present to her experience in the workshop. And when she picked up the formal evaluation, she stepped into a judgmental frame of mind.

I think it's worth keeping in mind that we live in a very judgmental society, and in this context giving advocacy feedback is actually an unusual, sophisticated, and challenging thing to do.

9.  We say raters have anonymity, but...
We all try to guess who made what comment. Or who gave us a bad score to drag our average down. We're human beings after all, we're gossipy, we always want to know who said what about whom, especially when we're the whom.

From a debriefing...

Ugh. Look at this comment. It says I'm cold and unfeeling. I know exactly who said that, and wow, that makes me mad because I try so hard with her and here's the thanks I get.

Are you absolutely sure she's the one who said it?

Mostly sure, 95%, but no, not absolutely.

And the consequence if she didn't say it?

Oh, I see. If I'm guessing wrong then I've made two mistakes. I'm going to be mad at her and I'm going to miss the fact that someone I think likes me actually doesn't. Arrrgh.

What do you want to do about that arrrgh?

I want to have some direct conversations with my staff about how they like working for me. Not to ferret out who made that comment on that 360, though I admit I want to know, but mostly because I'm committed to having really great working relationships with all my staff.

10.  There's a tendency to globalize negative comments.
From a debriefing...

They say I'm really difficult to work for. I thought they liked me. They tell me how happy they are working for me. They tell me that often. Maybe they don't really mean it. Maybe I should just get out of here if they don't want me around.

How many comments said you were difficult?

Oh. Just one.

Why does it feel like more?

Because this 360 comes across as some kind of official report or final judgment.


I guess I'm giving it too much weight.

So what do you need?

I want to go ask the staff who tell me they love working for me why they do. I want to understand that. And I guess I want to hear it again so I can know that it's for real. Then I could put that one negative comment in perspective. I could do that now intellectually, but I want to put it in perspective emotionally. Only personal conversations can give me that.

I notice the 360 doesn't tell you why the person who made that comment made it.

No, it doesn't and that's so frustrating because if I knew why, maybe there's something I could do to fix it. If I'm treating someone in a way they don't like I definitely want to change that. And maybe it's just that person and there's nothing I could do about it. But I don't like having things unsettled like this.

11.  We're designed to pay more attention to the negatives, so give yourself a break.
There's an evolutionary reason why we pay more attention to negatives than to positives. We spent most of our history over the eons as hunter-gatherers living in small bands of maybe 30 individuals in tribes of maybe 150-200.

Being a member in good standing in your band and your tribe was a matter of life and death. If you got kicked out you would likely die. So if someone had it in for you, that was a very serious issue, about as serious as it could get and you'd better deal with it immediately.

We're hardwired to react to criticism or attack as though it were a state of emergency because it used to be that. Nowadays if someone in our workplace attacks us, we can go get another job somewhere else and never see them again. We have options our ancestors did not have. But still we are hard-wired to pay big attention to attacks as if we were hunter-gatherers.

12.  You don't have to listen to any feedback wrapped in an attack.
From a debriefing...

I got a comment that I'm a mean, uncaring person who thinks she's better than everyone else.

And what was that tied to?

That I interrupt people all the time.

And what do you think about that.

The day I got the 360 report and the next day I watched my behavior carefully and it's true I do interrupt a lot.

And what do you notice about that?

Well, I don't think I'm trying to cut people off. I get excited about what they're saying and want to be in the conversation with them. It's my way of saying, I'm with you. I grew up in a family where we all kind of talked at once. It's what I'm used to. But I can see it's not working here. Not everyone can do that and not everyone likes it.


I guess I should be thankful to that person who attacked me.

How's that feel?

Not good. It kind of poisons my mood. The attack doesn't motivate me to change. It makes me want to drag my feet.

How about another strategy? I personally believe that you don't have to accept anything from an attacker. You don't ever have to be thankful to an attacker even if they have latched on to something that's true about you. You don't ever have to accept a truth from someone who is hurting you with it.

Okay, that makes sense to me. And it's a relief. But then what do you do?

You go find someone who is on your side who can give you that truth all over again in an advocacy way.

I like that! I can do that! My ED is the best supervisor ever. She's on my side. Tomorrow I'll tell her I want to stop interrupting people. And we'll make a plan together and I'll ask her to hold me accountable because I know she'll do that in a loving way. And then the attacker becomes irrelevant.

13.  Sometimes the 360 reveals that the problem is with the organizational culture, not with you.
From a debriefing...

All of the comments, 15 of them to be exact, criticized me for being too detail-oriented and having too many protocols and being too demanding and being obsessive-compulsive.

What's your reaction to that?

When I read the 360 last night I was so mad I was stomping around the house yelling and yelling, until my partner couldn't keep it in anymore and burst out laughing.


