Toss ’em or Keep ’em? What To Do With Harsh Open-Ended Comments in 360-Degree Feedback?

“A pleasant illusion is better than a harsh reality.”

-Christian Nevell Bovee

Open-ended comments have some clear benefits and disadvantages. Participants generally find comments from open-ended questions useful and a great way of clarifying the sometimes confusing quantitative scores (e.g., when rater agreement is low but average scores are moderate or moderately high).

Open-ended comments do have some potential downsides. For one thing, they take more time to complete and require more effort on the part of raters to make them more behavioral and useful. At the same time, open-ended comments might also reveal raters, diminishing anonymity in the feedback process, where the participant is likely to identify who said what.

One of the biggest disadvantages of open-ended comments is the negative impact it can have on the participant.Open-ended comments can create strong emotional reactions that can interfere with the acceptance of feedback and lead to diminished engagement and productivity. For example, Smither and Walker (2004) analyzed the impact of upward feedback ratings, as well as open-ended comments, over a one-year period for 176 managers. They found that those who received a small number of unfavorable, behaviorally-based comments improved more than other managers, but those who received a large number relative to positive comments significantly declined in performance more than other managers.


Coach’s Critique:

They say that some things are better left unsaid….. I couldn’t agree with this statement more. It is common for raters to take advantage of being provided with open-ended questions by stating their opinion about the participant in an overly critical way, either intentionally or unintentionally. This can lead to hurt feelings, diminishment in confidence, and a decreased motivation to change on the part of the participant.

The challenge is to collect as much honest and useful information as possible, while keeping the participants emotional reactions in tact! So, what do consultants or coaches do when they have reviewed a 360-degree feedback that consists of overly critical open-ended comments? Do they toss ’em? Or, do they keep ’em?

This is obviously a difficult question to answer, as it is essentially a judgement call on the part of the coach. In my experience, if a feedback comment is not behavioral AND specific, it does not need to be included. If there is something negative to be said about someone, then perhaps it does NOT need to be mentioned. A rater might say, “No body respects or listens to Joe’s presentations! He is clumsy and boring!”. Well, here is what I would do….I would ask one question…does the quantitative portion of the 360 results cover development opportunities for presentation skills. If so, I would take this comment OUT. Not only would keeping such a comment emotionally hurt the participant and decrease chances of behavioral change, but it could motivate him to try to identify the rater that made the comment…this could inevitably lead to tremendous resentment and animosity.

So, generally, when comments are highly critical, it might be a good idea to delete the comment or modify it in a way that participant might feel more comfortable to receive.

What has been your experience with harsh and unnecessary open-ended comments? Would you toss ’em or keep ’em?


  1. Smither & Walker, A.G. (2004). Are the characteristics of narrative comments related to improvement in multi-rater feedback ratings over time? Personnel Psychology, 89, 575-581.