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MSU Psychology Performance Appraisals Articles Analysis

L E A N N E E . AT W AT E R , J O A N F. B R E T T, A N D AT I R A
Organizations around the world are using multisource, or 360-degree, feedback. Although many HR practitioners embrace it as an important mechanism for leadership development, organizations must attend to and address
several issues in order to maximize the utility of multisource feedback (MSF).
We discuss current research findings and highlight issues for managers to
consider both before starting a multisource feedback process and after the
feedback is given, plus we review potential outcomes of the process. We also
describe lessons learned from an intensive three-year investigation of an
MSF implementation in two organizations. © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
ultisource feedback (MSF), also
known as 360-degree feedback, is
a process in which a leader receives anonymous feedback from
subordinates, peers, bosses, and
customers. MSF is pervasive throughout U.S.
organizations and is spreading to other parts
of the world. Estimates indicate that as
many as 29% of U.S. organizations (Church,
2000) are using this process. Many organizations embrace the 360-degree feedback
process as part of their overall leadership development programs. However, recent research suggests that results may be modest.
Smither, London, and Reilly (2005) analyzed the results of 24 longitudinal studies
on MSF and concluded, “Practitioners
should not expect large, widespread performance improvements after employees receive multi-source feedback” (p. 33). While
their results found modest, yet positive improvements in employee behaviors and attitudes, practitioners that seek ways to increase the effectiveness of their firm’s MSF
interventions can look to the existing and
current research on MSF processes.
The purpose of this article is to outline
recent studies on MSF in order to inform
practice and increase the likelihood that
more leaders and organizations will benefit
from this developmental process. Our intentions are threefold. First, we highlight research knowledge in the area of MSF. Second, we describe all we have learned from
Correspondence to: Leanne E. Atwater, Management Department Chair, School of Global Management and
Leadership, Arizona State University, 4701 W. Thunderbird Road, Phoenix, AZ 85069-7100, (602) 543-6203,
Human Resource Management, Summer 2007, Vol. 46, No. 2, Pp. 285–307
© 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Published online in Wiley InterScience (
DOI: 10.1002/hrm.20161
an intensive three-year investigation of an
MSF implementation in two organizations.
Third, we discuss the implications of MSF research for leaders and human resource professionals in the field. Where appropriate, we
indicate where MSF research has relevance to
performance appraisal (PA), since both
processes involve feedback.
Figure 1 presents a framework for presenting recent research on MSF. The framework includes factors that HR practitioners
should consider prior to implementation,
factors to consider about the actual MSF
process, factors to consider after leaders receive feedback, and outcomes that organizations can anticipate. For each of these topic
areas, a table summarizes the MSF findings
and applications for practice. The issues
noted in italics in Figure 1 and the tables indicate results from our three-year study.
We also highlight those areas in which
findings from the literature on performance
appraisal (PA) and MSF are similar. While
this article is not intended to summarize the
vast literature on PA, there are areas in which
practitioners interested in MSF can learn
from the PA literature. However, for the most
part, MSF has been designed and implemented as a developmental rather than evaluative process. Unlike MSF, PAs are often
linked to administrative purposes and have
consequences for merit increases and promotion and layoff decisions. In addition, PA traditionally relies upon a supervisor evaluation, whereas MSF relies on multiple, often
anonymous sources. Because of these differ-
FIGURE 1. Issues to Consider in a Multisource Feedback Process
Human Resource Management DOI: 10.1002/hrm
Multisource Feedback: Lessons Learned and Implications for Practice
ences, many of the findings pertinent to MSF
are not particularly relevant to PA (e.g.,
anonymity, confidentiality, time involved in
the process, method of feedback distribution). In addition, one of the purposes of this
article is to highlight findings from a threeyear study of MSF that has limited relevance
to PA. Throughout the article, however, we
will indicate findings that should have relevance for both MSF and PA.
Factors to Consider Before Feedback
Organizational Context
MSF can be initiated by an individual leader
as a means of self-development. More commonly, an organization or unit embarks on
an MSF process because of pressing needs for
its leaders to engage in different behaviors to
respond to organizational challenges. Often,
an MSF process becomes one of several approaches to resolving organizational issues.
Under these circumstances, developmental
feedback may reinforce positive leadership
change or may garner resistance. How well
the feedback process works depends, in part,
on the organizational context surrounding
its implementation. For example, organizations considering serious restructuring or
downsizing are not in a good position to
begin implementing MSF, because they will
have difficulty garnering the trust needed
from participants in the midst of serious organizational change. Additionally, organizational cynicism (e.g., employees believe efforts to change are not worth it, or positive
change is not possible) can interfere with the
success of the MSF intervention. Atwater,
Waldman, Atwater, and Cartier (2000) found
that MSF participants who were cynical were
less likely to improve following MSF (r =
–.25, p
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