Creating Performance Reviews People Love

(Some of the team just before we reviewed our reviews)


 

“This was the best feedback ever. It was thoughtful, inspiring, helpful and full of love.”

– Fitzii’s BD Whiz after her review.

It would be fair to say that most company performance reviews fail to generate this kind of enthusiasm.

Yet I heard many comments just like this after we finished our first ever performance review process at Fitzii.

How come?

Since Fitzii declared ourselves free of managers in early 2015, we decided to replace the typical manager-to-employee performance review with a peer-review process.

We tried to come up with an approach to feedback that:

  • addresses some of the problems with traditional performance reviews
  • is both honest and governed by mutual respect
  • generates constructive, actionable feedback
  • aligns with our transition to “Teal” self-management

Getting Started

At Fitzii, whenever we have a task that doesn’t fall within a particular person’s responsibilities, someone volunteers to lead the charge for the team using an advice process.

When the question came up of how we’ll do performance reviews in our new self-management structure, I raised my hand to be the decision-maker and solicit input about how to create the best possible approach. That actually didn’t end up being very difficult because, unlike some of the other processes we’ve changed at the company, everyone had opinions on how we should do employee reviews.

What Doesn’t Work

My starting point was to look at some of the reasons why traditional performance reviews don’t work well – a topic of much discussion online. We ended up creating a process designed to avoid the most common problems plaguing traditional performance reviews:

They’re too one-directional, with the manager having all the power and the subordinate having little input. We chose a 360° peer format to address this.

They focus too much on the negative, or the flipside where people are afraid to bring up any negative issues. We structured ours to give some balance, with ground rules to keep the criticism constructive and judgement free.

They’re too structured, with a million questions on 5-point scales. We decided on a format that was loose enough that reviewers could emphasize the most important points while still mentioning other things.

Co-worker benchmarking creates competition, which can lead to distrust, demotivation and a lack of collaboration. 360° feedback and having no scoring helps mitigate this.

Reviews affecting salary creates anxiety, and encourages people to not be vulnerable and openly dig into weaknesses. There was definitely some anxiety leading up to our first-ever reviews, but there will be less next time, now that everyone had such a good experience.

How We Did Our Reviews

We chose to do a 360 peer review using the Small Improvements tool, where each person first completes a self-assessment of their past year’s work and then their peer reviewers read that and answer two basic questions: (i) what’s gone well and (ii) what might be improved.

Here’s the question we used for our self-assessments:

Assess your past year in terms of your accomplishments, important learning, and even mistakes that led to growth. Then tell us what areas of your performance you would particularly like to get feedback about.

Our objective with the reviewer questions was to give some direction and structure to the reviewer while still leaving it open for the writer to cover any topic.  There were two questions for the reviewer:

  1. What did this person do well? Be sure to include the one thing you most value about working with them.
  1. Considering how you have been affected by this person, and what areas they’re interested in hearing about, what is the feedback you would like to give that could best help them grow or improve?

The final touch was an initial set of instructions and examples of how to give constructive feedback that will be well-received by the reviewee:

When reviewing, please be considerate and mindful of how the reviewee will receive your criticism.  Remember to speak in “I” language to share how you have been inspired, touched, hurt or frustrated (for example) as a result of what the other person has done – and not believing your impressions are objective truths about the person.  Some examples for inspiration:

Brenda, you are so good at making customers feel great. I remember the time you helped ABC company implement a new solution and they were so glad. It also helped our numbers that quarter. Way to go!

Brenda, you are really good at finding ways to save money. You might be able to do that more, maybe take on some of our budgeting or expense approval work.  

Brenda, we haven’t made as much progress as we hoped with our new referral programs and it would be great if you could bring your attention to that next year. 

Brenda, when you don’t finish your part of the report, I feel embarrassed submitting an incomplete report or I feel overwhelmed if I try to make up your part. How can we get our report submitted complete and on time?

Self-management Stuff

We’re on a small enough team that it wasn’t too cumbersome to have each person give feedback to each of their coworkers.  As we’re growing, it won’t be practical for everyone to review everyone else, so we might look at more frequent reviews involving fewer reviewers, or limiting feedback to those who work closely together.

It’s also important to point out that a key idea in the self-management way of working is the need to give peer feedback continuously as it arises. While that’s good in any organization, it’s particularly important for us because there are no longer managers with accountability for their teams. It’s critical that everyone take responsibility for speaking up when they have concerns about how things are going or suggestions on how we could be doing things better – and not hold on to these things until formal review time.

The Outcome

We decided in advance that we would keep the reviews private so that people could be as honest and forthcoming as possible when writing them. We also decided we would do some sharing at our team offsite, which took place a few days after we received our feedback.

In the review of the reviews, each of us spent a few minutes summarizing what we heard, and what we’re going to do, followed by an opportunity for anyone in the group to add their thoughts. It felt totally open, honest, and constructive, and I would say it did more for team-building than go-karting or laser tag could ever do.

So we were pretty happy with our first attempt at doing performance reviews, and no doubt we’ll make some improvements in the next go round. If you’ve had good or bad experiences with performance reviews, we’d love to learn from you. Please share them with us in the comments below, or if you have questions or comments, don’t be shy to review our reviews.

Greg is a lead developer on Fitzii’s Product Development team.

