Research Paper By Heather Pierce
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
There are two primary organizational assessments that can be used as inputs to coaching interventions: 360 or Multi-source assessments, and organizational surveys. The purpose of this paper is to present a review of the research literature about the use of coaching following 360 feedback and organizational surveys, and to provide direction for future research. This paper will show the potential for coaching to be more intimately tied to these endeavors, resulting in improvements for individuals as well as organizations overall.
Coaching and 360 Feedback
Also known as Multi-source feedback, 360 assessments are those that involve a circle of people around the individual: in addition to a manager providing feedback, information is also gathered from the individual him/herself, direct reports, peers and sometimes customers. Coaching is frequently recommended as a follow-up to organizational 360s. A link between the two makes perfect sense, as they are two activities focused on developing the individual. Although 360s can be used for administrative purposes, it is generally accepted that their purpose should be primarily developmental. The Center for Creative Leadership, a world famous, global provider of executive education uses 360-degree feedback solely for developmental purposes to provide the most accurate data possible to its participants(p.11),
and others believe in this approach as well. As coaching is also focused on helping people improve, involving a coach to help an individual address the 360 results should lead to performance and other improvements.
In general, research looking at the impact of 360s or Multi-Source feedback instruments on performance improvement has shown a modest effect. Smither, London and Reilly (2005) analyzed the results of 24 studies and, although they found some positive improvements after multi-source feedback, concluded that Practitioners should not expect large, widespread performance improvements after employees receive multi-source feedback (p.33).
The small changes typically found as a result of multi-source feedback have led to a shift in perspective in the research. Instead of looking at whether or not multi-source feedback is effective, researchers are now looking at what conditions lead to improvement in performance following multi-source feedback (Bracken & Rose, 2011; Smither, London & Reilly, 2005). Follow-up coaching is one of those factors considered as essential to performance improvement following a 360.
Several key studies point to the importance of coaching in 360s. Atwater, Brett & Charles (2007) highlight findings about multi-source feedback, and found many benefits of coaching, including the creation of more specific goals, improvement in supervisor and subordinate ratings, improvements in their own job attitudes and improvements in the job attitudes of their employees. They conclude that Facilitation sessions are critical to help the individual identify goals and strategies for needed behavior change indicated by the feedback. (p. 292).
They recommend using multi-source feedback in conjunction with training or a coach. Bracken and Rose (2011) identify four characteristics of 360s that lead to behavior change, one of which is accountability. Included in this characteristic is following up with direct reports to share the findings of the 360 and having the support of the boss. Their recommendations include providing each participant a minimum of one coaching or feedback session to accompany their 360 results.
Despite recommendations for coaching to follow 360 or multi-source feedback, studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that it does not often happen. Atwater, Brett & Charles (2007) say that many companies rely on voluntary participation in follow-up and developmental activities, our experience is that they are rarely used. (p.291).
In a recent study by Ellam-Dyson and Palmer (2011), titled Leadership Coaching? No thanks, I’m not worthy,
the authors intended to follow 41 executives from a development program through a coaching process. However, despite being offered coaching, almost half of the executives did not participate. Data was collected during the development program from all executives on characteristics such as frustration tolerance, perfectionism and unconditional self-acceptance. The only significant difference between the group that accepted coaching compared to the group that refused coaching was that the no-coaching group had lower unconditional self-acceptance. Further research is needed to better understand what makes some people accept coaching following a 360 assessment and others refuse coaching.
One aspect that has not been considered is the role of timing in acceptance of coaching in a 360 feedback process. There may be a difference in results if the coaching is presented prior to the start of the process than if it is offered after the results are delivered. Although coaching is intended to be a benefit to participants, it is possible that when coaching is offered after feedback is gathered, it is viewed as remedial. Participants may think that the offer of coaching is based on a judgment that they did not do well. A better approach may be to initiate the coaching process prior to the collection of the 360 feedback, creating a more integrated process. This way, coaching is seen as completely independent of the type of results obtained through the 360. The coaching process can begin early, and the coach can talk to the participant about the goal of the 360 process, setting the stage for improvement regardless of the results. An empirical study could be conducted to assess these ideas, with coaching offered to a group of participants prior to 360 administration, and another group offered coaching after results are delivered. This would help determine if 1) there are differences in the types of people in each group that accepted the offer and 2) if the results of coaching differ based on the timing of the coaching offer. Comparisons could also be made between the coaching and non-coaching groups, looking at differences in perceived effectiveness of the 360 process, improvements made as a result of the 360, etc. regardless of the time of the coaching offer.
