Last night, after facilitating a lively conflict workshop, I chatted with a few attendees about the importance of regular self-reflection to accurate self-awareness.  Our discussion ranged from therapy to honest conversations with family members to use of 360s.  “What is a 360?” one person asked.  I was surprised, but not shocked, that he did not know about 360-degree surveys.  Widely appreciated as a critical assessment tool in coaching and consulting, it is rare these days that I come across a leader who has not participated in a 360 feedback survey – willingly or not.  A “360” asks an individual to answer questions about her behaviors, and for boss, peers, and direct reports (as well as customers, vendors, or family members, where appropriate) to do the same.  When leveraged well, the result is a full and honest picture of how the individual perceives herself, and is understood by those who know her best.  When used in a coaching or development program, the effects can be transformative to greater self-awareness and behavioral change.

You would think that we would all jump at the chance to participate in one of these, right? After all, we’ve become a society obsessed with feedback, from Facebook “Likes” to Fitbits to RescueTime.  An avid triathlete and workout junkie, I can’t seem to do even a brief, ten-minute workout without my Garmin 945 watch tracks every mile and every heartbeat. We LOVE feedback, don’t we? Well, it depends. Most of these are private tools, ways we can evaluate our activities and performance in our own private Idaho. It’s like checking out your backside in a two-way, full-length mirror. But a 360? That mirror just became a giant, Jumbotron-sized movie screen, simultaneously broadcasting the view of our derrière from the perspective of 20 other people, right into the comfort of our living room. Hold the popcorn, thanks – I think I’m going for a walk. Seriously, who thought THIS would be a good idea??

Another challenge to soliciting feedback is that negative feedback is inconsistent with our self-image.  If you’ve ever asked, or been asked, “Does this ______ (fill in the blank:  dress, shirt, mumu) make me look fat?” you know there is only one answer to this question, because saying “yes” would create cognitive dissonance between what the asker wants to be accurate and what is real.  The already daunting proposition of feedback may worsen if the information could impact our performance reviews, raises, or promotions. So, the notion of a 360 can seem pretty daunting to even the stoutest of hearts –  or the firmest of butts, if you will.

Here’s how to make that butt-gazing 360 a powerful and positive tool:

  1. Set the right tone. Ensure the 360 is part of a positive, developmental framework. It might be part of a leadership development program, a team-building activity, or an executive coaching engagement. All should be future-focused, with clear goals to help you achieve success. If not, put off the 360 until you are motivated to receive the information (if possible). Similarly, communicate clearly and optimistically with your 360 raters about the purpose of the feedback activity.  A positive approach will set the right tone and increase the likelihood that others will participate honestly.
  2. Pick the right raters. You don’t want to only raters who will tell you your backside looks “tighter than Barbara Bush’s smile” (thank you, Mary Meyers, for that beaut of a simile), nor only ones who will tell you to retire those skinny jeans, stat. I counsel clients that their raters should span a mix, from their greatest fans to their biggest detractors, and many folks in between. Pick people who will be insightful, balanced, articulate, and forthcoming. Your boss and a reliable HR partner will help put together your list; as a coach, I require their input into rater selection, as they may have insight into useful perspectives that the client might miss.
  3. Prepare yourself. Before receiving feedback, take time to think and reflect. What do you think will be the positive points of feedback? The negative? Which group do you anticipate will rate you highest/lowest in different areas? Why? The more prediction you can do, the less the feedback will come as a surprise, which will hasten your trip through the SARA curve and get to focusing on behavior change. While you cannot anticipate where the blind spots are, prepare to have a few. It will leave you less challenged when they occur.
  4. Take time to digest it. Receiving this type of feedback is much different than checking your watch mid-run to ensure you are in the proper heart rate zone. Set aside a serious chunk of time for careful review.  Use an expert who can help you understand and process the information.  I counsel my clients to set aside four hours for us to review together, face to face wherever possible.  Friday afternoons often provide the most distraction-free timing, and a chance to move seamlessly into continued processing over the weekend.
  5. From SARA to strength. SARA stands for Surprise, Anger, Resistance, and Acceptance. It’s Kubler-Ross’s stages of death and dying, retrofitted for the business environment. The more anticipatory work you’ve done, the quicker you can move to through the stages to Acceptance, and begin to implement behavior change.
  6. Treat feedback as a gift.  Like any physical gift, there is only one thing to do with it; say “thank you.” Even if it is a gift you did not want, need, or expect, your only action is to say “thank you.”  Reach out to your raters individually, and thank them for their willingness to give of their time and insights to help you improve.
  7. Articulate your commitment to change.  Create a plan for your top areas of focus, and share those with those you interact with most.  Increasing awareness will help you remain accountable for behavior change, and it can provide others an opportunity to support you through additional feedback, advice, or coaching.

Even if you don’t have access, resources, or support to a formal 360 tool, take advantage of informal feed-forward opportunities.  Ask those around you. How can I be better? This single question could make a massive difference in your leadership, work interactions, and overall interpersonal success.  Over time, that butt-highlighting Jumbotron may actually make you look good!