The Promise and The Pitfall Of 360-Degree Surveys

By Dana Borowka, MA

Famed management author Ken Blanchard says feedback is the breakfast of champions. Psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers said listening, not imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery. Super successful CEOs like Bill Gates say we all need feedback because that is how we improve.

The natural desire to improve the performance of leaders through feedback gave rise to the popularity beginning in the 1990s of 360-degree feedback surveys. The objective of using these surveys is to create high-performing organizations by tapping into the collective feedback of many colleagues rather than just a top-down approach.

That is the promise.

But there is a danger. The amount and level of training of those providing 360-degree feedback can impact the level of accuracy of the feedback. Without guidance from a trained professional, bias may distort the value of the feedback.

And that is the pitfall. But there is a way to avoid this feedback peril.

“Naturally to some degree people are resistant to feedback,” says Tom Drucker, MA, who helps Lighthouse Consulting clients debrief 360-degree survey results. “We all have defenses against feedback, so the feedback needs to be mediated by someone who is trained to do this.”

Drucker received his master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from UCLA while working with and being mentored by famed psychologists Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow. He went on to pursue his PhD at UCLA’s business school where he studied change management, operations research, anthropology, linguistics, and behavioral science. His unpublished dissertation focused on how leadership styles affected the success of long-term organizational change.

That varied background comes in handy when he debriefs leaders on their 360-degree survey results.

“My job has always been to talk to each person and debrief their results with them,” says Drucker. “I’m a trained clinical psychologist. I had a practice for a number of years before going into the business world.”

Also called multi-rater surveys, a 360-degree feedback is a process through which feedback is gathered from an employee’s supervisors, subordinates, and colleagues, as well as a self-evaluation by the employee themselves. The 360-degree survey can be contrasted with downward feedback from the boss or upward feedback delivered to managers by subordinates.

In Drucker’s view, the worst-case scenario is to just grab some 360-degree survey tool from the Internet and let the recipients interpret the feedback from the various people on their own. Just because a survey is cheap and easy does not make it the best approach.

Drucker says when successfully implemented, 360-degree feedback can be a game-changer for a business. These surveys can initiate positive changes and provide more accurate performance reviews leading to accelerated professional growth.

“When I review the results with those being assessed, I have very authentic conversations with people about their strengths,” says Drucker. “Then we talk about what is getting in their way. This leads to helpful conversations about what they should start doing, stop doing and continue doing. This is a transformative conversation for many leaders.”

This is similar to what Lighthouse Consulting Services has found to be true when we work with companies who want to improve hiring and talent development through in-depth work style and personality assessment. You can learn how your people and candidates are wired in order to hire the best and understand how to proactively manage individuals.

But to get full benefit, you need to be debriefed on the assessments by trained professionals. We assist clients by providing the leading in-depth work style and personality assessment and then utilizing our insights and assessment knowledge to best interpret the results.

Before using 360-degree surveys, some people want to know the origins of the approach. It all began around 1930 when military psychologist Johann Baptist Rieffert developed a methodology to select officer candidates for the German army. The jump to the business world occurred in the 1950s when the Esso Research and Engineering Company gathered information on employees, which arguably is the first recorded business use of the technique.

From there, the idea of 360-degree feedback gained momentum, and by the ‘90s most human resources and organizational development professionals discovered the concept. Today, studies suggest that over one-third of U.S. companies use some type of multi-source, multi-rater feedback like a 360-degree survey.

“A 360-degree survey has two parts,” says Drucker. “The first part is analytical, and examines how frequently certain behaviors occur, like leaders asking subordinates ‘how can I do my job better to support you?’”

The meat of this section of the 360-degree is getting statistically valid data on observable behaviors and the impact those behaviors have on their boss and others.

“The second part are open-ended questions, such as ‘what are the strengths of the leader?’ and ‘what are you afraid to tell the leader?’” says Drucker. “We spend a fair amount of time debriefing answers to those types of questions.”

Drucker says it is important that the feedback is anonymous.

“This is a way to see yourself as others see you, as the poet said,” notes Drucker. “Sometimes the feedback can be empowering. Other times it can be unsettling. As a clinician, I’m able to help people process the feedback even on Zoom calls.”
Without help in the debriefing, the part of the brain that produces threat responses might get triggered and derail the value of the feedback process.

“We’re all human beings, and we all have this almond-shaped gland in the brain called the amygdala, which triggers fear and can cut off any kind of logical, creative thinking,” says Drucker about the natural fight, flight or freeze response that triggers our bodies feeling anxious and afraid.

Drucker, who became a neuroscientist about 20 years ago, says the amygdala is what helped our ancestors survive in a hostile world. There are natural biochemical reactions we can thank for our being on the planet today.

“Feedback can be very upsetting which triggers a fear response in the brain,” says Drucker. “I have had clients become depressed because the information was so uniformly negative. However, 95% of all written feedback reflects the observer’s respect for the leader. Their words are intended to inspire positive change.”

Without someone to help process the information, it can be overwhelming. But it does not have to be.

Drucker began consulting after spending 15 years as a senior executive in Human Resources at Xerox Corporation. His experience at Xerox provided him with a global business perspective and refined his personal skills in leadership and management. He has developed unique methods for coaching successful leaders as they grow their organizations. He is also very proud to apply these same business tools to nonprofit organizations and community institutions like schools, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies.

Drucker says the 360-degree survey and professional feedback is not just for the Fortune 500 but can help organizations of all sizes.

“When professionally conducted and interpreted, the results can be significant,” says Drucker. “Without a trained professional, the value of their results is severely diminished.”  If you are open to a conversation about a 360-degree survey process or how our in-depth work style and personality assessment could help your team, including pricing and the science behind the tests, please contact us at 310-453-6556, extension 403.

Permission is needed from Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC to reproduce any portion provided in this article. © 2021

Dana Borowka, MA, CEO of Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC and his organization constantly remain focused on their mission statement – “To bring effective insight to your business”. They do this through the use of in-depth work style & personality assessments to raise the hiring bar so companies select the right people to reduce hiring and management errors. LCS can test in 19 different languages, provide domestic and international interpersonal coaching and offer a variety of workshops – team building, interpersonal communication, stress & time management, sales & customer service training and negotiation skills as well as our full-service Business Consulting Division. Dana has over 30 years of business consulting experience and is a nationally renowned speaker, radio and TV personality on many topics. He is the co-author of the books, “Cracking the Personality Code”, “Cracking the Business Code” and “Cracking the High-Performance Team Code”. To order the books, please visit

Tom Drucker, MA is a Senior Lighthouse Consultant and works with leaders to achieve business success by leveraging the strengths of their people and overcoming the very human yet often unseen obstacles that get their way. Tom has well over 30 years of experience working with Fortune 500 companies, mid caps and start ups.

Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC provides a variety of services, including in-depth work style & personality assessments for new hires & staff development. LCS can test in 19 different languages, provide domestic and international interpersonal coaching and offer a variety of workshops – team building, interpersonal communication, stress & time management, sales & customer service training and negotiation skills as well as our full-service Business Consulting Division.

For more information, please visit our website, to sign up for our Open Line webinars and monthly Keeping On Track publication.  If you would like additional information on this topic or others, please contact your Human Resources department or Lighthouse Consulting Services LLC, Santa Monica, CA, (310) 453-6556, & our website: