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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

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SEPTEMBER 2015

19

The State Department Needs to Reevaluate

Its Use of 360-Degree Reviews

BY WI L L I AM BENT

SPEAKING OUT

I

f used correctly, 360-degree reviews

can be a valuable tool for an organiza-

tion seeking to develop its workforce

and foster a culture of leadership and

management excellence. The increasing

use of 360s in organizations, including

the State Department, stems from the

recognition that a performance appraisal

alone does not give a full picture of an

employee’s effectiveness and potential.

As Richard Lepsinger and Antoinette

Lucia stated in their 1997 book, The Art and Science of 360-Degree Feedback :

“Neither upward nor downward feedback

includes the perspectives of a significant

population—colleagues, peers, members

of project teams, other senior managers

and customers—who depend on and

are affected by the behavior of a given

manager. These people are also in a posi-

tion to observe a wide range of behaviors

that might not be apparent to a direct

supervisor or a direct report. Gathering

information frommany different people

provides a complete portrait of behavior

on the job.”

This probably explains why the various

bureaus in the State Department are rely-

ing more and more on 360s in the assign-

ment process. Given the criticisms often

lobbed at the Foreign Service Employee

Evaluation Review, it is understandable

that their use has increased in the depart-

ment. In a systemwhere some claim EERs

WilliamBent, a consular-coned officer serving in Bridgetown, Barbados, is a

former member of the Foreign Service Journal Editorial Board and the AFSA Gov-

erning Board. Bent joined the Foreign Service in 1992 and has served in Prague,

Kingston, Santo Domingo, Kabul and several domestic assignments. He recently

graduated from the National War College.

inflate accomplishments to the point

where every Foreign Service officer “walks

on water,” it is natural that those respon-

sible for filling Foreign Service positions

would seek a more reliable method of

screening bidders.

Assignment decision-makers obvi-

ously want to find the most qualified per-

son for the position, particularly when it

involves significant leadership and mana-

gerial responsibilities, such as a deputy

chief of mission job or the supervisor of a

large consular operation.

Worthy as these intentions may be,

the department’s current use of the

360-degree review process to determine

assignments is misguided and detrimen-

tal to the long-term health of the Foreign

Service.

A Development Tool

The true value of the 360-degree

review—and its most common use by

far in the private sector—is as a develop-

ment tool. When an employee receives

constructive feedback—negative as well

as positive—from supervisors, peers and

subordinates, true career development

can begin if the individual can translate

this feedback into a plan of action to

grow.

Two examples of the State Depart-

ment’s use of the 360 are in line with this

approach to human resource develop-

ment: the Foreign Service Institute’s use

of the 360 in its leadership and manage-

ment training classes and the Bureau

of Consular Affairs’ use of the 360 in its

annual Consular Leadership Indicator

survey. CA’s CLI offers every consular

supervisor the opportunity to, on a

voluntary basis, solicit feedback from

subordinates via an online tool that then

aggregates the results and provides a

scorecard to the manager.

In both examples, the results are not

the end point, but rather constitute the

first step in a process of self-reflection

and, hopefully, growth as a leader and

manager. Indeed, the literature on 360s

makes it very clear that discussion of the

results is a key component of the process,

the purpose of which is to develop lead-

ers.

Unfortunately, other than these two

examples, the department’s use of 360s is

not for developmental purposes, but for

what amounts to hiring decisions.

The department’s current use of the

360-degree review process to determine

assignments is misguided and detrimental

to the long-term health of the Foreign

Service.