10 replies
  1. Fred Laloux
    Fred Laloux says:

    Wow, thank you for taking the time to share! It’s an interesting twist you’ve come up with, I find: first a private, written review, and then a peer conversation in the group to summarize the learning. Really interesting!

    One suggestion myself, that’s really specific 🙂 In the fictive Brenda examples you gave as guidelines, I found the constructive example a really powerful illustration of I-language (“I feel embarrassed…”). For the two positive examples, you didn’t use I-language but used plain old judgment. “Brenda, you are so good at…”. Imagine this turned negative (“Brenda, you are so terrible at…”) and it would immediately jump out that it’s a judgment.

    Of course, with positive judgments it feels like no harm is done. But there is no personal implication and to me it ends up sounding almost a bit paternalistic (“you are so great… way to go!”). What would be the I-language equivalent? Well I’d have to dig a bit and ask myself: what did I really feel seeing Brenda in action? Perhaps it is “I was impressed…” or “I was surprised… ” of “I learned something when I saw you…” or “I felt reassured… ” or… ?

    All of these have more skin in the game, they create a relationship. And they can open up further conversations, whereas the judgment feels like things are said and done.

    Thanks again for sharing the process! This is so exciting for other people who will find inspiration here.

    Reply
    • Edwin Jansen
      Edwin Jansen says:

      You’re bang on Fred – it’s a judgement that doesn’t feel bad on the surface because it’s positive, but any judgement is dangerous.

      It reminds me of the research Carol Dweck did on the Growth Mindset vs the Fixed Mindset. When you tell a kid they are “gifted” because they achieved a great score on a test you are encouraging them to take on that label (Fixed Mindset). Then they will be less inclined to take tests they won’t ace, or try things they’re not good at right away – because they believe in the label, and not in a “Growth Mindset” that they can be or do anything provided they try, make mistakes, learn and improve.

      So even these positive labels are dangerous. Much better to praise the effort or specific action in a situation, or describe the positive implications of it, then label a person as “good at…”

      We’ll have to change up how Brenda hears feedback in our next round!

      Reply
  2. Daan van Lith
    Daan van Lith says:

    First off; thanks for sharing! Your blogposts are really educative and inspiring.

    I was wondering: how do you deal with ‘bad’ performance? And how do you deal with people that seem to be stuck but do not seem to be wanting to move on / forward? Possible answer is of course since you are so small you have very few of these people.

    I’m asking this because I am preparing a Teal experiment in a very big organisation and feel one of the few questions I don’t have an answer on is the one about under performance.

    Reply
    • Greg Scott
      Greg Scott says:

      Hi Daan… Glad you’re enjoying the blog! As you suspected, because we’re such a small team, poor performance hasn’t been a huge issue for us. We’re of a size where everyone can participate in hiring decisions and we all work fairly closely together, so I think that the general feeling of satisfaction with coworker performance on the team is high.

      However, because performance is so important, if someone has concerns about a coworker, that would definitely fall into the category of needing to be addressed right away rather than waiting for a periodic review. We agreed early on in our switch to teal that if someone has concerns about another coworker (performance or otherwise), they need to raise it with that person. And if it can’t be resolved between those two people, there may be a need to bring in other team members to contribute to the discussion.

      So we don’t yet have a formal process that specifically deals with poor performance but as we grow, it’s going to need more attention. Thanks for raising this, Daan!

      Reply
  3. Manu Ganji
    Manu Ganji says:

    Hi Greg, I was thinking over this – “Reviews affecting salary creates anxiety”. I didn’t fully understand how you would link salary with the reviews. Do you keep them unlinked or are they linked in some unconventional method? Could you please elaborate?

    Reply
    • Greg Scott
      Greg Scott says:

      Hi Manu… Unlike some organizations, we don’t tie the reviews to salary. As it happens, we did have a salary discussion at the same offsite where we shared our feedback, but not because they’re necessarily related. We’ll be blogging about our teal salary practices soon but (briefly) it’s up to each of us to make a case for any changes to individual salary, e.g., by producing data on salaries for comparable positions at other companies. While it didn’t happen this time round, I suspect that in the future people at Fitzii will use favorable 360 reviews as part of their case for a salary boost. Thanks for taking an interest!

      Reply
      • Manu Ganji
        Manu Ganji says:

        Thanks! Intriguing. I read about a similar method at Semco Industrial of Brazil. Would love to read that post when it happens. However, it may be too early for you to share it now given that you haven’t gone through many salary changes after going fully teal. Or am I wrong? 🙂

        Reply
  4. Danut Croitor
    Danut Croitor says:

    Excellent post.

    A few comments (my background is IT HR tech),

    It is a normal evolution to do one on ones, if you no longer use the master-slave thing (congrats on that, btw) – I am wondering how often you them.

    Not sure if a big fan of the not so structured approach – but since you’re highlighting the small amount of people involved, I think it is the right choice in your case; once you start growing, you will have to re-evaluate things – to scale them.

    The approach does create happiness (for innovation driven teams especially) – that is you make the process engaging by making it collaborative and non-analytic – even if you scale this up, the engagement will remain high (bench-marking has no place here, it only starts making more sense in less innovative companies)

    Lets be fair here, your company is not the “business as usual” type (your ATS is on my top 5 of 350), and things like predictive analytics have no place inside (btw, speaking on anti-bench-marking, here is the employee handbook from Valve – another innovation driven company)

    Regards,

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *