360 degree feedback is an increasingly popular tool for executive coaching and leadership development. An individual evaluates him or herself along some predetermined quantitative and qualitative dimensions, providing numerical ratings for the quantitative items and comments for the qualitative ones. This feedback can then provide valuable input into the individual's strengths and areas for professional development.
Human Resources professionals are often tasked with finding a technology provider for 360 degree feedback, which is most easily collected online and tabulated automatically by companies such as EchoSpan or SuccessFactors. HR sometimes gets asked by the executives or managers who are going to be participating in the 360 process whether the particular items being asked about the individuals who are participating have been "validated".
While having concerns about the relevance and utility of the items being asked on a 360 is understandable, there is no need to be concerned about the "validity" of the 360 items. This is because the traditional meanings of validation:
1. Extrapolating from a sample to an entire population (e.g. if a political poll is taken before an election, do the responses from the sample provide a valid reflection of how the entire population of voters would vote if the election were held on that particular day)
... are not applicable in a 360 context.
It does, however, make sense to inquire about the utility of the 360, considering questions such as:
- Have people who have received this kind of feedback been able to improve their leadership skills?
- Have teams who have taken a team 360 been able to build on strengths and overcome obstacles?
Whether or not statistical analysis has been conducted on items is much less important than whether those items can catalyze thought and action. The highly popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) for example, is not even reliable, much less valid, yet is still the most commonly used assessment in the workplace. As long as it is used to catalyze constructive discussions and not to select employees, the validity of the MBTI is beside the point.
In conclusion, a 360 should be a starting point for individuals and teams to reflect on their performance and consider ways to improve it. Whether or not a 360 has been used elsewhere in the past is much less important than whether the questions asked, and the way in which they are asked, are relevant to the user's needs. The only "valid" concern about a 360 is whether or not it can raise awareness and help people improve their performance.