And then she shouted, "Hooray!"


Because, she said, "Now you're going to leave that pitiful place." See, this organization thrives on chaos. When I took over the program department I thought I could change it. But what this 360 tells me is that the staff are deeply committed to chaos. I just didn't realize how deeply.

And it's really bad?

Is it ever. So far this year, they've missed 20% of the scheduled teen workshops because they don't have a system for getting them on the calendar or a system for assigning staff to each workshop. So I do that stuff myself and they resent it and still, in spite of my vigorous efforts they manage to miss workshops. I'm not even sure they're going to get their main grant renewed. The program officer is not happy with them.

And you?

I'm out of there! Thank you, 360!

14.  There are many contraindications for running a 360 process in an organization.
Here are a few examples of how we need to use our smarts when we are bringing a 360 into the complicated human environment of a nonprofit...

If the organization is swamped in relational aggression with personality battles raging, the 360 will just become swept into the battles and will be used as an instrument of destruction. What's needed is for the organization to declare a state of emergency and do whatever it takes to upgrade their operating system and successfully institute a zero tolerance policy on relational aggression.

If an top-performing ED is drowning in way too much work, don't crunch her with a 360, help her. Get the Board together to figure out what strategic changes need to be made so the ED is doable instead of impossible. Or maybe the Board instead of passing judgments could raise money and fund a COO position so the ED isn't drowning anymore.

Don't pick people who are on correction plans as raters. That can undermine the authority of the supervisor, which is not good for the supervisor, but also not good for the staff person. "Over my objection, the Board insisted that she be part of the 360 and behind that she developed the attitude that I couldn't tell her anything anymore, like the Board was behind her and not me. I had thought she was getting her acting out under control but after the 360 it flourished and in the end I had to fire her. It was a lose-lose 360."

Make sure the 360 is reinforcing what you want to reinforce. I know of a situation where a Board required Pilar, the ED, to have a 360 and the Board picked the raters, one of whom was Merv, the ED of competing nonprofit, who delivered a miserable rating and lots of angry comments. And what exactly was it that would have made Merv a happy rater? If Pilar gave him the flagship program of her nonprofit. In this case the negative rating was a big plus, a sign that she was standing her ground. Did the Board mean to indicate that they thought their ED should make everyone happy at any cost?

Oh, and then there's this...

In an organization where you have masterful supervisors who are committed to developing their staff and staff who are committed to self-development and where communication is excellent and feedback is happening all the time, there's no need for a 360.

Save the money you'd spend on it and go out and celebrate instead!


Direct talk in the spirit of mutual advocacy
Which do you prefer?

Hearing the hard truth about yourself, or

Or telling someone the hard truth about themselves.

I heard an ED answer that question by saying, "I'd prefer for someone to hurt me than for me to hurt someone else." And bravo for her that she cares about her staff like that.

But ...

What if telling the hard truth did not have to hurt anyone?

If that were so, what would it gives us? How much more powerful might we be in developing our working relationships? And then how might our work take off?

I believe the hard truth doesn't have to hurt people. That doesn't mean that in the moment of hearing it or telling it that there's no pain involved. Just that the truth can be nurturing instead of destructive.

The secret is...

To tell the truth inside a relationship of advocacy.

Which means...

You're holding the other person in your heart as you tell her the truth.

You're on her side, genuinely, absolutely.

You want the best for her at the same time as you're asking her to give you her best.

This is what I call the Advocacy Stance. And I call it a stance or a stand because it's much more than a technique. It doesn't work if you do it as a technique. It takes commitment to a relationship. If you don't really feel like someone's advocate, take the time you need to find advocacy for them somewhere in your heart. And if you can't find any advocacy, then just do the impersonal supervision thing. Be business-like and neutral.

I'm remembering right now, times when people have told me the hard truth about myself and it was painful but it was also a blessing. They were advocating for me and made sure to put that across to me in the moment, not just as words, but with presence so I could really feel it, so I was convinced.

When we talk about hard truth, we're generally talking about blind spots, which are the things we can't see in ourselves or otherwise would would have fixed them already.

And the thing about our blind spots is that we have a reaction when they are revealed. We can fall into a confusion of feelings. Anger that someone is telling us something that's painful to hear. Shame that we have been going around doing things unconsciously, and maybe hurting other people, and we hate that.

So what do we need when we are hearing a hard truth?

We need to love ourselves as intensely as that truth is hard.

And that means we need...

To ask for advocacy from the people telling us those truths.

Or ask for an advocate to be with us when we're hearing the truths.

Or, if we're on our own, we need to know how to take a stand for loving ourselves.

Hard truth told in a compassionate way can be a turning point in our lives. But hard truth told in an attacking way can shut us down for months or years to come. It's that serious.

