The Inappropriate Use of a Great Tool: How a 360 Behavioral Assessment Can be Unintentionally Weaponized

In our work as organizational psychologists and leadership advisors to some of the most prominent surgeon leaders in the United States, we often use a behavioral feedback tool known as the 360 assessment to assist our clients in understanding themselves in the service of being a more effective leader.

The 360 is a process where an individual is provided feedback from others in their work environment in relationship to their behavior. When used appropriately, this is a great process and tool to assist a leader in their development. Unfortunately, this process is often misused as a part of a performance improvement plan (PIP) at the suggestion of corporate HR or legal departments when there is a concern about potential unprofessional behavior.  Furthermore, this tool is often administered by a physician leader or department chair with no formal training in administering this type of a process.  While a 360 evaluation can be a very powerful tool, if not properly handled it can damage individuals, relationships and undermine trust across an organization. 

Much has been written and spoken about psychological safety, which Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmonson has defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Fundamentally, this means there is comfort in giving and receiving feedback as a part of a healthy organizational culture. Effective leadership development requires feedback and requesting feedback requires vulnerability. Without appropriate intention and discretion given to such an important process as the 360 assessment, it can create a culture of mistrust and a lack of psychological safety.  If there is perception that this type of feedback data can be weaponized, it can actually undermine any beneficial coaching or leadership development efforts.

Why Misuse of 360 is a Problem

Most of the professionals that we interact and engage with including HR/legal department, chairs/clinic leaders and external consultants are well intended. However, the ripple effect of an inappropriate deployment of such a tool/process causes many unintentional issues for an organization outside of the individual who is having the 360.

When we launch a 360 process for one of our coaching participants, we provide detailed instructions to them, which includes an explanation of who to ask for feedback, a communication template that the person can send to those they are asking to provide feedback and a process that ensures the request comes from their own email account, not ours and not the institution’s.

By using this type of an instrument without it being initiated and messaged by the person being evaluated, it sends a signal to other people in the environment (colleagues, co-workers, staff, etc…) that the “administration” is trying to gather documentation or evidence that can be used against the participant. While there may be legitimate behavioral challenges that need to be addressed, the people being asked to provide feedback are usually colleagues and/or co-workers who work with (and care about) this person.

How the Misuse of a 360 Undermines Culture

Culture is about behaviors, which are about people. In order to change culture, it is important to understand the complexities of how and why people behave the way they do. We need to understand the tendencies of an individual before we can explain their behavior. In our experience, the behavioral issues that we are faced with are rarely about the individual but more about environmental dynamics. For example, if we are concerned about the employee engagement scores of an organization, instead of focusing on the poor scores, it is important to understand what role the people in the organizational system are playing in the scores and what the individuals need to do to change that outcome.

Many of the organizations that we work with have invested the time, money, resources and curiosity in building their leadership capacity. As a part of our positive, non-punitive and proactive work, we use a 360 process that we have validated over the past decade. This is used ONLY for development purposes and on behalf of the individual.

This is driven by the participant, no one sees the contents of what is reported, except for the participant. When an organization is thinking about people, culture and leadership in the correct way, but then uses this type of a process inappropriately, it undermines the trust that they are working so hard to build.

How Should a 360 be Used

Requesting feedback about one’s own behavior requires humility, curiosity and empathy.
When a 360 behavioral assessment is used as a part of a professional development plan, it can be an extremely valuable tool and often is transformative for the participant. Before deploying this type of a tool, some other steps need to be taken first. It is important to understand that our behavior is the terminal output of our thought processes. There are three important variables which inform how we think and ultimately behave. These include our tendencies, our life experiences/environmental variables and what motivates us. The 360 process helps us understand our environment. If you want to be effective in developing your people, these are the ingredients necessary:

  1. A validated personality assessment: Our approach to this work is different than most in that before we ask other people for their input about a person’s behavior, we activate the person’s own knowledge. This approach needs to be customized to the person and have “face validity”, ensuring that the report resonates with the person reading it.
  2. A robust professional development plan: This is an important element to help the participant understand what it is they are trying to accomplish in their career. This could be a promotion, securing a grant, being a better mentor, etc….
  3. A robust behavioral assessment (360) with physician/healthcare specific language: This can provide meaningful, productive and actionable tactics for a person to use in their development process. It involves the participant completing a survey based on their perceptions of their own behavior and then asking their senior stakeholders, peers/colleagues and subordinates for feedback using the same instrument.

Based on our extensive experience working with clinicians and senior leaders, this methodology is effective. Culture does not change without behavior changing at the individual level. There is a positive, developmental way to engage our physician colleagues that allows specific behaviors to change, without trying to change them as human beings. If by responsibly using a 360 feedback tool leaders can help their people understand what behaviors are working for them and what behaviors are working against all they want to accomplish, the organizational culture has no choice but to improve in a way that represents everyone’s interests.

See a recent blog expanding on the concept of “Self-Determination Theory” as it relates to physician leadership and engagement:

Alan Friedman, M.A., is the CEO and Founder of J3P Healthcare Solutions. To learn more about J3Ps solutions, visit