If you've been looking forward to the day you could rate your boss, your hopes may be dashed in the wake of an official Pentagon study that concludes "360-degree reviews" probably should not be used as a part of the formal military evaluation and promotion process.
Also known as a "multirater review," the controversial assessment tool mixes input from peers and subordinates as well as supervisors. It was widely touted a few years ago as a way to screen out so-called toxic leaders from senior military commands.
But the new report cites a long list of legal, cultural and practical concerns that would prevent this type of review's widespread use in determining who gets selected for promotions, command assignments or slots at prestigious schools.
"Stakeholders were overwhelmingly against using the tool for evaluation," according to the report, which was commissioned by the Defense Department and conducted by the Rand Corp. think tank.
In 2013, Congress ordered the Defense Department to do a thorough assessment of whether and how 360-degree reviews should be used in the military personnel system.
Rand researchers concluded that the tools should be limited to personnel development programs, which means some troops are subject to 360-degree reviews but the results are provided only to the individual for his or her own benefit, and are not included in any official personnel file.
Some services, particularly the Army and Navy, are using 360-degree reviews as part of their education and development programs. But formal evaluations and fitness reports that affect promotion opportunities continue to be drawn up solely by higher-ups in the chain of command.
A major sticking point preventing the use of 360-degree reviews in the official evaluation and promotion system was a fear that some disgruntled subordinates could potentially derail an officer's career with criticism offered under the veil of anonymity.
Hypothetically, if an officer felt his or her career was damaged by a 360-degree review, he or she might insist on knowing specifically who lodged the criticisms in order to offer a rebuttal. Any question about participants' confidentiality would undermine the whole process.
The 360-degree reviews are widely used in corporate America, but federal law gives government employees and military service members broad rights to rebut official criticism that affects their career, so implementing them in the public sector is legally more complicated.
Other problems cited by the Rand report included cultural resistance to 360-degree reviews and concerns that they could create a sort of "popularity contest" among leaders that would interfere with military missions.
"Probably the only way that key stakeholders in the services would not reject the idea outright," the report said, would be to adopt a watered-down version in which a person's supervisor would have access to 360-degree feedback and could decide to include pieces of it in the formal performance evaluation.
Another hybrid approach might involve using 360-degree feedback to establish goals and benchmarks, and supervisors can make progress — or lack of progress — toward those goals a metric in formal evaluations, the report said.
The report cited many problems with using feedback from peers and subordinates in official evaluations, including the fact that feedback from subordinates would vary dramatically depending on the context of the job in question.
For example, some jobs are uniquely difficult, and subordinates probably will dislike anyone who assumes the command role. In other jobs, subordinates may have little insight into a commander's performance or see only one aspect of it. Some jobs simply have few subordinates.
And jobs that require forcing institutional change inevitably will draw more criticism from subordinates. "Some people come in and keep a ship on course, and some people come in and have to shift things," the report said. "This person is at a disadvantage and maybe this story doesn't get captured when you are just looking at the numbers."
One defense official suggested adopting methods similar to the background interviews used for security clearance investigations, when trained interviewers contact past subordinates and peers confidentially and seek out opinions to inform command selection boards, according to the report.
A Pentagon spokesman said DoD continues to evaluate the role that 360-degree reviews might play in developing leaders.
"The department, in partnership with the services, is looking at a variety of things like psychometric testing, survey data, 360 feedback and other tools that will help develop the leaders of the future in order to continue to foster a culture of dignity and respect in the military," said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen.
When the issue of formal evaluations was taken off the table and military officials were asked about the value of 360-degree reviews for strictly development purposes, responses were far more positive.
"They believe that 360s help identify and promote positive traits, as well as highlight weaknesses, which gives officers an opportunity to strengthen those areas. In general, officers want to understand their strengths and weaknesses, and 360s are an opportunity to gain insight — a tool that can facilitate conversation between leaders and subordinates about what is needed to develop," the report said.
Rand researchers interviewed dozens of military officials about 360-degree reviews and found that many disagreed with the basic contention that the model is a good way to root out toxic leaders.
Some military officials said identifying toxic leaders is not the challenge at hand.
"Most people have worked for a toxic leader at some point, and it wasn't a secret. Everybody knew who was a jerk. The question is: What was done about it?" an unnamed official told Rand researchers. "You could find them; then what? What did we do about it? Doesn't the culture determine what happens at that point? Do we need 360 or do we know?"