360-Degree Feedback Is a Minefield for Employees. Here’s How to Navigate It.

Remember Minesweeper? It was a standard computer game in the 1990s, in which, to play, you were obligated to click on boxes that were either empty (safe) or were filled with a mine (not safe) that abruptly ended the game. The uncertainty of every click filled you with anxiety. Gameplay included few or nonexistent context clues that your next move would (or wouldn’t) be a mistake.

That’s what 360-degree feedback feels like for your employees.

Your team members sit down to fill out 360-degree reviews and immediately feel confused and frustrated. Just like that old game, the process feels fraught with danger. As their cursors hover over scales of one to five, employees’ minds flood with questions: Will my answers get my teammates in trouble? How will my manager react if I rate them poorly? Will this affect my chances of landing a promotion? Every click feels like a step in a minefield.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The key to navigating the minefield is removing the uncertainty. When you explain the purpose of 360-degree feedback and prepare your team for what to expect, everyone breathes easier. To limit the stress and anxiety associated with 360-degree reviews, you have to set clear expectations for your team.

Make Feedback a Priority Year-Round

Your team should not be shocked by the general sentiment of their 360-degree feedback. But if you lump a year’s worth of observations into the 360-degree review process, surprises are inevitable. Not only does it cause unnecessary anxiety and stress for the whole team, but it also kills your employees’ motivation to do their best work. People respond better to continuous feedback with a mix of praise and constructive criticism.

Even the nerve-racking Minesweeper game incorporates some level of preparation. Each time you click on a cell without a mine, you see a number that warns you how many cells with mines are in the vicinity. Without those hints, the game would just be a completely random (and terrifying) virtual minefield.

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Think of those advisory numbers as your ongoing feedback. But instead of using them as warnings, treat them as opportunities to guide your team throughout the year. Use weekly one-on-ones to regularly coach your team members. Checking in on goals and milestones throughout the year is more productive for your company and also helps employees continuously work on growth.

Set Clear Objectives for 360-Degree Feedback

Make sure you and your team know what the process aims to achieve. Will reviews factor into promotions? Are you hoping to improve employee engagement? Whatever your goals, everyone should be clear about them before the 360-degree feedback process begins.

As you rev up for reviews, set aside time in one-on-ones to prepare employees for what to expect. Let your team know how long the process will take, and walk them through the question structure. For instance, if you’re using a combination of number scales and free-form comments, be clear about what the number ratings represent and what details you’d like your team to share in the comments.

It’s also important to go over who will review whom, and why. While your team will expect the manager/direct-report reviews, they might not understand the purpose of peer reviews. Ease tensions by telling your team exactly what feedback you’re looking for and how it will be used. For example, “We want to take a closer look at how we manage professional development for our team. Your candid feedback will help us learn how we can better support management and team members.”

Up-front, transparent communication is crucial. If you tell your team the 360-degree feedback will be used to improve professional development planning but you end up using it to decide who gets promoted, your team will feel betrayed.

In addition, knowing how the 360-degree feedback will be used will likely influence how people respond to the questions. Make sure you’re clear about which aspects will (and will not) remain anonymous, too. Remember, if you don’t prepare your team, every action in the 360-degree review will feel like an uninformed click on the Minesweeper grid.

Summarize Peer Feedback to Ensure Anonymity

It’s easy to recognize a teammate’s writing style or home in on specific identifying details, so you should never provide your team with the raw feedback. Instead, managers should review and summarize the content. To prevent reactionary feedback, you should wait until everyone has submitted their reviews before releasing anything.

When you review peer feedback, focus on the overall sentiment and the main points rather than specific feelings. If you notice animosity between teammates, speak to each employee individually to gain more context. Then, you can work on conflict resolution separately and stick to the main goals of the 360-degree feedback process.

As you decide which aspects of feedback to include in summaries, continually refer back to your objectives. Look for the parts of the review that are most relevant to the main goals of the review process.

Trust Words over Numbers

Keep in mind that “humans are unreliable raters of other humans.” Studies show that people lack objectivity and rate others based on their personal standards, not on an established company-wide scale. But many 360-degree feedback programs reduce people and their skills to average ratings. While it may seem more efficient to rate people’s skills on a scale of one to five, averages lack context and can be easily skewed.

If Maria consistently struggles to work with Jim because he misses deadlines, she might rate his time management as one out of five. But if four other employees rate him at four out of five, Jim’s average will paint a satisfactory picture, burying Maria’s feedback in the process.

Outliers are important. Ask yourself: What led to Maria’s drastically different rating? A personality mismatch? A project-based issue? Don’t accept the average rating and assume everything is fine. For context, look at the words. Number scales are fine for at-a-glance analyses, but written feedback will give you more valuable information.

Help Your Team Avoid Stressful Surprises

Minesweeper is a game that plays on fear of the unknown. But fear and uncertainty should not play a role in the workplace, much less in your 360-degree feedback process. Much of the anxiety linked to 360 reviews boils down to lack of transparency. If your team has to wait all year to find out what their managers and peers think of them, they’re bound to feel uneasy.

When you prioritize regular communication and make time for feedback throughout the year, 360 reviews won’t feel so intimidating. Weekly one-on-ones make time and space to discuss work and personal lives, monitor goals, celebrate wins, and address issues on a regular basis instead of all at once. Sign up for Uptick , and start making more time for open communication.