It's OK, you can tell your boss he's incompetent

Office politics/ dare you try?
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The Independent Online
THINK your boss is hopeless? Well soon you may have your chance to tell him so. You may even be allowed to tell his boss how awful he is and ruin his chances of promotion.

The reason is a new management technique known as "360-degree appraisal", which involves giving subordinates and peers a say when it comes to assessing a manager's performance. The technique has started finding its way into British boardrooms via firms operating on both sides of the Atlantic, including 3M, General Electric and Rank Xerox.

From there it has reached other organisations: City firms use it, the BBC is experimenting with it and it has even been discussed at the Treasury (although, perhaps unsurprisingly, the enthusiasm for it there seems to have been muted).

Advocates of the technique say it helps make managers pay more attention to the needs of their staff, and that it is only fair to give everyone their say. "If managers are becoming more like team coaches," says Maury Peiperl, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School, "they should also be getting feedback from their teams."

But could it work? Can employees resist the temptation, when the assessment forms are handed out, to vent their spite? And what is to stop the bosses from ignoring the criticism, or even victimising complainers?

Although management thinking today is dominated by the view that a firm's success is governed largely by the quality and motivation of the people working for it, there are some doubts about the practicability of 360- degree appraisals. Sceptics believe few workplaces are democratic enough to allow staff to criticise their bosses with impunity, and they warn that the practice could lead to recriminations among colleagues, with some looking to avenge what they see any "stab in the back" on an appraisal form.

Rank Xerox, the European arm of the US-based Xerox Corporation, has been using the technique for two years. The firm's UK managing director, Vern Zelmer, insists that the assessments really carry weight. When a manager gets a poor score in any one of 23 leadership criteria, that could be "a knock-out factor in promotion", he says.

Staff at Rank Xerox not only have to cope with the scrutiny of colleagues but also of customers - like many other organisations, Xerox now carries out extensive customer satisfaction surveys.

One area of business where the concept of 360-degree appraisal has become very popular is in financial services, something which Mr Peiperl attributes to the rapid turnover of staff. The US investment firm Goldman Sachs is regarded as "the grand-daddy of peer review" and a few individuals moved on to introduce it to rival City firms including Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Citibank.

Donald Skilling, lecturer in organisational behaviour at Cranfield University School of Management, points out that the highly unusual concept of telling your boss he is incompetent is still largely confined to the United States. Mr Skilling says the whole appraisal area is "a minefield", made especially fraught if all-around feedback is imposed from on high. Employees are cynical and are unlikely to say what they really think.

But Mr Peiperl defends the technique. The London Business School uses assessments of this kind to show managers on training courses what their colleagues think of them. The resulst can be revealing. "Some people really have themselves pegged," he says. "But quite often there's a wide divergence between what they and others think."