The purpose of multisource feedback is to provide accurate and useful feedback related to the effectiveness of leaders in their organizations (Fleenor & Brutus, 2001). This process includes collecting and reporting coworkers’ ratings of a leader’s effectiveness and providing feedback and coaching for each leader. Traditionally in organizations, feedback has come from a single source, the manager, which provides only a limited perspective of a leader’s effectiveness. With MSF, the assessment of a leader’s strengths and development needs is more reliable and valid. Because it uses multiple raters, MSF provides different perspectives of performance, making the feedback more accurate and useful to the leader. Additionally, the collection of feedback from several raters with different relationships to the leader will decrease the effects of the biases of the individual raters on the ratings.
There is little agreement in the literature on the terminology used in multisource feedback (Fleenor et al., 2020). In this chapter, the individual being assessed is referred to as the leader. Coworkers who provide the feedback are called raters, and usually include peers and direct reports. The leader’s direct boss is referred to as the manager, who also provides feedback. The MSF survey that is completed by the raters is called the assessment. The scales on an MSF assessment represent leadership competencies that are important for success in the organization. MSF is sometimes used with employees who are not leaders; however, in that case, there are no direct-report raters.
2.1 The Multisource Feedback Process
Most MSF processes have the following features (Fleenor & Taylor, 2019):
Multiple raters (manager, peers, direct reports) provide ratings of the leader’s effectiveness using a quantitative rating scale. Leaders also provide self-ratings. The ratings are collected anonymously and reported in the aggregate; therefore, the leader does not know who provided specific ratings. Because most leaders have only one direct manager, the anonymity of the manager’s ratings usually cannot be maintained.
A report is provided to leaders that summarizes the results of their feedback. In a feedback session, leaders identify their strengths and development needs (weaknesses) and examine differences between their own and others’ ratings of their effectiveness.
Based on this feedback, leaders work with feedback coaches (or their managers) to develop an action plan to improve their effectiveness.
Typically, in an MSF process, the leader selects a number of coworkers to participate in the feedback process. Working individually, the raters and the leader complete surveys designed to collect information about the leader’s specific skills, behaviors, and other attributes that are important for leader effectiveness. Leader effectiveness is defined as performance that makes leaders successful in their organizations (e.g., the leader’s team successfully meets its goals for the year; Fleenor et al., 2020).
After raters complete the surveys, their ratings are electronically sent to a centralized location for scoring. A report is produced and delivered to a feedback coach, who then meets with the leader to review the report. The coach can be an internal human resource (HR) professional or the leader’s manager who is trained to interpret the results of the assessment and assist the leader in understanding the report. The coach helps the leader use the feedback to create a plan to address developmental needs identified by the feedback.
Multisource feedback provides a structured means of collecting and processing data, and an opportunity to reflect on this valuable information. It may be the only opportunity some leaders have to consciously self-reflect on their effectiveness. MSF systems also guarantee the anonymity of the raters. There is evidence that anonymous feedback is more honest than open feedback (Kozlowski et al., 1998). This appears to be particularly true when direct reports are rating their leaders. A climate of trust must be created for the MSF process—when anonymity is ensured, the feedback will be more accurate. If raters believe that anonymity was violated, then less honesty can be expected in future MSF administrations, with a corresponding loss of reliability and validity (London & Wohlers, 1991). Anonymity differs from confidentiality. Confidentiality requires that access to MSF data be limited to individuals who are permitted to see the data in accordance with organizational policy. Confidentiality is important to ensure the participants that their data are protected and will not be seen by unauthorized individuals in the organization. A lack of confidentiality may result in lower participation rates in future MSF administrations.
2.2 Using Multisource Feedback for Leader Development
Because of its structure, thoroughness, and anonymity, MSF is likely to be accepted and acted on by the leaders receiving the feedback (Atwater et al., 2007). To ensure the effectiveness of MSF, it should be implemented within a broader leadership development context. For example, MSF should be integrated into the organization’s leader development and succession planning systems to help identify how leaders can become more effective in their organizations. The organization’s leadership development system is responsible for providing activities, such as MSF, that will increase the effectiveness of its leaders. The succession planning system is responsible for creating a pipeline of leadership talent for the future. The integration of the leader development and the succession planning systems should create conditions that allow leaders to receive ongoing feedback along with new job assignments, thus increasing their current competencies (McCauley & Brutus, 2019).
Many organizations use MSF as an integral part of development processes for individual leaders. Even when leaders have good insights about their own strengths and development needs, they may not be fully aware of how their behaviors affect their coworkers (Fleenor et al., 2010). After they receive the results of their MSF assessment, leaders have a clearer idea of how their behaviors consistently affect others.
In addition to its use in developing individual leaders, some organizations use aggregated MSF data to determine group strengths and weaknesses for needs analysis purposes. Furthermore, the process of responding to the assessment underscores desired behaviors and creates discussion of which behaviors are valued throughout the organization. This occurs because the items on the MSF assessment indicate what leadership behaviors are considered important by the organization (Bracken & Rotolo, 2019).
2.3 Characteristics of Multisource Feedback
The characteristics of MSF can be thought of as the interactive product of both the assessment and the raters (Bracken & Rose, 2011). According to Bracken and Rotolo (2019), the most important characteristics of MSF are: (a) awareness of the feedback (including reactions and receptivity); (b) acceptance of the feedback; and (c) accountability for acting on the feedback. These characteristics are important for ensuring MSF will result in desired behavior change in the focal leaders (Bracken et al., 2001). Each of these characteristics is discussed below:
2.3.1 Awareness of the Feedback
Awareness involves bringing the information to the attention of the leaders. Thus, they must be aware of the feedback before they can act on it. Awareness of their feedback is required before leaders will recognize their weaknesses and take action to correct them. Awareness of the feedback includes reactions and receptivity to the feedback by the recipients. Reactions can range from being pleased with the feedback to feeling hurt and resentment. A leader’s health and psychological well-being may be negatively affected by receiving unfavorable feedback (Nowack, 2019). Feedback coaches play an important role in helping leaders work through any emotional reactions (Fleenor et al., 2020).
Receptivity relates to a leader’s psychological readiness to receive the feedback. It is positively related to both, emotional intelligence and perceptions of the feedback environment (Dahling et al., 2012). Additionally, research indicates that feedback orientation, which is the degree to which a leader is ready to receive the feedback, can predict the leader’s emotional reactions to their feedback (Braddy et al., 2013).
2.3.2 Acceptance of the Feedback
Acceptance is the leaders’ belief that the feedback is an accurate description of their behavior (Ilgen et al., 1979). A key event occurs when the leader decides to accept the feedback as valid and useful information. For the feedback to be accepted, a leader must be aware of and receptive to it. When the feedback is not accepted, no behavior change will result (Bracken & Rose, 2011). First-time MSF participants may experience shock, anger, and rejection of the feedback before finally accepting it (Brett & Atwater, 2001). To ensure acceptance, resources for assisting leaders in dealing with their feedback should be provided by the organization (e.g., coaches, workshops, developmental activities, etc.; Fleenor et al., 2020).
2.3.3 Accountability for Acting on the Feedback
Accountability for acting on the feedback is necessary for a sustainable MSF process. This requires organizations to ensure leaders will conduct improvement-oriented actions on their feedback. Methods for ensuring accountability include the full support of the leader’s manager for the MSF process and providing access to developmental resources such as new job assignments and training (London, 2003). Accountability is the major component for moving from acceptance to improved leader effectiveness (Bracken & Rotolo, 2019).
A successful MSF process requires full accountability, not only from the leaders, but also from other groups involved, namely, raters, managers, and the organization (London et al., 1997). If raters believe leaders are not being held accountable for acting on their feedback, they will be less likely to provide effective feedback in future MSF administrations. On the other hand, when raters see their feedback is being used productively, they can be expected to continue to provide accurate, honest feedback (Bracken & Rotolo, 2019).