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Committing to continuous feedback

Mark Barrett
Feb 27 - 5 min read

Committing to continuous feedback

I recently posted a tweet that gained some attention.

I don’t have a huge Twitter following, but it got enough retweets for me to take notice.

The original sentiment in my tweet was very much:

It’s January. That means Performance Review time. Here we go again.

Generally speaking, annual performance reviews are usually met with trepidation by line-managers and treated with disdain by team members.

So why is this? I would like to call out 3 key reasons:

  1. Line managers find it difficult to summarise an entire year of an individual’s contribution in a neat, succinct, and honest manner.
  2. We prepare ourselves to fall into 3 categories — we are excelling (awesome), we are on track (that’s ok) or we are under performing (you’re kidding me, right?).
  3. Due to points 1 & 2 above the end result becomes a categorisation exercise that means accurate, behaviour-changing feedback becomes too diluted and is therefore unlikely to have any positive effect on the performance of the individual.

Let me highlight that last section:

I do not think that annual performance reviews are effective at changing an individual’s performance.

There, I said it.

For the most part, annual performance reviews have become a yearly tick box exercise. Managers are expected to provide examples which will justify an employee’s categorisation while the individual takes the feedback as politely as possible with very little collaboration or discussion. I might be outlining a worst case scenario, but you get the point.

Is there a better way?

Quite frankly, yes.

We are trialling a new concept this year within Salesforce and my engineering group is one of the early adopters. We have thrown away annual performance reviews and have moved toward continuous feedback.

Continuous feedback is a simple concept; we give our peers feedback early and often.

The intention is to create a culture of open, honest, and transparent feedback. We intend to positively change performance of an individual with the right feedback at the right time. If you think someone did a good job, let them know. If you spot something that they can develop or improve, let them know.

While this sounds very utopian in nature, there are some key elements to continuous feedback that are important for adoption. Without a few guardrails, feedback can be misinterpreted or taken in the wrong way, ultimately having a negative effect on your team and individuals.

Make a promise to your team

Engineers can be a dubious group, so it is important to outline the new process, manage any apprehension, and get buy-in.

Set expectations with each individual on your team that you will provide feedback on their performance at least once a month. At least once a month. It may be more but it will not be any less.

Not only that, but assure your team that any feedback will then form part of the discussion in your next 1:1. This sets the tone that you are serious about continuous feedback and it is front and centre in your mind.

Following up on your comments in a 1:1 is crucial if you want to see behavioural change. Do you have a common understanding? Do they have questions or points they want to raise about it? Are there any next steps?

Feedback is not something to avoid. Have those important conversations early and regularly.

Ask your team to commit to continuous feedback

Embrace the fact that continuous feedback is a two-way mechanism between line manager and direct report.

Make it clear that you want to hear their comments about your performance at least once a month. Again, raise any feedback you have received during your next 1:1.

Don’t be afraid to dig deep into what might be an awkward conversation. It is much better to have the tough discussions early when there is still an opportunity to work through the feedback and think about actions rather than lettings things fester in the background.

Take ownership of your feedback

We built a new feedback app at Salesforce. It is an impressive internal tool with dashboards and charts but its main function is to provide us with the ability to send timely feedback to our manager and peers.

The app contains an option of sending feedback anonymously. I can appreciate why that may be needed, but I am personally adamant that we should own our feedback and put our name to every comment.

If I cannot own a piece of feedback then I ask myself:

Is this the right forum to be posting this? Why can I not put my name to it?

Continuous feedback is more than just being open and honest. It is about feeling safe. Sometimes a chat is best, sometimes a comment in the app is best. What is great is we get to decide when and how to relay feedback to our peers.

Always provide examples

When you write a piece of feedback think about including a recent example or, even better, use the Situation — Behaviour — Impact model (SBI).

It becomes a lot easier to give and receive feedback when you have a specific situation in mind that you can talk through.

From experience, engineers are happiest when presented with quantitative data (numerical data you can measure) but struggle with qualitative data (subjective data collected via observations). Unfortunately, peer feedback tends to be much more qualitative, so having an example or situation to analyse is key to gaining a common understanding from which you can establish a way forward.

If there is one thing you take away from this post, I hope it is to lean on SBI whenever you need to effectively communicate feedback. An absolute must.

Keep an open mind

It is vital that we keep an open mind when reading feedback about ourselves. Consider that the person has taken time to write feedback for us and it was coming from a place of good intentions rather than being critical or personal.

As humans, we often ignore or disbelieve any praise that comes our way and over-emphasize the negative comments. Be aware when you are focusing too much on critical feedback.

If necessary, take a step back, try to remove yourself emotionally, and ask for a private session to talk through the situation face-to-face.

Reflect – iterate – improve

Turning away from the familiar routine of the annual performance review is not the most obvious path forward. In fact, the process may be imperfect at first. But just as we process feedback for ourselves, we can reflect on our move to continuous feedback the same way: keep doing the things that are working, and make small, iterative changes to the items that need improving. The change will be worthwhile.

By adopting continuous feedback, I believe teams and individuals become more secure, more productive, and more transparent because performance is discussed in the right way and at the right time.

Do you run performance reviews with your team? Have you found a way to make them work for you? Perhaps you have taken a different path entirely?

Would love to hear your thoughts; please share and comment!

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