It seems that one of the truths of human nature is that we ask for the honest opinions of our loved ones—so long as that honesty is unfailingly positive and contains no bad news whatsoever. We seem to revel in approval and seek it by means both conscious and sneaky. We ask directly (“Is this what you were looking for?”) and solicit passively (“I’m not very good at this, so I hope it’s close to what you’re looking for.”). Sometimes we ask leading questions (“Does this shirt make my stomach look fat?”) and frame our statements to solicit responses (“Ugh, this shirt makes my stomach look fat.”). We lightly bait those whose approval we crave (“I’m only buying this shirt if it doesn’t make my stomach look fat.”). “Be honest,” we say, when what we really mean is, “Just tell me I’m OK.”
When we’re asked to provide those honest assessments of a loved one, spouse, colleague, barista, barber or bartender, we make a full stop, our brains flinging themselves through a maze of psychological pulls and snap decisions. Should I be honest with this person? Can I be honest? Will they take my honesty too hard? Will I hurt them?
Feedback, in short, sucks. When it’s bad, we ignore it, push it away or spend hours listing the reasons why it’s illegitimate, biased or unfair. When it’s good, we wrap ourselves tightly in a blanket of it, assured that our self-opinions have been safely validated. It’s a hopelessly tricky thing. So when SUCCESS asked me to submit to a 360-degree feedback review of myself via friends, family and colleagues, I’m pretty sure I said yes without thinking it all the way through.
What is a 360 review?
No matter the goal or financial purpose your company is striving toward, the business will be buoyed or mired, depending on your perspective, by the human element. That means the human element must be considered and regularly evaluated. This is a process that, without resorting to gross hyperbole, has been hated by everyone on the planet forever.
For a while, the go-to means of employee evaluation was the performance review. It usually involved heading to your boss’ office and, with any luck, emerging 45 weird minutes later with a positive review, some vaguely token areas of improvement and a pay raise slightly outpacing the rising cost of living. In the 1990s, a new method had spread and gained momentum: the intimidatingly named 360-Degree Performance Review. It collects feedback from a baseball starting-lineup’s worth of colleagues, supervisors, vendors and clients—a sampling of everyone with whom you regularly interact.
I’ve never been subject to a 360-degree review before—to be honest, I had barely heard of them. Since 2011, I’ve worked in the YouEconomy as a freelance writer, one rarely subjected to professional grading of any kind. So I did what any enterprising reporter would do: Asked for thoughts on them from my Facebook friends, who reported, with near-unanimity, that 360s were kind of terrible.
‘It’s more of a feedback mechanism’
Naturally I was full of dread before partaking in my own review. But an assignment is an assignment, and I needed to figure out how to get myself evaluated. To do so, I reached out to FH Solutions Group, “a top national labor relations consulting firm,” according to their website, whose former chief operating officer, Brad Federman, said the approach is typically used for coaching or career purposes.
“It’s more a feedback mechanism than a review,” he said. “It’s not like you hit the goal or you didn’t. It’s more for development purposes.”
The company wrote and shipped a survey to a dozen of my family members, friends and colleagues, including my wife, who had never been more excited about any assignment I’d ever had in my life. The company promised responses would be anonymous, although obviously I planned to surgically inspect each one to determine authorship and, when necessary, exact my revenge.
Wisely anticipating this, Federman had some Yoda-like advice for me. “You have to put 360s into context and be careful about how you use them,” he said. “When you get feedback, you shouldn’t accept it as truth, and you shouldn’t accept it as false.”
Yet some of my friends were a little too enthusiastic about rating me to my face.
“I mean, you’re the one inviting the alligator to your pool party,” wrote my friend Liz, although we’ll see whether she’s still my friend by press time.
Completing my own 360 review
Yet before I could read what my (potentially former) friends said about me, I had to do something important: Evaluate myself. This is not something I do regularly, and by that I mean ever. My own questionnaire started innocuously enough, with questions about productivity and goals. However, in almost no time it had veered into emotional territory, asking questions about how I “remain calm under difficult circumstances” and “maintain emotional control.”
Here, I paused hard, holding my coffee aloft and staring at the screen like someone struggling to maintain emotional control, wondering what my wife clicked, what Liz said, what my editors would think, whether the front of ice-cold detachment I’d cultivated over 40 years was operational or not. Before I knew it, the questions had gotten even more personal: On a scale of one to five, does he take responsibility for his actions, is he good to work with, does he work well with others? And all I could think of was, I have no idea. Do I inspire others? Have I ever delegated anything? Do I inspire anyone, sitting here in the coffee shop writing jokes and blowing past word counts? Who am I?
Suddenly the fact that I had submitted to a mathematical, high school Scantron-test referendum on my life had coalesced into hard focus. This was real, people were supposed to be honest with me and I was supposed to be honest with myself. I meaningfully sipped my drink and pressed on to the last screen of the 360 review survey, which in three questions froze me cold:
- “What should this person keep doing?”
- “What should this person stop doing?”
- “What should this person start doing?”
