The Soda Academy
"While constructive feedback is great, it’s important to make sure that insight turns into action."
"Feedback and insights focused on bolstering one’s core strengths rather than fixing weaknesses produces dramatically better results."

Peyton Lindley, EffectiveUI

Rethinking Performance Management

Rethinking Performance Management

I’ve never really been a fan of the annual performance review. While I understand the intention behind it, I have always felt that there was a huge disconnect between intention and outcome.

To clarify, I’m referring to the process where, as a manager, you tediously hound five or six employees for candid feedback on the employee being reviewed, you craft a synopsis, and perhaps there’s even a rating scale. You then present the feedback to the employee and have a discussion around strengths and areas for growth, while also discussing goals for the upcoming 12 months.

As a manager, I left every one of these sessions with a feeling as though I hadn’t really served our employee well. I was a middleman for everyone else’s feedback. I also know our employees felt as though these conversations were fairly one-dimensional.

It’s the 21st Century, yet performance management practices haven’t really evolved much since the 1950s. As leaders of digital firms, we are managing and creating the workplaces of the future, and I – like my colleague Peter Kang from Barrel who offers another take on this topic in the previous article – believe that performance management is an area that’s ripe for overhaul. However, such practices often fall to the bottom of the priority list, as agencies require an acute focus on clients: developing business, servicing accounts, and delivering top-notch work.

Due to my discontent with the traditional performance review, I went searching for ways to reform and enhance this age-old practice. Sadly, I found few books and articles that could provide new models for constructive coaching and support. As is the case with many aspects of our dynamic agency, I (along with our Director of UX, Dan Saltman) took a DIY approach to overhauling our performance management. Ultimately, I sought to create a system that felt more congruent with our culture, supported a key company value of authenticity, generated active two-way dialog, and ultimately fostered employee career growth through rich insight.

Thankfully, ideas often come to us when we least expect them. I was sitting on a plane heading to a client visit when I cracked open Harvard Business Review’s magazine, focused on HR best practices and reinvention. There were several articles that sparked fresh new thinking, and ultimately shaped the process that we have today. To that end, I’ll share a few of the core tenets we’ve put together as the “backbone” of our feedback program:

  1. Performance management is an ongoing, fluid practice that cannot live entirely with management. I recall reading a quote somewhere in my inquiry on this topic that stated (to paraphrase), “If you were a baseball coach, would you wait until the ninth inning to provide feedback to your pitcher?” While that seems like an obvious analogy, I often find that the business world relies on arbitrary deadlines (quarters, years) to discuss these events. While we haven’t perfected the system yet, we strive to make sure that our employees receive real-time feedback from both peers as well as management. Some of these events are scheduled and some are impromptu, but all conversations should be held with the intention of support, transparency, and growth. We’re also hosting training sessions on how to give better feedback.
  2. Leveraging a common framework. We felt it was important to provide an underlying framework for self-awareness, and after many conversations and research, the StrengthsFinder system resonated with our culture the most. To simplify the concept, Gallup did a multi-year research study on the relationship between types of performance feedback and what feedback produced the greatest gains. Not surprisingly, the feedback and awareness that focused on one’s core strengths rather than fixing weaknesses produced dramatically better results. All of our employees now take the StrengthsFinder assessment and are empowered to explore how they can grow in the context of their core strengths.
  3. In-person “roundtables.” We’ve abolished the one-on-one, manager-employee performance review. In addition to the real-time feedback opportunities, we set up annual opportunities for structured, peer-based feedback, and a forum for employees to articulate their strengths, desired career trajectory and areas of exploration. As such, they invite four to five cross-functional peers to the roundtable for a lively, open discussion. As a manager, I am merely a facilitator in this meeting, and the employee is really the driver of the session. While we have a repeatable structure for each roundtable, the content is fairly open-ended, and the employee is required to bring five key questions that will lead to further self-awareness and discovery. Here’s a sample question from a recent roundtable: “Am I ever too open or straightforward? Has my candor ever become uncomfortable or unprofessional?” The dialog that ensued after this particular question was engaging, constructive and altogether inspiring.
  4. Sharing knowledge. Let’s face it: asking direct questions of peers and having transparent conversations can be challenging. We’ve created a set of master Google Docs that are shared with everyone, and they capture the past questions that other employees have asked of their peers while preparing for their roundtables. In addition, there are documents that clearly outline what to expect, how to prepare and the overall intent of these sessions. The hope is that we’re dispelling some of the mystique (and anxiety) that can often come with a performance review.
  5. Connecting the dots and moving forward. After the roundtable, I set up a separate session ̶ usually a week later, after the employee has had some time to reflect. It’s during this session that we connect the dots and ask the question: “Based on the discussion you had with your peers, what concrete goals would you like to achieve in the next 90 days?” While constructive feedback is great, it’s important to make sure that insight turns into action.

To be clear, we’re continually tweaking this system and we’re far from getting all of the bugs resolved, but I can say with confidence that the concepts we’ve implemented are far more congruent with our culture and values. I now look forward to our roundtable discussions, and it’s my sense that our employees do too.

As Executive Director of Experience Design and Customer Insight for EffectiveUI, Peyton Lindley is responsible for providing leadership to the company’s user-centered design and research teams.