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Objectives  Delivery of 360-degree feedback is widely used in revalidation programmes. However, little has been done to systematically identify the variables that influence whether or not performance improvement is actually achieved after such assessments. This study aims to explore which factors represent incentives, or disincentives, for consultants to implement suggestions for improvement from 360-degree feedback.

Methods  In 2007, 109 consultants in the Netherlands were assessed using 360-degree feedback and portfolio learning. We carried out a qualitative study using semi-structured interviews with 23 of these consultants, purposively sampled based on gender, hospital, work experience, specialty and views expressed in a previous questionnaire. A grounded theory approach was used to analyse the transcribed tape-recordings.

Results  We identified four groups of factors that can influence consultants’ practice improvement after 360-degree feedback: (i) contextual factors related to workload, lack of openness and social support, lack of commitment from hospital management, free-market principles and public distrust; (ii) factors related to feedback; (iii) characteristics of the assessment system, such as facilitators and a portfolio to encourage reflection, concrete improvement goals and annual follow-up interviews, and (iv) individual factors, such as self-efficacy and motivation.

Conclusions  It appears that 360-degree feedback can be a positive force for practice improvement provided certain conditions are met, such as that skilled facilitators are available to encourage reflection, concrete goals are set and follow-up interviews are carried out. This study underscores the fact that hospitals and consultant groups should be aware of the existing lack of openness and absence of constructive feedback. Consultants indicated that sharing personal reflections with colleagues could improve the quality of collegial relationships and heighten the chance of real performance improvement.