by MauryA. Peiperl
360-degree feedback is all the rage
in companies big and small. But it is
frequently bureaucratic, politically
charged, and agonizing. The good news
is that by understanding four paradoxes
inherent to peer appraisal, managers
can take some of the pain out of the
process-and get better results in.
IF A SINGLE E-MAIL
can send the pulse racing, it's the one from
human resources announcing that it's time
for another round of
In and of itself, this
type of appraisal isn't bad. Indeed, many
businesspeople would argue that over
the past decade, it has revolutionized
performance management-for the better. But one aspect of 360-degree feedback consistently stymies executives: peer appraisal. More times than not, it
exacerbates bureaucracy, heightens political tensions, and consumes enormous numbers of hours. No wonder so many
executives wonder if peer appraisal is
worth the effort.
I wotild argue that it is. Peer appraisal,
when conducted effectively, can bolster
the overall impact of 360-degree feedback and is as important as feedback from superiors and subordinates. Yet the
question remains: can peer appraisal
take place without negative side effects?
The answer is yes-if executives tinderstand and manage around four inherent paradoxes. HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW
For the past ten years, my research
has focused on the theory behind, and
practice of, 360-degree feedback. Most
recently, I studied its implementation at
17 companies varying in size - from startups of a few dozen people to Fortune 500 firms-and industry-from hightech manufacturing to professional services firms. I was looking for answers to several questions. Under what circumstances does peer appraisal improve performance? Why does peer appraisal
forward thinking and a deeper understanding of their dynamics, ease the discomfort. Let's consider each paradox in detail.
The Paradox of Roles
Peer appraisal begins with a simple
premise: the people best suited to judge
the performance of others are those
who work most closely with them. In
fiatter organizations with looser hierarchies, bosses may no longer have all the
When the Paradox of Roles is at play,
people are torn between being supportive
colleagues or hard-nosed judges.
work well in some cases and fail miserably in others? Andfinally,how can executives fashion peer appraisal programs to be less anxiety provoking and more productive for the organization?
My research produced a discomforting conclusion: peer appraisal is difficult because it has to be. Four inescapable paradoxes are embedded in the process:
• The Paradox of Roles: You cannot be
both a peer and a judge.
• The Paradox of Group Performance:
Focusing on individuals puts the
entire group at risk.
• The Measurement Paradox: The easier
feedback is to gather, the harder it is
• The Paradox of Rewards: When peer
appraisal counts the most, it helps
Performance management isn't easy
imder any circumstances. But a certain
clarity exists in the traditional form
of performance review, when a boss
evaluates a subordinate. The novelty
and ambiguity of peer appraisal, on the
other hand, give rise to its paradoxes.
Fortunately, managers can, with some
infonnation they need to appraise subordinates. But it doesn't necessarily follow that peers will eagerly step into the breach. They may tend to give fairly
conservative feedback rather than risk
straining relationships with colleagues
by saying things that could be perceived
negatively. Consequently, the feedback
gathered from peers may be distorted,
overly positive, and, in the end, unhelpful to managers and recipients. In more than one team I studied, participants in peer appraisal routinely gave all their colleagues the highest ratings on all dimensions. When I questioned this practice, the responses revealed just...
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