It is also possible that different types of people would accept coaching depending on what point in time the coaching is offered. When coaching is offered prior to the start of the coaching process, the participants have to decide about coaching without knowledge of the results of their feedback. People who accept coaching at this point in the process are likely to be proactive and eager to act on feedback of any type. It is possible that when coaching is offered pre-360, those who accept will be stronger performers already. In terms of the type of people who would accept coaching when it is offered post -360, it seems likely that there would be a relationship between those who elect to be coached and the type of feedback received. Smither, London and Reilly (2005) indicate that feedback recipients with larger gaps between their self-ratings and the ratings given to them by others (where self-ratings are higher) might be the most motivated to see a need for change. A research study comparing the types of people who accept coaching pre-360 and post-360 could test this idea.
In addition, perceptions of the 360 process might differ depending on when coaching was offered. Specifically, if coaching is offered pre-360, that may result in a more positive perception of the coaching and 360 processes than if coaching is offered post-360 group, as they would be going into the processes more prepared and seeing the process as more integrated. Finally, there may be differences overall between the Coaching and Non-Coaching groups, such that those who received coaching would 1) have more positive perceptions of the 360 process, 2) would have implemented more improvement plans as a result of the 360 process and 3) would show more improvement in 360 ratings during the next administration.
Coaching and Organizational Surveys
An area with great potential for coaching is that of using coaching as a follow-up to organizational Surveys. Most organizations do some sort of employee survey, providing results to managers showing them how people in their groups responded. Although the content of these surveys vary widely, from focus on employee satisfaction, to employee engagement, to targeted surveys assessing employee opinions on selected topics of interest, there is likely to be information that a manager can use to gain insight into his/her own development opportunities. These surveys typically allow employees to provide anonymous feedback, and honesty is encouraged, leading to a wealth of information.
It is generally agreed that acting on results is a key to an effective survey process. According to Gallup (2006) Employees expect and need resolution, and one of the best ways to do this is through action planning (this process is also called “impact planning”). Though the methods vary, action planning is essentially a process in which a manager discusses survey results with his or her workgroup. Then the group collectively selects specific issues to work on and improve.
In their own studies, they found that in groups where action plans had a positive effect, employee engagement increased by the next survey administration. According to Saari and Judge (2004) . . . actual action, not just involvement in survey feedback discussions and the development of plans, is critical for an employee survey to result in improved performance. Feedback sessions that result in concrete goals and resulting actions have the most impact.
Insightlink Communications, a company that conducts employee surveys indicates on their website that Our repeat clients who have used our 4Cs Action Planning Workbook average a 7% increase in overall satisfaction on follow-up employee surveys.
As coaching is an endeavor focused on action, there seems to be a clear opportunity to bring in coaches to help organizations deal with survey results. Coaching can be used at a variety of levels in the organization in conjunction with employee surveys. At the senior leadership level, employee survey data gives valuable feedback on how the company is doing related to its employee strategy. Leaders may learn how connected their employees feel to the goals of the company, how well they think senior leaders are doing communicating strategy, how comfortable employees feel sharing their ideas. In addition to creating action plans to address the issues resulting from employee surveys, coaching may be a valuable addition to the process, using coaches to help leaders define and implement their action plans. As these action plans are often implemented by teams, coaching may take on a facilitation type tone, as coaches work with groups who are dealing with the survey results.
A truer use of coaching in relation to employee surveys is in dealing with individual managers and their survey results. When discussion action and action plans, the impact desired is typically an impact on the organization, and increasing survey scores in subsequent administrations. The use of survey results for individual manager development receives less attention, as surveys are generally looked at as more high level. However, there is usually detail in the surveys relating to manager performance that can be used for development purposes. Employee surveys typically include items about management, such as Overall I am satisfied with my manager, My manager is effective in his/her role or My manager supports my work-life balance.
It is also common for items to get specific about how managers approach situations such as managing good/poor performers, how they deal with diversity, etc. This feedback can be incredibly valuable to managers in guiding their development. Although the feedback is sometimes included in manager evaluations, it is rarely used as input into performance development. This is a nearly untapped area for coaching. In addition to coaching around survey results being new, it is also less common for coaching to come down to lower levels of management. The term most frequently used when describing coaching services in an organization is “Executive Coaching”. While coaching of high level managers in an organization is most common, it can also be effective for lower levels.
When companies address employee survey results, the focus tends to be on areas that received low results. It is highly likely that, when looking at results that are specific to manager performance, companies would pinpoint managers with lower ratings on manager specific items. These lower performing managers would then be most likely to be recommended for coaching around survey results. Care would need to be taken to ensure that these managers accept the coaching and approach it with a positive attitude and intention to commit to the process. Coaching that is seen as remedial, or as a punishment, may not be approached positively.
A search for research articles about the use of coaching as follow-up to employee surveys yielded no results, however, there are some companies who list coaching following an Organizational Survey as a service area. Sirota, a company specializing in employee surveys says this about their coaching services: Our coaching program is designed to help your leaders and managers turn their survey data into powerful action plans that improve employee engagement and organizational performance.
As coaching comes into use with employee survey results, empirical research would be beneficial.
