360° feedback is one of the most widely used performance management strategies in global organisations today. In fact, research shows that approximately 90% of all Fortune500 companies use some kind of 360° feedback technique. One of the fundamental objectives of any 360° feedback is to improve the individual performance of employees in line with the organisation’s global priorities and requirements.
The principle of running an evaluation process to review and improve an employee’s performance is an important one, however the way this process is carried out may or may not be effective depending on where and how it is implemented. Organisations looking to harness the benefits of effective global leadership and management must consider the cultural factors that can negatively influence a performance management process of this kind.
So what is a 360° feedback process?
Before we explore what may or may not work across cultures, let’s first make sure we understand what a 360° feedback process is. The process of using 360° feedback consists of providing an employee with feedback from different internal and external perspectives, in other words, it looks at feedback from a full 360° circle. Each individual is objectively evaluated by colleagues both above and below their level as well as external counterparts to ensure a complete picture of their performance.
Once a combination of quantitative and qualitative feedback is collected, individuals will go through a series of review meetings to discuss the feedback and identify areas for improvement or reward. During these 360° feedback review meetings the employee and their manager will share feedback, both positive and constructive, in order to highlight specific short and long-term actions to improve their performance.
What are the potential problems?
So what makes the implementation of a global 360° feedback process so difficult in a multicultural environment?
In many individual, task-oriented and egalitarian cultures like the US, UK, Finland or Germany, 360° feedback processes such as this can be very well received and effective. In more collective, relationship-oriented and hierarchical cultures, this evaluation system is often extremely ineffective. Although people from cultures like India, Spain and China will go through the process if required, the feedback collected and results of the meetings will not always be an accurate representation of the individual in question.
The assumption that feedback is welcomed and viewed as constructive is sometimes a one sided cultural perception. In fact, people from collective cultures like those in Asia will often avoid criticism and refrain from negatively assessing an individual’s performances for fear of hurting the group harmony and causing loss of face. This is particularly the case if the feedback is being requested by someone more senior than them, especially in cultures where hierarchy plays a key role in business and social interactions.
Asking for feedback from direct reports and superiors is just one cultural challenge of the 360° feedback process. Sharing the feedback with the individual can be equally, if not more, challenging. People from collective cultures like China may perceive the information as negative and embarrassing and may as a result feel isolated and depreciated in the workplace. People from individually-oriented cultures like the US value honesty and since they believe that they have considerable control over their own behaviours and outcomes, they value direct feedback which will help them to improve their performance.
Cross-cultural challenges of 360° feedback
When you combine the potential cultural challenges of requesting and giving feedback with certain cultural attitudes without adapting the approach, you may waste considerable time and effort on a process that will not give you the desired results.
Here are two specific examples of how a 360° feedback process can be challenging across cultures:
- Where the process is implemented directly from a culture like the US to a hierarchical and relationship oriented culture like India, you may have problems collecting valid feedback which is truly reflective of employee performance in that location.
- Where the process is implemented between two people of opposing cultural approaches, such as in the case of a British manager and Thai subordinate, there is a risk of not only failing to collect legitimate feedback but also of causing offence and damaging the relationship.
How can we improve 360° feedback across cultures?
With the right cultural understanding and effective global leadership skills, there are many things that global managers can do to ensure the successful use of this evaluation system. Here are a few simple ideas:
- Amend the process so the upwards feedback is guaranteed to be anonymous
- Make sure that you know what to ask for and be specific and clear in your requests
- Clarify what kind of information you want to get and explain how you expect the feedback to be received or acted upon
- Define the different grades on the scale to avoid initial misunderstandings and diverse interpretations
- Ask your employees how they interpreted the feedback to check the accuracy of the assessment and whether the action plan correctly addresses the issue
- Be a live example of how feedback should be shared and used
Despite the challenges that a 360° feedback process may present across cultures, organisations that take into consideration the cultural factors will see a significant difference. Not only will they get the information they want but they will develop a pool of talented employees with a high level of performance and enhance positive interpersonal relationships among employees. Considering how this process is impacted in a different cultural context will also help organisations to reduce confusion around expectations, motivate their employees’ professional and personal growth and improve everyone’s job performance.
Implementing a 360° feedback process can offer great results around the world, but only when culture is taken into account right from the outset.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2012