teamwork - three skateboarding girls climbing up a ramp
Multi-source feedback combines the benefits of downward, upward and peer to peer feedback to create a better picture of employee performance PHOTO: Jeff Sandquist

Businesses have long practiced the art of "downward reviews," where a manager or supervisor gives feedback to a subordinate. 

Multi-source feedback emerged in response to that one dimensional approach, as a means to gain a more accurate appraisal of an employee's behavior, skills and potential knowledge gaps to be filled by training or coaching.

What Does 'Multi-Source Feedback' Mean?

Multi-source feedback is also known as multi-rater feedback and 360 degree feedback. It brings together upward (feedback delivered to management by subordinates only), downward (the reverse) and lateral feedback (peer to peer), plus an employee self-assessment. When relevant, some companies also include feedback from external sources such as stakeholders, clients or customers to round out the assessment.

Multi-source feedback has its advantages and disadvantages, but for the purposes of this article we will take an in-depth look at the type of feedback you are likely to receive from each source and the associated benefits and pitfalls of each type. 

On their own, none of the three are considered adequate to assess performance. Together they provide a more rounded and complete vision of an employee’s performance.

3 Forms of Feedback

Upward Feedback

Upward feedback plays an important part of multi-source feedback. As the name suggests, upward feedback moves in an upward direction from (your) subordinates, upwards to you. 

One considerable advantage of upward feedback is that it highlights your competencies and skills as a manager. Your subordinates will advise you on your leadership abilities, what you are doing well and equally what aspects of your leadership need improvement. Feedback from subordinates can help you develop the skills and qualities so you excel as a leader.

While this method can generate some interesting insights, this is not the most valuable source of feedback of the three. Employees are inclined to behave in a manner that is most beneficial to them, they may not provide a wholly accurate account of performance if it will result in an unfavorable outcome for them. 

Additionally, as with most management structures, subordinates are unlikely to work in very close proximity to, or in cooperation with their managers, and therefore are potentially not the most qualified people to measure their performance. Yes, they can share thoughts on leadership qualities, work attitude and communication skills, but not their manager's overall performance.

Downward Feedback

Downward feedback is the opposite: it goes from managers and trickles down to their subordinates. This appraisal provides high value, as a large part of a manager’s role is in guiding and overseeing the work carried out by their subordinates. 

Additionally, managers are typically very involved in a company’s performance review process and therefore, aid each employee in setting goals and objectives for each review period. As such, they are conveniently positioned to assess the progress that's been made towards reaching each goal.

Appraisals from managers still has its flaws. Once again, managers and subordinates work on different levels of seniority, and accordingly have different work priorities. 

Personality plays an important role here too. While theoretically managers should not entertain biases and should treat all members of their team equally, this doesn't reflect reality. A person’s own take on their manager’s performance will very likely affect their willingness to listen to advice or take criticism. If they perceive their manager as incompetent, or maybe just dislike their style of management, an employee may ignore good advice simply because they do not like the vessel from which it comes.

Peer-to-Peer Feedback

Peer to peer feedback is perhaps the most advantageous feature of the multi-source feedback system. An employee works closely with his or her peers on a daily basis. They collaborate on projects, work side by side and spend the most time in each other’s company (whether in person or virtually). 

As such they can be the most knowledgeable about an employee, their attitude, their work ethic and provide the most complete overview of the quality of their work. Also, as part of a team, the feedback a person receives is most likely to be constructive in nature, and will benefit the team as a whole once implemented.

As peers work in close proximity they might also have a better understanding of the skills and qualities of their co-workers: who needs improving, and in what areas. Asking for peer feedback can uncover gaps in knowledge and areas where coaching or additional training may be advantageous to the team.

However, like the other two kinds, peer feedback has its disadvantages. Personality clashes can apply here as well and push another employee to give an unfair or biased performance appraisal. 

Employee manipulation of feedback ratings is also known to occur. A number of companies who have utilized 360-degree feedback for performance evaluation have reported this happening including GE, IBM and Amazon.

3 Is the Magic Number

Downward, upward and peer feedback all offer their advantages. However, none of the three are enough on their own. To borrow from the cliché — there is strength in numbers. 

The three combine for a more complete, holistic account of an employee’s performance. When used together as multi-source feedback, you get all of the benefits and often offset the disadvantages in the process.

For a multi-source feedback process to work properly, employees need to engage with it properly and use it on a regular basis. If only part of the team uses it, it loses many of its benefits. If feedback and input is not coming from part of the team, the evaluations and suggestions lose their value. As the number of sources providing feedback decreases, the less objective the comments ultimately become.

Many articles warn businesses of the disadvantages of multi-source feedback programs, listing all sorts of associated pitfalls. But what most fail to acknowledge is that these mistakes are largely preventable, and almost exclusively are due to human error. With proper guidance and training on how to use the tools, businesses can eradicate most of the commonly encountered problems. 

With adequate training, and managers on-board, the advantages of a multi-source feedback process should far outweigh the disadvantages.