Potential topics for research in the area of coaching and employee surveys could relate to the process of integrating coaching into the employee survey process and the outcomes of doing so. The first step is for organizations to move beyond traditional action planning to add follow-up coaching. As there are typically so many managers receiving feedback, decisions need to be made about how many managers to include. This decision could be made based on organizational level or strength of results. One option for integrating coaching is to use coaches to deliver and help managers interpret their results, as is typically done with 360 feedback. Coaches could be involved in the results and action planning development phases of the process. It would be interesting to know if using a coach would lead to better action plans, and higher rates of implementation of those plans. Research could look at differences in employees’ ratings of change based on the survey results, in addition to potential changes in employee satisfaction or engagement.
As mentioned previously, when targeted questions are asked about manager behavior, employee survey results function almost as a performance appraisal. When the survey results are focused on manager behavior, coaching is a more clear next step. Coaches can work with managers to understand their results and develop and implement improvement plans. In addition to looking at subsequent improvements on employee survey results, research could look for improvements in performance appraisal information, in 360s or otherwise. Follow-up surveys of managers who received coaching would also be beneficial, to better understand how accepting managers are of coaching that has been recommended based on survey results. Because it is likely that organizations would choose managers with lower performance to follow-up coaching, coaches need to be exceptionally aware of managers who may feel forced into the coaching engagement, and those who may not put in the effort required to make improvements. Coaches should not waste valuable organizational funds working with managers who do not intend to use the process. Organizational communication to managers selected for coaching should be focused on the opportunities that coaching provides, instead of presenting coaching as a punishment for poor performance. According to Sherpa Consulting’s Executive Coaching Survey 2013, there has been a shift over the past 8 years in which coaching has moved away from a focus on addressing problem behaviors to use as leadership development and more of a “status symbol”. Caution should be taken to ensure that the reputation of coaching is not harmed by reverting to using it for dealing with poor performance.
This paper has shown the importance of coaching following organizational assessments. It has also pointed to the need for more empirical research to better understand how to best support 360 feedback recipients. An important area to consider is the timing of the offer of coaching. Coaching is intended to be positive, and a benefit to participants. Presenting the offer of coaching in advance of a 360 administration may lead to a more positive experience than presenting it after feedback is received, when the coaching may be seen as remedial in focus.
Some potential research questions are:
- Is coaching accepted by more 360 feedback participants if the offer is made Pre-360 than Post-360?
- Are there differences in the types of people who accept offers of coaching Pre-360 vs. Post-360?
- Are stronger performers more likely than weaker performers to accept a Pre-360 coaching offer?
- Do those who receive coaching following a 360 show greater improvement over time than those who refuse coaching?
- Do those who receive coaching following a 360 have more positive attitudes toward the 360 process than those who refuse coaching?
This paper has also highlighted a largely untapped area where coaching can benefit organizations: the use of coaching in conjunction with employee survey results. As there is no research specifically dealing with this area, some potential research questions are:
- Does coaching of managers following an employee survey lead to the use of more action plans, or more complete plans?
- Are action plans more likely to be implemented if a coach was involved in the development?
- Are the resulting changes (in survey results the next year or in employee ratings of change based on survey results) stronger when a coach is involved?
- How receptive are managers to coaching following an employee survey? Does it depend on how strong/weak their survey results were?
- Do managers who use a coach following an employee survey show more improvements in later employee survey results or in performance appraisal results than those who do not use a coach?
Coaching within organizations has been shown to be effective. Although measuring a monetary impact can be challenging, studies do show links between coaching and improvements in an executive’s performance (Armstrong & Tooth, 2008). As the popularity of coaching continues to grow, more opportunities will present themselves, such as with 360s and employee surveys as described here. Coaches will need to work to show the value they can add to other organizational endeavors. Implementing coaching can be a costly endeavor, and coaching as a profession will suffer if results are not shown. Research on the effectiveness of coaching for 360s, employee surveys, etc. will allow organizations to make the best choices possible, balancing cost and benefits.
Atwater, L.E., Brett, J.F. & Charles, A.C. (2007). Multisource feedback: Lessons learned and implications for practice. Human Resource Management, 46(2), 285-307.
Armstrong, H. & Tooth, J.A. (2008). The ROI dilemma. HR Monthly (June), 36-39.
Bracken, D.W. & Rose, D.S. (2011). When does 360-degree feedback create behavior change? And how would we know it when it does? Journal of Business Psychology, doi 10.1007/s10869-011-9218-5.
Ellam-Dyson, V. & Palmer, S. (2011). Leadership Coaching? No thanks, I’m not worthy. The Coaching Psychologist, 7(2), 108-117.
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Saari, L.M. & Judge, T.A. (2004). Employee attitudes and job satisfaction. Human Resource Management, 43(4), 397-405.
4 Cs Employee Surveys: The insight you need to create change. Insightlink.com. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://www.insightlink.com/employee-surveys.html