Continuous Feedback - Peer Review for the 21st Century
One of the hardest things for any company to do is to foster an environment in which employees feel motivated and are able to know how to improve, both as skilled employees and as people. For the last few years a fierce debate has emerged over the effectiveness of annual performance reviews and the merit they have in the 21st century workplace.
A key point before we start here is that companies focus on what value they add to customers, but the value they add to employees is often an afterthought at best.
The Annual Performance Review
The era of annual performance reviews is over, and before we get on to the matter at hand, it makes sense to illustrate why.
Conventional performance reviews have a negative connotation right off the bat. They have been traditionally used by companies who use the so called “rank and yank” system, whereby employees are ranked according to their output and promoted/fired accordingly.
A performance review is based on the core tenet that one’s manager or one’s direct colleagues cannot be trusted to give an accurate assessment of an employee’s worth or potential and therefore layers of bureaucracy and managers have to weigh in with their suggestions, all being weighted in a way to get a manufactured output.
The system relies heavily on internal politics and the company, where having friendly relationships with one’s managers and superiors is far more important than how you work. This ferments an atmosphere of a) fear and b) political bureaucracy which is not conducive to a happy work environment and punishes people who just work hard and don’t “play the game”.
While some employees have underlying performance problems and therefore are likely to bew poor employees, these issues should be addressed immediately, not at the end of the year.
Nobody can accurately assess someone’s work over the space of a year. Any feedback you receive is most likely going to be useless and out of date. Thinking of how much one can improve as a developer in the space of a year makes the feedback from March completely extraneous by October.
People respond best to pertinent and actionable feedback, and the “appraisal” process is the antithesis of this.
Often the only time that employees ever receive feedback is when they are either in a pay review, being disciplined or arguing over promotions.
The reasons for large companies with this structure in place to not want to change the status quo are manifold.
- It gives the impression of fairness when it comes to promotions or salary increases as opposed to it being one person’s decision.
- Hedges against employment litigation so you have a record of poor performance when letting someone go.
- Helps to build “the file” on an employee giving HR the massive amounts of data that they feel they need to do their jobs effectively.
The problem is that as you can see, these reasons are defensive and reactive instead of being proactive. The company is put firmly before the employee and this is obviously not in the best interests of the employee.
The Feedback Loop We Need
As developers, we all understand the concept and importance of a feedback loop. It helps to guide us as to where problems lie in our code and how we can improve it, both to get it working and then to optimise it. It makes sense to extend this logic to employees and to have a regular feedback loop which can help us to optimise our workflow and improve constantly.
At Made, we implemented continuous feedback 6 months ago. The thinking behind this was clear. We have a motivated group of developers who are autodidactic in nature, and it makes sense to provide a consistent, constant stream of feedback, both positive and negative, to allow employees to have a clarity of mind as to which areas require improvement and in which areas they are excelling.
In order to excel as an employee and have personal growth, it is crucial to have a feedback-rich culture. The way that we do that is through a series of ‘1-2-1s’. Everyone meets with a colleague in an informal setting once every 2 weeks (or sooner) and discusses feedback which has been shared with the rest of the team. The feedback-ee can choose which feedback to take on board and which to discard. In general we have found that most people are fairly aware of their strengths and weaknesses, so much of the feedback is self guided.
The feedback is split into three different categories. They are as follows:
Feedback from others
This covers what others have said, concrete examples of said feedback (which forces people to back up their feedback), and what is the impact/what can we take away from this. The benefit of this is clear, it helps us to gauge where we stand within our peer group, how the work we are doing has been perceived and where we are falling short. It also helps to remove the politics since it encourages us to be up front and honest with our peers. The person giving the feedback and the feedback-ee can discuss the feedback and whether they feel that feedback is fair and whether it is actionable.
Long Term Goals and Objectives
This covers where we want to be in 3-5 years, how the company can help us to achieve this and to track the status as we progress towards these goals. It is important that these goals are not tied directly to wider company objectives, since personal development is undoubtedly as important if not more so than development within the company.
Short Term Measurable Goals
This covers what we can do to action the feedback received from others. An example of this would be to give a talk at a meet up or work on a different part of the tech stack. When we put in a short term measurable goal it is important to set a time when this can be reviewed to ensure that these objectives are at the forefront of our mind. In order to stop these changes from being ephemeral, we keep them noted down after they are done to remind us to keep doing them.
The Argument For Continuous Feedback
In the workplace, a large proportion of problems are caused by a lack of communication. Regular feedback clears up miscommunications, gives you as an employee a sense of self worth and understanding of where you are and how you can improve. Knowledge is power and as an employee, the more you know about your strengths and weaknesses, the better equipped you are to improve and to head off problems before they become a critical issue.
However there are several much more deep rooted needs for continuous feedback. In Branham’s book The Seven Hidden Reasons Why Employees Leave, he elucidates that one of the primary reasons why employees leave is because of a lack of feedback. If you have employees who want to improve, then they want feedback and to be pushed by others. If you have employees who do not want to improve or are merely happy treading water, then you probably don’t want them at your company.
On an even more fundamental level, it encourages a flatness of opinion that is refreshing. There is nobody in the continuous feedback system who is beyond reproach. Some of the bluntest feedback falls on the shoulders of the most senior members of the team, and this helps battle against complacency. This builds morale amongst employees and in turn helps them to be more productive.
Much has been written about the psychological contract at work. This could be another blog post in and of itself, but in essence it is comprised of our perceptions and trust concerning the agreement that exists between ourselves and our employer. Maintaining the health of the psychological contract at work leads to less broken promises, less opportunities for misunderstandings and a healthier work environment.