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We Reversed Course on Performance Reviews – Here’s Why

Oct 11, 2017 6 min readWorkplace of the future
Photo of Courtney Seiter
Courtney Seiter

Former Director of People @ Buffer

The ability to change one’s mind, change course and try again is one of the things I like most about working at Buffer.

It’s totally normal to share about not just successes but also times we didn’t know the answer, mistakes we’ve made and experiments we’ve tried that didn’t quite turn out like we thought they might.

So even though the last time I wrote about performance reviews it was to share why we don’t do them, it’s not actually that weird (at least at Buffer) to return to the topic only to share that we have been doing them, or at least experimenting with them.

Earlier this year we tried our first round of 360 reviews and ended up really loving them! The ability to change your mind is a beautiful thing.

Read on for the story of what changed our minds, how we implemented 360 reviews, and what’s next for performance reviews at Buffer.

Why we changed course on performance reviews

A lot of what we shared in our original post on performance reviews still holds true.

We still view weekly or biweekly one-on-ones as our primary coaching element; pretty much everyone on the team has a team lead to teammate relationship and meets regularly to talk through successes, challenges and growth opportunities.

And we still strive for immediate, continuous feedback through these relationships.

But within this arrangement, we found that teammates still had a lot of questions. Even with continuous, personalized feedback, folks felt uncertain about where they stood, whether they were hitting the bar expected of them, and how to advance and grow their careers.

Perhaps the feedback was so personalized it felt tough to place their performance on an overall scale?

Our first performance reviews

So in 2016 we tried our first “performance reviews lite.” These were simple emails from each team lead to teammate that celebrated achievements and offered some specific thoughts on areas to grow. They focused on a few categories:

  • Things the teammate is doing well
  • Things the teammate is picking up on and encouragement to keep going
  • Things the teammate could improve on

Some, but not all, of these reviews included the teammate’s rating on an informal scale consisting of:

  • unacceptable
  • poor
  • solid
  • good
  • great
  • outstanding

Leads generally followed up the emails with an in-depth discussion in their next 1:1 with the teammate.

Our first manager feedback survey

And as we had developed more team structure throughout the year, we also instituted a review process for leads, loosely adapting Google’s awesome Manager Feedback Survey for our culture and issues. Using a Likert scale of 1–10, we asked these among other questions:

  • My team lead can identify my strengths and weaknesses.
  • My team lead provides with me with mentorship beyond the day-to-day of my role.
  • My team lead gives me the space to fail safely.
  • My team lead gives me praise regularly.
  • My team lead does not waste my time.
  • 1:1s with my team lead are meaningful.
  • My team lead listens to me with the intention to understand.
  • My team lead helps me work through my challenges.
  • My team lead exhibits the Buffer values and culture.
  • My team lead practices transparency and regularly shares information from his/her manager and senior leaders.
  • My team lead trusts me.
  • I trust my team lead.

We got some good feedback on both of these experiments’ ability to open up conversation, answer big questions, and help everyone at Buffer chart a confident path to growth.

Source: Small Improvements

Putting them together: 360° reviews

Having learned a lot from our experiments with performance reviews and team lead feedback, this year we attempted a next iteration that would tie the two together: the 360° review.

We were excited to try 360° reviews because they are designed to tap into the collective wisdom of all the different people teammates work closely with and give folks a well-rounded picture of where they’re excelling and where they have room to grow.

We wanted to try this process in order to get more thoughts and advice flowing across different teams and to reiterate the idea that everyone at Buffer can praise teammates as well as offer advice to help others grow – it’s not just the work of those “at the top.”

The process we used for 360° reviews

We first established that these would not be traditional evaluations and wouldn’t factor into future compensation or career frameworks discussion. These reviews were for teammate growth and development only.

Then we asked teammates to reflect on at least three people with whom they work closely.

For individual contributors, we identified that a good mix might be:
• team lead
• at least one teammate in the same area
• a teammate in a different area with whom they’ve worked together on a project (if applicable)

For team leads/managers/directors, we suggested:
• team lead or who you 1:1 with
• at least 1–2 teammates they coach directly
• at least 1–2 teammates in a role similar to theirs

Once teammates had their selected crew, they asked their chosen folks to fill out a survey on their behalf. For this survey, we were heavily inspired by the questions asked by the CultureAmp Effectiveness survey. This survey asks the following big questions:

  • What have you observed this teammate excelling at that they should continue?
  • What are this teammate’s biggest opportunities to improve that you think could make a real difference?

…with a large multiple choice checklist with options like “problem solving,” “technical competence”, “getting feedback” and many more, so teammates can get a sense of patterns as multiple folks provide feedback. There’s also plenty of space to share examples.

We kept the results private to the People team as we synthesized the data, and then we prepared a document for each individual teammate summarizing the feedback they had received.

Since team leads typically share advice and praise directly with the teammates they work with, surveys filled out by leads for teammates on their own team were shared openly with their names. We paraphrased and anonymized all comments from all other teammates.

What we learned from the 360° reviews process

We hope teammates have used these reviews to create a personal plan of development, and we’ve seen and heard a lot of feedback that indicates this is the case! One review from our anonymous feedback-gathering tool OfficeVibe:

“360 reviews were very enlightening and a great resource to know where to focus on improvements.”

We enjoyed this process so much that that we’d love to do these on a regular cadence! Since it was a first experiment, we definitely took away a lot of lessons:

  • The reviews took a good bit of time. With multiple surveys, this was a bit of a commitment, even with prompts that made writing them easier. In the future we’d like to stagger these by area.
  • It’s a ton of data! Doing these on our own was great to validate the experiment, but leads to a ton of data collation – even on a smaller team like ours! Next year, we plan to sign on with CultureAmp in order to streamline the process of synthesizing the data.
  • We’ll continue our emphasis on addressing bias: As we started this process, we offered teammates a worksheet and tips to help them be aware of and steer clear of any potential bias traps. We’ll keep working in this area to keep reviews as fair and unbiased as possible.
  • Teammates shared more and more honest feedback through this process. As we continue to work through artificial harmony, it was helpful to see how much candid feedback was shared through this process.
  • We can connect coaching and these reviews much more closely. Teammates found a lot of insights in these reviews! Next time, it would be great to provide personalized growth resources at the same time we deliver the review synthesis, so teammates feel immediate support in their growth plans.

Over to you!

What’s your take on performance reviews! Have you tried 360° reviews before? I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments!

Photo by Climate KIC

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