Writing Better Performance Assessments
Somebody’s always trying tell you about yourself
But only you can process all the feelings that you felt…
Cause only you can know what’s best for you when the truth unwinds
Said you don't know me like that
— OSHUN, “That Day”
This most recent feedback cycle was the first time in a long time that I haven’t had a pile of performance assessments to write for my direct reports, due to my role switch last year. Fortunately, this gave me more opportunity to consult with others on their feedback and observe some common patterns.
Feedback cycles can be wonderful things: rarely do we get the space to reflect on and bask in the accomplishments of our team members. But they are also likely to fill us with dread: feedback cycles are time consuming, they involve heavy process, and since the business doesn’t stop moving during this time, they amount to an additional workload that we often avoid addressing until right before the deadlines.
You’re probably hoping I’m going to tell you how to make this process more lightweight. Sorry to disappoint! This is one area where the more you cut corners, the more you risk damage to your direct reports -- and that damage is intensified for your underrepresented team members. As usual, inclusive and empathetic management takes work.
FEEDBACK IS NOT A MEANS TO AN END
If I could identify the most common underlying problem in how we approach feedback cycles, it’s this: Too many managers use the feedback cycle as a means to simply tell you what everyone else thinks about you. Over the years I have read lots of performance reviews that contain too many quotes without proper context and draw too many shaky conclusions from these quotes. What our peers think about us is important; of course I want my team members to understand how they are perceived, but my main goal is to give them a holistic and fair view of their performance. This means understanding the context of any peer feedback I receive, and treating my written performance assessment as the start of our work together rather than the end result of a cycle.
I’m going to share my own process for developing assessments, in the hopes that it encourages other managers to take a more active role throughout the entirety of the feedback process.
If your company does 360 reviews, you are probably collecting peer feedback. Hopefully you and your direct report collaborate on a list of peers they’ve worked with since the last performance cycle, and within whatever feedback system you’re using, these peers provide both positive and constructive feedback about their interactions with your direct report.
You might think this is the most passive part of the performance review process -- you just have to wait for the feedback to roll in, right? Not so fast.
This is actually when you should be the most active. The feedback you get during this time is practically guaranteed to be terrible. Many people are leaving it to the last minute. Some of the most sought-after peer reviewers are cranking out 10+ peer reviews late at night after they’ve put the kids to bed. People are reviewing their friends -- or the people they’ve never liked. They are thinking more about the one bad interaction they had with someone rather than examining their peer’s career pathway and assessing them against those expectations. This is where managers come in!
First, I like to set expectations with reviewers. Knowing that everyone is going to be inundated with peer review requests for the next couple of weeks, I want them to know what I need. Do I have someone up for promotion? I will let their reviewers know so that they’ll spend a little extra time and attention on that particular review. Was there a specific project or interaction I want feedback on, or have I spent the past 6 months working with my direct report on their communication? I’ll reach out to a relevant peer ahead of time and let them know to cover it in their feedback. I don’t do this for everyone (this wouldn’t scale), but I am selective about who needs it the most. This increases the likelihood I get higher quality and more relevant feedback off the bat.
But if I don’t get good quality feedback right away, I insist on getting more information. Most systems ask peer reviewers how the person they are reviewing can improve. How often do you see a response like, “Nothing, he should keep doing what he’s doing!”? How often is their positive feedback generic and useless (e.g. “She’s a superstar!”)? I kick these back frequently and ask them for more specifics. If someone says they can’t think of any improvements, I ask, “What could they start doing that would make you think they were performing at a higher level?” and I will usually get something mildly helpful in response.
Finally, I am actively screening for bias. This tweet caught my eye recently:
Managers: if an URM works for you, their peer’s feedback will be *full of bias*. It’s literally your job to actively filter and correct for it. And help your report strategize ways to work around it. For women, look for bias keywords: abrasive, loud, pushy, not technical, etc— Nicole Sullivan (@stubbornella) March 5, 2019
In an ideal world, we train everyone to give unbiased feedback. In a practical world, we concentrate this effort on our management population. It is not just our job to identify and filter out bias, but it’s also our job to correct it. When a man on your team full of interrupting extroverts says that the one introverted woman on your team needs to speak up more, this is a coaching opportunity for him. When a product manager says your Latina engineer “tends to be abrasive”, this is your opportunity ask for specific examples that tie back to negative team impact (and send them a link to “The abrasiveness trap” as you ask). This doesn’t necessarily mean the feedback is invalid, but it does give you the opportunity to alter someone’s thinking and bring any potential bias into their conscious mind.
STRUCTURING AND EDITING PERFORMANCE ASSESSMENTS
Like my blog posts, my performance assessments tend to be lengthy. I feel my direct reports deserve the summary along with the details, and these assessments will carry over to new teams and new managers as they move around the company. Over time, I developed a system that allowed me to work through them in just a couple of hours.
I anchor most of my reviews heavily to our career pathways, ensuring that each attribute gets covered (for example, at Lyft our current pathway attributes for Software Engineers are Ownership, Teamwork & Collaboration, and Technical). Within these attributes, I group verbatim peer quotes into themes, based around projects or behavioral patterns. I jot down additional notes, incorporating details from my team member’s self reflections within these themes to ensure they know I see their work, and I will include my own observations as well.
Once everything is grouped nicely according to their career pathway, I have an opportunity to reflect. I can see where their largest volume of positive feedback is (i.e. their strengths), where the largest volume of negative feedback is (i.e. their opportunities for improvement), and where they are mostly lacking feedback (i.e. their opportunities for increased impact and visibility). I can see areas where I might need to seek additional information. Did multiple people mention one disastrous meeting that negatively impacted a project? I might need to go get more information on what happened, to ensure I know who was involved and that I’m weighting it properly.
