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James Hopper
Patrick Doyon

1 Jun 2013

The need for 360 feedback in coaching and leadership development

Coaching and Leadership Development have one thing in common: they usually both begin with the employee’s best intentions. Whether it’s following an annual performance evaluation, or when planning a career transition, or simply as part of an ongoing learning and development effort, an employee will typically establish his/her “skill gaps”, also known as “development areas” or “growth opportunities”, and then lay out a plan to address them – either alone or with the help of a coach. So far, so good…

But what if the “self-assessment” of the competency(ies) to be developed is flawed? In other words, what if the employee has mis-evaluated his/her strengths and weaknesses? Then the entire coaching and development effort that ensue is ill-fated from the get go. This may lead to waste of time and money, de-motivation, missed professional opportunities, and sometimes more drastic consequences such as career stalling, employee resignation or dismissal.

With such important organisational consequences, it is useful to understand the reasons behind this “misalignment” and to consider a development approach that minimizes occurrence of this happening in the first place.


Blindspots and Johari’s window:

One practical way to look this situation is by using a popular tool called Johari's window1. This 2x2 matrix (see diagram below) is a nice and simple way of conceptualizing and classifying someone's self-awareness and self-development areas. Johari’s model is composed of the following four quadrants: #1. Open Zone (Top-Left), also called the “Arena”, consists of what is known by the employee about him/herself and is also known by others; Quadrant #2. Hidden Area (Bottom-Left) what the person knows about him/herself that others do not know - hidden area, hidden self, avoided area, avoided self or “Facade”; Quadrant #3. Blindspot Zone (Top-Right), consists of what is unknown by the person about him/herself but which others know or are aware of; and Quadrant #4. Unknown Area (Bottom-Right) is what's unknown by the person about him/herself and is also unknown by others.

Obviously, an employee’s competency deficiencies that fall in quadrants #3 and #4 will certainly lead to an ill-designed development plan. In other words, the employee’s self-awareness is inaccurate such that “blind spots” remain, which lead to the employee not focusing on some of the leadership skills that do in fact require improvements. But what about using a coach to palliate for this imprecise self-assessment? One could argue that coaching - through its powerful questioning, feedback and support approach - is optimal when dealing with a "competency blindspot" (quadrant #3). The coach acts as an objective party to help the employee take a step back and "see the forest" so to speak...

Coaching may certainly help an employee with skill gaps that fall in Quadrant #1 (open area), but I would say that it is less necessary because of the heightened self-awareness by the learner of his/her development needs. Quadrant #2 (Hidden Area) poses some difficulties to the coach because of the perhaps very conscious effort from the employee to not reveal certain areas of his/her personality/competencies. But my take on this “façade quadrant (#2) is that, as a coach, you do your best (poking, digging, powerful questioning) to uncover what's hidden and may feel painful or difficult to deal with by coachee. But, in the end, "you can bring a horse to the water, but you can't force it to drink..." What I do find truly challenging from a coaching point of view are quadrants #3 (blindspots) and #4. (the complete unknown). To illustrate my point, let me tell you a "coaching" story...

Real-life situation:

A good friend of mine - an experienced and qualified HR VP (MBA, CHRP, ICF ACC) - had been coaching this colleague of hers (a newly-promoted director working at another office within the company) for around 6 months. Everything seemed to be going well – they had identified some important development areas and progress seemed to be materializing… until a point (annual performance evaluation period) where the employee’s superior – upon reviewing the employee’s dismal 360 assessment feedback – demoted him back to a manager position within the division. My friend was shocked! By no means was her coachee a superstar employee, she thought. But, based on their mutual coaching conversations, he was making legitimate progress (at least she thought so… and so did he!). What had just happened? Perhaps the employee kept a bit of a façade with his coach – hiding weaknesses or misreporting progress… But, based on my friend’s (the coach) assessment, the employee was truly convinced that he was making progress.

What we’re dealing with here is a Quadrant #3/#4 situation. Clearly, some of the competency deficiencies that my friend’s colleague was struggling with were unknown to him. But his peers/staff seemed quite aware of these (as reported in his annual performance review). This is a classic blindspot situation (unknown to self, but known by others). However, because my friends – the employee’s coach – did not have the opportunity to “see the employee in action” (which is typical of most employee-coach relationship), she was also “blinded” by the feedback she received throughout the coaching engagement. In other words, neither the coach (my friend, the HR VP), nor the coachee (my friend’s colleague) were fully aware of the competency gaps and the developmental challenges that the employee faced (quadrant #4 – unknown to self to the coach).

Multi-rater competency assessments: After discussing this with my friend (who was still upset about failing her coachee), she told me that the superior’s decision to demote the coachee was most likely the good one. As an HR VP, she was allowed to review the employee’s 360 results and, low and behold, the feedbacks were numerous and pretty bad (I’ll spare you the details here). But as she debriefed with the employee, she realized that he was truly clueless and, although well intentioned, he simply wasn’t aware of his destructive interpersonal patterns at work.

The morale of the story here is that – based on my friend’s feedback and my personal interpretation of the situation – “you don’t know what you don’t know”. And if the coachee doesn’t know either, then you’re essentially paddling down the St.Lawrence… and the Niagara Falls are just around the corner!

So, as a coach, you have two options: 1. Shadow the employee on the job, and interview his peers, his direct reports, and anyone else who can provide a valuable and actionable feedback or 2. Obtain a solid 360º assessment of some sort prior to getting too far in the coaching situation. Option #1 is probably to best one in terms of “data input and coachable observations”… However, for most “external coaching” situations, it’s logistically impractical/unfeasible or extremely costly! Even for my friend’s “internal coaching” context, the fact the both her and her colleague/coachee worked three time zones apart made this shadowing unrealistic.

So What...

The net of it is that, although imperfect and sometimes biased, a 360º Assessment may be the only helpful and efficient way for a coach to find critical information hidden in Quadrant #3/#4 – the blindspots and the unknown areas… Hence the need for a multi-rater competency feedback prior to embarking on a coaching relationship and/or initiating a substantial leadership development effort.


1. Reference for Johari’s window:



By Patrick Doyon

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