Regular and Infrequent Performance Reviews

August 22, 2020
people tech

Ah! Performance reviews! Love ’em or loathe ’em, they’re a feature of corporate life. I’ve only worked in places that do performance reviews every six-to-twelve months. Maybe you work somewhere where performance reviews are done differently. If that’s true, I’m happy for you, and this post won’t be useful for you.

If that’s not true, and you’re in a place that does these “regular but infrequent” perf reviews, let me explain why I hate them with a passion, and then suggest some changes that might make them more tolerable and fit for purpose.

First of all, why do we do performance reviews? There are two main reasons:

  1. To help us figure out what our areas of strength are, and which areas we should be focusing on improving or to avoid doing.
  2. To help our manager (and reporting chain) identify the same.

That is, performance reviews aren’t just a feel-good (feel-bad?) exercise. Not only do they give us a chance to pause and reflect about what we’re doing in a way that we seldom do, but they also serve a purpose for the company that we’re part of. Frequently, performance reviews feed into things like promotions and whether or not to put someone on a “performance improvement plan”.

The problem is (IMHO) performance reviews run at “regular but infrequent” intervals are incredibly unhelpful. How come?

If the only time I’m encouraged to really stop and think how I’m doing in my job is once every six months (or, worse, twelve months) then something has gone horribly awry. The feedback we get as part of a performance allows for “course correction”. Our 1:1s with our managers should be providing some of this, but getting feedback from peers is absolutely essential. Without that feedback, we can go for an excessive length of time accidentally making things worse.

So, the first reason I hate “regular and infrequent” perf reviews? They’re too little, too late.

Honestly, I could stop here. That’s the biggest reason I hate them. I could stop, but I’m not going to.

What would I prefer? Some places offer “continuous” feedback (Goldman Sachs for example. Goldman Sachs!) That is, when there’s a suitable point for feedback to be collected and given, it’s collected and given. That may be at the end of a project, at particular milestones, or at some finer-grain than “every six months”

Another problem with “regular and infrequent” feedback loops is that it doesn’t foster a culture of people giving helpful feedback at the point where it could be most effective. Instead, people end up feeling ambushed by feedback that people have been harbouring, holding, and (possibly) festering on for up to a year. The best feedback I ever got was mid-way through helping to organise a conference, where one of the other people helping took me aside and told me exactly how they perceived my work, and what I could do to improve. It wasn’t comfortable to hear, and it can’t have been comfortable to give, but I listened and changed, and that helped everyone around me, and helped us smooth the work of getting that conference sorted out.

What would I prefer? At the very least, having feedback after milestone events in a project, and ideally when I (or my manager) think it would be helpful. Even better would be to be in a culture where people felt able to provide feedback as they deemed it necessary and when it would be helpful. It’s probably not a revelation that timely, helpful feedback is preferred to untimely, ambush-style feedback, so it puzzles me why I’ve seen so much of the latter and so little of the former.

Giving and receiving feedback can be very difficult. Pat Kua has a series of blog posts on this subject, but I find this post a good jumping off point.

However! Perf reviews aren’t just for the individual! They’re for the company too, and “regular but infrequent” perf reviews are a disaster for them.

Consider the way that feedback is normally gathered. Junior engineers typically ask people in their own team, and their tech leads. Senior engineers, ask folks on other teams they interact with, frequently the other senior engineers. Managers seeking to support people looking for promotions tend to ask tech leads of teams and senior engineers for more detailed feedback too.

What does this mean?

It means that during “perf review season” a company’s most senior and influential engineers are no longer writing code and guiding teams. Instead, they’re writing walls of feedback for people, at best only being able to focus part of their attention on the projects they’re working on. The junior engineers tend to have less feedback to write, and get back to the grindstone sooner. This is clearly deleterious to the quality and progress of the projects.

That’s compounded by the fact that management is also soaked up in a massive effort to collect, collate, and standardise the feedback that’s coming in. Frankly, it leads to a huge uptick in stress and chaos, neatly targeted at a company’s leadership.

That can’t be good.

What would be better? Spreading the load over the course of the year would help. Doing one or two pieces of feedback every week is far less of a chore for the people providing that feedback. People who have just reached a milestone and have some space to breathe, with lessons still fresh in their minds, provide more useful feedback.

The downside with continuous feedback like this is that more rigour needs to be put in place to ensure that people are judged fairly and consistently. I don’t know the best way of doing that (sampled feedback, collected and reviewed using the current techniques? A subset of people asked for feedback using the “regular and infrequent” process?), but I bet you someone smarter than me has been thinking about it already.

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