Military and civilian professionals strive for continuous personal development. Dedicated leaders seek ways to better themselves as a means toward organizational improvement.
Thoughtful feedback is important for an accurate understanding of how seniors consider an individual’s strengths and weaknesses and for receiving recommendations for improvement. This feedback most often comes in the form of scheduled performance appraisals, positive and negative counseling, and ongoing mentoring.
Constructive criticism from peers and subordinates provides new viewpoints and recommendations to assist professionals in their pursuit of continuous improvement. This has led to development in the civilian sector of 360-degree feedback programs; so-called multi-rater reviews where individuals are evaluated by various stakeholders such as seniors, peers, customers, and subordinates. There has also been a recent push to institute this assessment mechanism in the military, with some leaders using 360-degree feedback on an individual or unit basis. Even more recently, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey announced an initiative to formalize these programs in every military department.
According to a 1 May 2013 Military Times article (“Dempsey: 360-Degree Reviews Could Help Select Better Leaders” by Andrew Tilghman), the Chairman envisions multi-rater assessments having limited use initially with possible later expansion for use in command screening. Instituting 360-degree feedback in any formal manner will take much more than waiting until the “force grows comfortable” as suggested by his spokesman, Colonel David Lapan. It will require serious consideration of the potential drawbacks of 360-degree feedback, not just its benefits.
There are several important factors that must be accounted for in development of formal 360-degree feedback programs if the reports are to be used for promotion or selection to specific duties. Primary among them is the potential for inclusion of reports from those with ulterior motives or possessing a vendetta. Military leaders compete, often head-to-head, for promotion, selection to command, and other special assignments. Peer reviews could be slanted in an attempt to give those writing them a desired advantage in selection. Even when there is sincere respect for a peer, the potential for biased reviews is possible. Similarly, subordinates who have been disciplined, admonished, or graded poorly by their senior may see an opportunity to exact revenge by giving undeserved low grades.
One way to make 360-degree reviews useful while eliminating some of these concerns is to use electronic assessment with various attributes graded by a range of numbers. This survey format is familiar to almost everyone (e.g. five equals excellent, three equals neutral, and one equals poor). This process averages a number of assessments from any particular group (peers or subordinates) while decreasing the value of, or completely discounting, statistical outliers (those whose scores are so far from the average they reflect a potential ulterior motive). Electronic surveys can also use narrative statements that allow the person completing the assessment to communicate directly with the recipient to provide honest feedback and suggestions. This is one of the most important tools of multi-rater reviews: insight into how others view your skills and abilities.
Another consideration is whether or not reviewers should be anonymous. Command-climate surveys and other leadership assessments are always done with anonymity, and for good reason. Anonymity invites honesty about what individual members of the chain-of-command are doing right or wrong, and about those tangible command conditions they influence, like equal opportunity, while at the same time eliminating any fear of reprisal that could result from such honesty. It also removes concerns over being viewed as a yes-man for being particularly generous in one’s assessment.
Briefly stated, anonymity provides the freedom and encouragement to be complimentary when deserved and critical when necessary.
While some may believe concerns of reprisal and special favors are overstated, both are far too common in the military now, and 360-degree feedback could feed that phenomenon if not carefully implemented. In fact, doing so successfully may not be possible because the military may already be too political for multi-rater reviews to ever be effective.
Whether or not multi-rater reviews are appropriate and useful in the military culture, General Dempsey’s initiative appears to show they will become reality, and there are important considerations for the way ahead.