Since everything is already organized, it’s easy to post process and write the assessment in sections. I will provide a summary of their accomplishment or behavior, describe the impact, and then provide supporting evidence through peer quotes. I provide verbatim quotes where possible (and unless it’s glowing feedback I will seek permission if I think there’s a chance their reviewer could be easily identified). If quoting is not possible, I will summarize (e.g. “A peer from outside of your team noted a similar concern on a separate project you worked on together.”).
Along the way, I’m thinking deeply about bias, especially within constructive feedback. I am explicit about what I see as a pattern (supported by multiple examples) and what I see as a one-off. I aim to be clear about whether a particular incident is a major concern to me and a factor into their performance rating/promotion decision, and which is a helpful piece of feedback I think they should hear for future consideration. At this moment I’m also deciding, is this something I want written in a document that will follow them to their next team and manager? Or is this something I can tell them verbally so we can discuss what to do with it? Your direct report might want to know that some team members are finding her “abrasive”, even if you both think it’s bullshit. Maybe that’s something you can talk about rather than giving it more credence in written form.
SEEKING A SECOND OPINION
Feedback is deeply personal, so I can understand why most of us don’t include peer managers in our process. However, there’s no one right way to write assessments, and often the only examples we have to go off are the ones our managers give to us (and let’s be real, how often have you said, “Wow, my performance assessment was so well written and helpful!”?) This is one of the best opportunities we have to coach each other.
As a Director, I used to spot check the assessments my managers wrote for their direct reports. I insisted on reviewing assessments for anyone getting a hard message (specifically anyone who was receiving the lowest rating). This year, I encouraged our managers to review with each other. If one of our managers had an assessment they found difficult to write, or if they had a team member who was calibrated as missing expectations, we encouraged them to seek out an experienced manager to provide a review. I also assembled a small group of senior women in Manager, Director, and VP roles across all of our Tech functions who volunteered their time as reviewers. We gave guidance to managers that they should seek us out if they were intending to give feedback to an underrepresented person related to their demeanor, confidence, or communication. We made clear that the purpose was not always to invalidate this feedback, but to help the manager assess its fairness and ensure that the resulting message was clear, actionable, and conveyed their manager’s accountability to help. This was a welcome offering that people were grateful to take us up on, for their team members of all genders and backgrounds. This was also additional labor our female leaders were happy to perform, as it creates better outcomes for everyone we work with.
DELIVERING YOUR MESSAGE, WITH COMMITMENT
As I alluded to earlier, the delivery of a performance review is not so much the end of the feedback cycle as it is the beginning of your work together. Allowing my team members time to reflect on and process their feedback is critical, so we can determine our next actions. Quite often, I’ll need to dedicate additional 1/1 time to a follow up discussion. I allow for rebuttal within reason -- it’s important that I stand firm in my assessment but also that I allow my team member to share their feelings or their side of a story. It’s critical in these moments that I’m also open to feedback; for my messaging to be effective they need to feel heard and observe that I’m continuously improving my own skills at crafting and delivering a message.
This is also the time that I’ll share any additional feedback I didn’t want to capture in their written review. This type of messaging can be tricky, but it can also be a demonstration of compassion. Recently, my manager verbally shared feedback containing a concern that I’m “angry.” He made it clear that this feedback didn’t factor into his opinion of me, yet acknowledged this is something I need to hear. Even though I could argue that this feedback is rooted in sexist stereotypes, I must also admit that I operate within a society governed by them. I felt a tremendous amount of gratitude for his thoughtfulness in how he shared this message that he surely wasn’t looking forward to delivering. Together, we brainstormed ways that he might help me get more constructive value out of this feedback and discussed how I might counteract it in the future, for the sake of my own effectiveness.
And this brings me to my final point: some part of your constructive feedback for your team members should involve you. If a project broke down or your team suffered a morale issue due to this team member’s behavior, your message will land better if you acknowledge where you neglected to step in and help, and if you share how you will partner with your team member in addressing the problem (this can be as simple as “I’m committed to giving you in-the-moment feedback if I see this behavior again.”). If you need them to adjust their style in order to improve others’ perception of them, consider ways you can contribute. Can you highlight their often overlooked strengths to your peers? Can you play a more active role in calling out unfair criticism toward them when you see it? Regardless of what you’re asking them to do, you can be a part of the action plan going forward. This will go a long way toward making them feel like they have an invested partner rather than a boss. Consider the following feedback scenarios:
If you’ve encouraged someone to make themselves more visible in the organization, what opportunities are you going to give them? Who will you introduce them to? Who should they speak with right now?
If you’ve encouraged them to take on larger sized projects in order to get promoted next round, how will you ensure those projects are held aside for them? How will you give them visibility into available projects they might be interested in? How does their current backlog of projects support this feedback?
If you’ve asked them to be more confident in using their voice, how will you ensure their teammates have created space for them to speak? Have you let them know it’s safe to talk to you when they’re struggling to be heard? Do they trust that you’ll help them?
Use this time with your direct report to explore other commitments they need from you in order to accomplish their goals. Follow through on those commitments. Put them in writing. This will build a tremendous amount of trust with your directs.
“FEEDBACK IS A CONVERSATION”
You’ve probably heard this quote, and it’s absolutely true! When done thoughtfully, feedback is a conversation with peers your team member has interacted with.
It’s a conversation with people who can sponsor and support them.
It’s a conversation with people of different backgrounds who can help you drive a message home.
It’s a conversation you have with yourself as you determine your role in their development.
And most importantly, it’s a conversation that centers their needs going forward.
Have these conversations, especially when they are hard. They are worth it.