Normally we think of hard truths as negatives, but a lot of nonprofit people are really shy about hearing the happy truths. Those are harder for them than hearing criticisms. How many times have you given someone an appreciation and they've instantly swept it aside, not really taking it in? How often have you done that yourself when someone has given you a heartfelt appreciation?

Our default nonprofit culture, with its emphasis on sacrifice tells us that we who are leaders should be nobodies. We should give, give, give and never receive. And the problem is that when people give you appreciations and you dismiss them, they stop giving you appreciations. Even when they have them. Maybe lots of them.

And isn't that sad? But definitely fixable with conscious attention and practice, especially practice with advocates who are willing to work on this with us.

It's interesting what lengths we go to not to have a direct, in-person conversation about our working relationships. I think 360s are one of those lengths. A substitute for the real conversation.

And how often do you do 360s in your organization? Once a year? Only when there's trouble? Never?

But our working relationships are an everyday thing.

So first best is...

To develop the ability to have direct relationship conversations in the advocacy spirit. 

And then...

To develop a culture within our organizations that encourages and supports such conversations.

So that...

We can get better and better at having these conversations and we'll like them better and better, and maybe even come to look forward to them.

If we care about our working relationships, why wait till there's a budget for one of the standard online 360s. What not take things into our own hands? Why not claim the ability to get feedback the way we need it whenever we need it?

Here's an example of what I mean. Let's say you're worried about how a colleague is responding to you. You feel a disturbance in the force and you want to see if your perceptions are true. You want to find out if there's something he's not telling you, because of course, if something's wrong and he doesn't tell you, you can't fix it.

So you set a context, "Our working relationship is really important to me and I've been wondering if there's anything we need to clear up."

And then you drop a question into the context...

If there were one thing I could do differently that would make you happier with our working relationship, what would it be?

Then take a breath. Give him some time to sort through his feelings and decide how he wants to answer you.

And if he starts hedging, if you want to, you could add...

What do you need so you would be okay with telling me the truth? I really want to hear the truth. I trust that we care enough about each other that the truth will bless us not hurt us.

So the strategy is this...

1.  Set the advocacy context.

2.  Ask a single, clear question.

3.  Support the question with more advocacy statements as needed.

Notice, I'm recommending that you ask just one question. One problem I see with 360s is that for a lot of people its too much feedback all at once.

I believe that for most of us...

Hearing hard truths is best done one at a time so we have a chance to process them and maybe change our behavior successfully and feel great about that and then we'll be more open to hearing more had truths.

And for many of us...

Hearing happy truths is best done one at a time, too, until we learn how to receive them.

The strategy of asking just one question means that you get to control the process so it meets your needs.

And it's a good diagnostic. If someone gives you trashy feedback, then you know not to ask them any more questions. But if someone gives you really helpful feedback in an advocacy mood, then you might find yourself asking more questions, and they might become one of your go-to people for good feedback.

Here are some more questions to evoke feedback, but I know you can think of lots more than these that you can ask in your own voice in your own way. And please remember to ask questions based on your internal needs rather than any external shoulds.

What's one example of progress you've seen in me over the past year?

Tell me about a time when I blew something and what you wish I had done differently.

If there's one thing you've been hearing in the buzz about me that you think it would help me to know, what would it be?

If there's one blind spot I have about myself that you wish I could see for my own good, what would it be?

If there was one gift you could give me in terms of personal or professional development what would it be?

If there's one strength you think I should build on more in order to make the most progress, what would it be?

And then you can go beyond asking questions to asking for stories...

I love working with you and I'm wondering if you'd be willing to tell me what you remember as a best moment for the two of us in our work together. Tell me that story. And then if you want, I'll tell you a story about what I think is a best moment.


I think we've learned a lot over the past two years about working together and I wonder if you'd be willing to tell me what you think was a key turning point in our working relationship. Tell me that story. And then if you want, I'll tell you one I'm thinking about. And if you'd rather, I can go first. There's no pressure here. This is just about honoring how well we do together.


We've come a long way in our year of working together. We've had our share of ups and downs, but it seems to me it's really working now and I'm curious, what do you imagine might be the next breakthrough that's ahead for us? What do you think will take us to the next level?

And then, one more thing...

What about having a forthright conversation with yourself? What questions would you want to ask?


How you treat others,

How others treat you, and

How you treat yourself.

It's remarkable how much we see about ourselves that we don't always let ourselves know we're seeing. You might find that you're an excellent source of feedback. Maybe you'll want to talk to yourself in front of a mirror. Or talk with yourself on tape. Or talk with yourself, but in the presence of and with the support of a close friend. This is gutsy stuff, but empowering.


© 2012 Rich Snowdon