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The Need for 360-Degree Feedback in Coaching and Leadership Development

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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, during the planning of 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 misevaluated his/her strengths and weaknesses? Then the entire coaching and development effort that ensues is ill-fated from the beginning. This may lead to waste of time and money, demotivation, missed professional opportunities, and sometimes more drastic consequences such as career stalling, employee resignation or dismissal.

With such important organizational 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.

Blind Spots and Johari’s Window:

One practical way to look at this situation is by using a popular tool called Johari’s window (1). 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:

  • Quadrant #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. Also called the hidden area, hidden self, avoided area, avoided self or “Facade”;
  • Quadrant #3: Blind Spot Zone (top right), consists of what is unknown by the person about him/herself but which others know or are aware of;
  • Quadrant #4: Unknown Area (bottom right) is what’s unknown by the person about him/herself and 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 blind spot” (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 it is arguably 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 not to reveal certain areas of his/her personality/competencies. But in this facade Quadrant (#2), a coach must do his/her best (poking, digging, powerful questioning) to uncover what’s hidden and may be painful or difficult to deal with for the employee. But, in the end, “you can bring a horse to the water, but you can’t force it to drink…”

What is truly challenging from a coaching point of view are Quadrants #3 (Blind Spots) and #4. (The Complete Unknown).

Real-Life Situation:

An experienced and qualified HR VP had been coaching a colleague of hers (a newly promoted director working at another office within the company) for around six months. Everything seemed to be going well. They had identified some important development areas and progress seemed to be materializing until a point (the annual performance evaluation period) where the employee’s superior, upon reviewing the employee’s dismal 360 assessment feedback, demoted him back to a manager's position within the division. This was a shocking turn of events because based on their mutual coaching conversations, the employee was making legitimate progress as far as both the coach and the employee could see. What had just happened? Perhaps the employee kept a bit of a facade with his coach—hiding weaknesses or misreporting progress, but based on the coach’s 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 the employee 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 blind spot situation (unknown to self, but known by others). However, because the employee’s coach did not have the opportunity to “see the employee in action,” which is typical of most employee-coach relationships, she was also “blinded” by the feedback she received throughout the coaching engagement. In other words, neither the coach nor the employee were fully aware of the competency gaps and the developmental challenges that the employee faced (Quadrant #4—unknown to self or to the coach).

Ultimately, the superior’s decision to demote the coach was most likely a good one. As an HR VP, the coach was able to review the employee’s 360 results and, low and behold, the feedback was not good. But as the coach 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 moral of the story here is that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” And if the coach 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, there are two options for avoiding situations like this:

  1. Shadow the employee on the job and interview peers, direct reports, and anyone else who can provide valuable and actionable feedback;
  2. Obtain a solid 360º assessment of some sort prior to getting too far into coaching the employee.

Option #1 is probably the best one in terms of “data input and coachable observations,” however, for most “external coaching” situations, it’s logistically impractical/unfeasible or extremely costly. For instance, even in this real life situation, the coach and her colleague worked three time zones apart making shadowing unrealistic.

So What…

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 Quadrants #3 and #4—the blind spots and the unknown areas. Hence the need for competency feedback prior to embarking on a coaching relationship and/or initiating a substantial leadership development effort.


Luft, J.; Ingham, H. (1955). "The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness". Proceedings of the western training laboratory in group development. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles.

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