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.