multisource feedback

By Steffen Maier

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”.  So a  name is just a name; multisource feedback is synonymous with multirater feedback, multisource feedback and 360 degree feedback. Multisource feedback was developed as an alternative to one dimensional traditional style of ‘downward reviews’ whereby they were used by managers or superiors to give feedback to their subordinates. Instead, Multisource feedback is comprised of ‘upward’ (feedback delivered to management by subordinates only), ‘downward’ (the reverse) and ‘lateral’ feedback (amongst peers), plus an employee self-assessment in order to gain a more accurate appraisal of an employee’s behaviour, skills and potential knowledge gaps to be filled by training or coaching. In addition to in-company appraisals, when relevant, some companies also include feedback from external sources such as stakeholders, clients or customers.

The general advantages and disadvantages of multisource feedback is available here. Instead this article will take an in-depth look at the type of feedback you are likely to receive from each source; and the associated benefits and pitfalls of each type. While each of the three on their own are no longer consider an adequate means to assess performance, together they provide a more rounded and complete vision of an employee’s performance.

‘Upward feedback’

Upward feedback is an important part of the multisource feedback journey. As the name suggests, upward feedback moves in an upward direction from (your) subordinates, upwards to you. One considerable advantage of ‘upward feedback’ is that, for your subordinates; you are a manager. Therefore, it highlights your competencies and skills as a manager. Your subordinates will advise you on your leadership abilities, what you are doing well and equally what aspects of your leadership could do with improvement. Feedback from subordinates is therefore crucial in helping you to develop the skills and qualities that will make you excel as a leader.

While you can generate some interesting an insightful feedback from subordinates, out of the three, this is not the most valuable source of feedback. The economic assumption that all people act in a rational manner comes into play, employees as homo sapiens are inclined to behave in a manner that is most beneficial to them. For instance, when submitting their reviews, subordinates may not provide a wholly accurate account of performance if it will result in a favourable outcome for them. Additionally, as with most management structures, subordinates are unlikely to work in very close proximity to, or in co-operation with their managers and therefore are potentially not the most qualified people to measure their performance. Their leadership qualities, work attitude, and communication skills for sure, but not their overall performance.

‘Downward feedback’ 

‘Downward feedback’ is the opposite to the former; it goes from managers and trickles down to their subordinates. This is a very valuable appraisal, as a large part of a manager’s role is in guiding and overseeing the work carried out by their subordinates. Additionally, managers are typically highly involved in a company’s performance review process and therefore, aid each employee in the formation of goal and objective setting for each review period. As such, they are conveniently positioned to assess the progress that has been made towards reaching each goal.

Appraisals from managers, like the previous ‘upward’ feedback, is flawed in the sense that once again managers and subordinates work on different levels of seniority, and accordingly have different work priorities. Personality plays an important role here too. While theoretically managers should not entertain biases and should treat all members of their team equally: this is simply not reality. A person’s own take on their manager’s performance will very likely affect their willingness to listen to advice or take criticism. If they perceive their manager as incompetent, or maybe just dislike their style of management, an employee may ignore good advice simply because they do not like the vessel from which it comes.

‘Peer-to-Peer Feedback’

This is perhaps the most advantageous feature of the multisource feedback system.  An employee works closely with his/her peers on a daily basis. They collaborate on projects, work side by side and spend the most time in each other’s company. As such they can be the most knowledgeable about an employee, their attitude, their work ethic and provide the most complete overview of the quality of their work. Also, as part of a team, the feedback a person receives is most likely to be constructive in nature, and will benefit the team as a whole once implemented.

As peers work in close proximity they might also have a better understanding of the skills and qualities of their co-workers and who needs improving, and in what areas. Asking for peer feedback can be a valuable way to uncover gaps in knowledge and areas where coaching or additional training may be advantageous to the team. However, like the other two kinds, there are also disadvantages to peer feedback. Personality clashes can also be a problem and another employee to give an unfair or biased performance appraisal. Employee  manipulation of feedback ratings is also known to occur. It has been reported in a number of companies who have utilized 360-degree feedback for performance evaluation including GE (Welch 2001), IBM (Linman 2011), and Amazon (Kantor and Streitfeld 2015).

‘The Holy Trinity’

As you’ve probably gathered so far, there are advantages to using downward, upward and peer feedback, however, none of the three are enough on their own. To borrow from the cliché; there is strength in numbers. The three combine for a much more complete, holistic account of an employee’s performance. When used together as multisource feedback, you get the benefits of each of them, their disadvantages often offset by the advantages of the other.

In order for a multisource feedback process to work properly, employees need to engage with it properly, and use it on a regular basis. If only part of the team uses it, it loses many of its benefits. If feedback and input is not coming from part of the team the evaluations and suggestions lose their value, as the lower the number of sources they come from, the less objective the comments ultimately become.

There are many articles entitled the ‘disadvantages of multisource feedback programs’ warning PR personnel and managers of the ‘many’ pitfalls associated with implementing a system of multisource feedback. But what most fail to acknowledge is that these mistakes are largely preventable, and almost exclusively human error. If employees received proper guidance and training on how to use the tools, most of the problems commonly encountered would be eradicated. If adequate training has been done, and managers are on-board, the advantages of a multisource feedback process should far outweigh the disadvantages.

As so many companies are overhauling their reviews processes, there is little disagreement that continuous and transparent feedback is the key to effective performance management. For further reading, why not discover why Adobe, Deloitte and Accenture ditched the annual review process. Or to request a demo for a multisource feedback software solution, click here

Steffen Maier is co-founder of Impraise a web-based and mobile solution for actionable, timely feedback at work. Based in New York and Amsterdam, Impraise turns tedious annual performance reviews into an easy process by enabling users to give and receive valuable feedback in real-time and when it’s most helpful. The tool includes an extensive analytics platform to analyze key strengths and predict talent gaps and coaching needs. @stgmaier.