Whether you’re in a large company or a small startup, many of us struggle to define the meaning of performance reviews. In theory, they’re intended to ensure that managers provide timely, relevant feedback and help employees gauge how they’re performing against goals and manager expectations. The entire performance review process is based on the idea that people are willing to both give and receive constructive feedback. In truth, both giving and receiving feedback can be awkward, emotional, and expose vulnerabilities, so lots of us shy away from it. So if nobody wants to give it, and nobody really wants to receive it, where does that leave us? How do you do performance reviews when the very concept is inherently flawed? 

What is constructive feedback?

Let’s start here. You can find lots of definitions in best-selling books and online articles, but I think each company should define what this means for itself. The definition of constructive feedback for your company is based on the crux of your culture: What can people expect to happen as they perform their roles? What happens when someone does well on a project or, on the opposite side, when someone can’t seem to find their footing in their role? How are wins celebrated? Do you have retrospectives on failed goals? All of this depends on how your values fit into your day-to-day operations. Is candor a value? Care and compassion? Transparency? Any of these could and should be the baseline in how you construct your feedback process. If your people know that both successes and failures are equally important and equally discussed, then it should be an easier pathway to share candid and constructive feedback as part of a formal review process.

How do we actually share feedback?

One of the reasons I chose to join Affinity was that it already had a performance review process in place with Lattice. This has never happened in any of the startups I’ve worked in; typically, I’ve had to advocate for a process, harangue managers to follow it, and often have inconsistent processes across functions. But as a forward-thinking founding team, the team at Affinity knew that candor, transparency, and constructive feedback were fundamental to our culture. Even more impressive is that it started within a team that in lots of startups will either dismiss the review process or do their own version. Ours was begun in engineering and embraced by all teams. So by the time I joined, my job was to take the baton and continue to evolve our performance feedback process.

Our feedback process is a twice a year cycle, consisting of a full 360 feedback loop. Each employee who’s been on board for at least six months will do a self-review, peer review(s), and direct manager review; people managers have the additional responsibility of reviewing their direct reports. 

We make the process as structured and consistent across departments as possible. Every person evaluates themselves based on achievements and challenges and looks ahead to the next cycle. They also review their managers on a set of 10 criteria that make up our “What it means to be a manager” tenets at Affinity. And finally, each employee chooses a few people who they’ve worked with during the past cycle, taking care not to select the same people every time, and evaluates their performance on three criteria: getting things done, quality of work, and collaborating effectively.

Is this feedback constructive?

Many of us are familiar with the Basecamp article that dismissed the value of peer reviews. It wasn’t entirely wrong and I think we can all agree that feedback like “they’re a great coworker” is a nice sentiment but doesn’t provide a helpful takeaway. And frankly, all of our team members are solid coworkers, so that could just be assumed. We need more than that if we want to improve, feel challenged, and really be honest with each other.
Having a systematic approach is key to making the process of sharing feedback less intimidating — a set of criteria that everyone is evaluated against, so it takes the guesswork out of how to review a peer. Everyone in our company is assessed on three criteria: 

  • collaborate effectively
  • produce high-quality work 
  • get things done

We score these criteria on a scale of 1 (needs improvement) to 5 (superb). In this way, all employees have a consistent baseline of reference, with a quantitative measurement that reduces the subjectivity of feedback. Most people rate their peers a 3 or 4, but there are a few 2 scores and occasionally a 5. I’ll point out that these criteria are submitted anonymously, which we think encourages people to be honest. 
But there also has to be some freeform input capabilities that enable a transparent sharing of feedback in line with our core values. So a peer can also submit written input for two main categories: 1) What would you recommend this person keep doing? 2) What would you recommend this person change? We purposefully leave these two as open-ended questions so that the reviewer can share more generalized thoughts. We also recommend that the submission be kept short – 1 – 2 short paragraphs. We’re a fast-moving startup and since we do reviews twice a year, we want to minimize the time impact to our team. This also helps frame the feedback process so that it’s not overwhelming for the employees for all of the review phases (self, peer, manager).

Last thoughts

Even with all of these constructs, it can still be hard to be constructive in a way that’s authentic, professional, and compassionate. Someone gave me feedback once that I think encompasses what my recommendation is in a very simple way: “She would be an even better communicator if she led with curiosity.” That really stuck with me and I try to approach feedback with empathy and inquisitiveness. It’s how I’d recommend others do so as well, adding in a few other guidelines:

  • Be specific — it’s best to note a concrete example or instance
  • Be timely — keep it to the time period of the review
  • Be fair — base it on actions rather than personality
  • Be direct — it’s great to give both positive and constructive feedback, but don’t beat around the bush on either.