Answering the difficult questions
I stared at this screen for a solid half-hour, the impatient cursor blinking, waiting for me to do something, anything. I hadn’t a clue where to begin. My mind raced through the list of participants I had asked to help, wondering whether they’d ever stopped to think about this before—about me or about themselves. The amount of time I spend engaged in this type of self-evaluation, outside of assignments for this magazine, is what HR departments call jack diddly-squat. My frenetic pace in work and life, speedy by a mix of work necessity and genetics, doesn’t leave time for such matters. But I knew one thing: My drive to never ever read what people wrote about me was matched only by my drive to read it, now. So here’s how I finished my end of the bargain:
1. “What should this person keep doing?”
Prioritizing family, then work. Keeping up a regular, steady and productive work pace. Trying each day to be a better husband and dad. Writing. Planning vacations.
2. “What should this person stop doing?”
Taking things so personally. Working fast at the expense of working well. Thinking he knows everything. Thinking speed equals quality. Wasting time comparing myself to others. Taking on projects with little benefit in the long run.
3. “What should this person start doing?”
Focusing on fewer projects. Focusing on bigger projects. Establishing defined goals and working toward them. Trying new kinds of writing. Putting down the phone at night. Being more empathetic. Reading more. Running more. Taking more breaks. Spending less time writing to-do lists and more time addressing them. Writing a book.
The results of my 360 review
Several weeks later, on an otherwise pleasant Friday, Federman called me at home. I immediately shut the door to my office and prepared for the worst. Part of F&H’s 360-degree feedback process involved walking me through the results to aid me in parsing the data. Here’s what we found.
First, the good news: Responses from my still-mostly-friends (even Liz) were largely positive, at least enough that I could temporarily shelve my studies of the dark arts. For the most part—with a few exceptions—I scored myself about the same as my Others. More importantly, there wasn’t much standard deviation in their responses, meaning that my friends, colleagues and editors were largely united in their impressions of me.
Some greatest hits: My Others have a higher opinion than I do in regard to my collaboration skills, decision-making abilities and, most surprisingly, ability to influence others. Interestingly, there was actually some deviation on the question about my ability to make hard decisions, meaning some of my crowd probably gave me a five while others scored me a 2.5 or three. More surprising, I gave myself middling marks in the fields of accomplishments and structure, and my Others were considerably more gracious.
“You’re probably very critical of yourself, always thinking you can do a better job,” Federman said, “but they’re saying, ‘Look, we know a lot of people who do this, and you’re pretty good.’” So, you know, that was nice.
OK, great, fine, let’s get to the part for which I was relentlessly scanning: the negatives. In the field of “remains calm during stressful situations,” I gave myself a nice fat five. My Others went with a 3.89 in what Federman called a significant difference in how I see myself versus how they saw me. That made me go ouch. When it came to the field of helping others, my ego gave me another nice fat five, while the others hovered around four and, in some cases, lower.
The biggest differences in my self-opinion versus others’ opinions came in how I treated others. “As a writer, especially as an independent contractor, your role is one of individual contribution,” Federman said. “What came out here doesn’t surprise me—it mimics your career at this time. But if you want to change that, adopt a mentor or leadership role. You might have some areas to tackle.”
As it happens, I served a stint as editor-in-chief of Hilton Head Monthly and found myself a little too control-freaky for the job, which these results bore out. In short, this review, as a proxy for some of my closest friends and family, had a clear message: Think more about others. Me and my fives thought I was doing that already. Others disagreed.
The chewy center to all of this, of course, was the feedback to those three killer questions: What should this person keep, stop and start doing? As promised, the responses were anonymous, and despite my stated vow of revenge, I had a little trouble determining who said what, with the exception of, “I mean, at some point you’ll have to cut back on the Jimmy Buffett concerts.” I discarded Tim’s advice immediately.
The takeaways from my 360 review
Otherwise, a few things jumped out at me. The first was, “He listens to really dated and silly music that makes him seem older than his hair, which looks really old to begin with.” All of that is 100% on point. The second was: “Perhaps structuring articles in a different way—try something new. I think he could try something out of the box.” That, if I’m being honest, is something I was hoping to hear.
And finally, the three things I most took away from this experience, written by I know not whom. All of them are true, all of them are good to hear and all of them are things I have kept in my mind these past few months:
“He tends to judge too quickly.”
“He can get fussy about things and sometimes makes it hard to collaborate with.”
“While oftentimes he is a good listener and collaborator in stressful situations, he will make hardline decisions and he is too rigid about them, even if it’s something that doesn’t actually matter.”
When I rather impulsively agreed to this process a few months ago, I confess to hoping I would receive a healthy serving of validation—he’s a decent writer, works well with others, maintains exemplary dental hygiene, holds his own at Mario Kart, etc. (My wife joked that I’d even deliberately stocked my pool of Others to maximize my positive returns, which was only partly true.)
In the end, as with anything, the only takeaways that really mattered were the difficult ones. I saw in hard relief that, yes, I do judge quickly. I do dig in on pointless controversies. I’m not as easy to be around as I might have believed—in my work life, sure, but also in my day-to-day. So I’ve kept my feedback—both good and bad—in a little document on my desktop, where I can access it now and again to remind myself of the occasional gulf between what I am and what I think I am. I’m not sure if it’s working; we’ll need another 360-degree review to determine that. But it feels good to try.
This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine and was updated April 2023. Photo by Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock
Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as GQ, Men's Health, Time, Billboard and the official Bruce Springsteen site, because though he's had many bosses, there is only one boss. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two sons—the older just stole bacon off your plate and the younger was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). He can be reached at the cleverly named JeffVrabel.com.