Human Resources Advice for Robbie Burns

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Hugh MacDonald

Like many a human resources consultant, poet Robbie Burns once wished that people could see themselves from another perspective. In his poem "To a Louse" he wrote:

"O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us"

Of course, Burns never heard of 360 Degree Feedback or interview feedback—great tools for freeing us from "blunders" and "foolish notions." The idea with both tools is to find out how we, or more commonly, our clients, are seen by other people and use the information to help them gain self-knowledge and prepare development plans to improve any gaps in capabilities, knowledge or behavior.

360 Degree Feedback

360 Degree Feedback is an anonymous survey process that takes its name from the fact that the survey involves the people surrounding us, that is, our managers, peers, colleagues, partners, customers, suppliers and our staff or protêgêes. The idea is to get a well-rounded view of how we are seen by all of those with whom we work. The use of a survey helps ensure that we obtain honest feedback and protect the privacy of those who give it. Typically, survey participants sign on to a Web site and answer a series of questions. The results are aggregated in such a way that it is impossible to determine who said what. A report is then prepared for our review and self-analysis. By obtaining information from multiple sources at each level, anomalous data and unfair feedback is moderated and averaged over several "sightings."

Used as a confidential development activity, the 360 Degree survey process is quite valuable, safe and private. human resources professionals and coaches in private practices specialize in providing surveys and working with people to analyze the results and create development plans. From a relationship-management perspective, it is a useful tool to collect information on how we are seen by others. The downside of this tool is some managers might use it for performance purposes—rather than as a development tool. Used this way, the survey becomes a blunt instrument that will erode trust and create a climate of fear.


Conceptually similar to 360 Degree Feedback, the interview approach involves the use of a third party to personally interview a range of individuals who can provide useful and accurate information about the subject’s abilities, skills, knowledge and attitudes. As above, the identity and privacy of the person being surveyed is protected. The information is then summarized in a custom report and discussed with the individual for whom it was collected. One advantage of this approach is that the interview questions can be customized and the interviewer can look into specific behaviors, issues or relationships.

While most feedback survey processes are meant for personal reflection, they can help a leader take on a new management assignment or work with a new team. Working as a coach, I once engaged a neutral third party to interview a client and a number of the individuals with whom he worked. He was new to his role as an executive vice president of a large firm. We talked about the challenge of quickly being introduced to the group and learning what their expectations were of him; they, in turn, were interested in him and what he expected of them. The idea was that the interviewer would create a list of structured questions and ask everyone about their expectations and the questions they had for the new EVP. Most of them weren’t yet comfortable enough with him to ask him directly. The data was then summarized. Rather than just circulating a report or memo, however, we invited everyone to a meeting during which the new EVP was interviewed using a talk show format. He and the interviewer occupied club chairs in the front of the room and the interviewer asked him the tough questions. Some thorny and challenging issues got raised in a safe environment, and both the executive and his team were able communicate what was on their minds. It was especially interesting because the EVP had been convinced that everyone was comfortable with him and that he knew what was on their minds. To his considerable surprise, the exercise proved that this was not the case.

With both 360 Degree assessments and interviews, the idea is to recognize that we may only think we know what’s on other people’s minds. Even if we ask, they won’t necessarily tell us. But they may, however, tell someone else. That’s not being dishonest or disrespectful. It’s just human nature.

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