Remember, remind, rejoice, react, regroup.
At Gusto, we have a performance review process every six months, and we treat reviews with a great deal of care, while still making sure that we’re learning, growing, and evolving the process over time. The amount of effort involved in a review cycle can feel daunting, because you’re reflecting on your own and your peers’ work to give feedback that will help everyone grow. In order to do that, there’s a lot of upfront work: you're trying to remember what you did, what your teammates did, and who you worked with. You’re taking months or even a full year of work and distilling it down to a handful of points for peer feedback and self review.
My team has found a way to make peer reviews more collaborative (and fun!). Through this new process, we also give and receive higher-quality feedback with a smaller time commitment.
What is feedback designed to do?
Before we talk about a better way to approach peer feedback, let’s talk about the goals of a feedback cycle:
- Remember what you did
- Remind your team what they did
- React to anything that needs reacting to. If you have a piece of critical feedback you want to give based on the trailing six months, if you notice that somebody really stepped up, etc.
- Regroup: now that we talked about all of that, how are we collectively going to move forward for the next six months?
Feedback is important
This process matters; it’s not like we can opt out. These reviews factor into your performance ratings, which impact your promotion trajectory. They are often a direct input to your compensation. Tl;dr: reviews get you paid. They are a balancing act of making sure that you’re getting the recognition you deserve, effectively communicating about your work while not over/underselling yourself, making sure your peers aren’t underselling themselves, all the while counteracting intrinsic bias. Reviews also add a bonus layer of complexity for underrepresented folks in tech (or those who have underrepresented folks on their team), as studies have shown traditional performance reviews can be biased - particularly for folks from underrepresented groups.
There are a lot of things to get right and to treat with care. On top of all this, reviews need to be speedy: you have other things to do, after all. Your leadership may encourage you to timebox this process. Beyond that, it’s hard to set aside time to focus on writing reviews. Even though your team is all doing it at the same time, it can feel like you’re “stealing time” by being unavailable. Who amongst us hasn’t sat down to do a peer review, only to get distracted by an incoming PR or team message? When your brain doesn’t want to do something, it finds a lot of ways to not do that thing.
The most frustrating part is that your team is likely duplicating work. If you’re trying to remember what each of your teammates did in the last period and they’re each trying to remember the same, you’re duplicating the process of remembering work, which is inefficient.
A note on continuous feedback: if your company has a true continuous feedback model, a lot of this pain doesn't exist for you. You look at all your feedback over the last period of time and write your self review from there. I release you to go do that! But if you don’t, read on.
There’s a better way for peer feedback
So what does my team at Gusto do to combat all of this? We’ve been experimenting with some new ways to facilitate the peer feedback process, and have found one that works well for us right now. Some other teams at Gusto have also adopted it, and are tweaking it to best fit their teams. It’s a work in progress, but we’re seeing great signals already.
Here’s what it looks like.
We all get in a room and synchronously review what each team member has been up to for the last six months. Beforehand, we circulate a doc with everyone’s names on it in the order we will talk about them (we’ve mostly done alphabetical order in the past, but you could do it by role, or by level). People come prepared with a list of things they worked on, things they specifically want feedback on, or even join unprepared.
During each person’s session we set a timer for 10 minutes. That person can open with a couple-minute description/review of their six months. We then open the floor to everybody else. We use the “raise hands” feature in Zoom, and the floor is open for folks to share what they worked on with that person, what they like about working with that person, any constructive feedback, or a combination of the above. After 10 minutes of talking about a team member, we take a deep breath and go onto the next person. We take 10-15 minute breaks after about 4 or 5 people, to give folks time to regroup and re-energize. After the meeting, everybody blurbs their relevant feedback for each teammate and gets it into the feedback system. Folks can also start working on their self-review right away.
This peer review cycle, I was personally able to complete 16 peer reviews in five hours: 4 hours for the meetings, and an hour afterwards to type up my individual reflections. That breaks down to under 20 minutes per review, AND the quality of the feedback was better than when completed in isolation.
How does this achieve our stated goals above?
- Remember what you did: yes! This is great, because you’re encouraged to write up a short summary of your 6 months before you get feedback, and your teammates remind you of things that made an impact to them that you may not remember (which is great!)
- Remind your team what they did: also, yes. And you get to do it in a synchronous way while highlighting the impact that it had on your work. You don’t have to go do another round of research; you’ve crowdsourced it
- React to anything that needs reacting-to: you can do this in real-time, depending on the psychological safety of the team and the type of feedback. You can also save it for the write-up. Because you have a better sense of what everybody did over the review period, you can make this feedback more specific, grounded in examples, and actionable
- Regroup: sharing your teammates’ impacts individually help them set personal career goals. Hearing everybody’s accomplishments and work laid out at once lets you identify other gaps as well, and regroup as a team to tackle the next six months of work
You also get a bonus goal-achievement with the process!
- Rejoice! Y’all made so much progress as a team. Treat this also as a way to celebrate that progress separate from a team launch or project ship date. It feels good to take a moment to breathe
Two other added benefits are the lessened distractions (since everybody is doing this at the same time, you’re not being pulled in other directions while trying to focus on reviews) and the fact that this way takes a lot less time (for me) than the old way of working.
You might be thinking, well sure, it achieves the goals (and you cheated by adding a new, side goal), but I have some questions!
Should my team try this?
Psychological safety is a really crucial piece here. The individual attention on each person’s achievements and accomplishments is only functional if trust is a key component of how your team operates. Feedback is like exercising a muscle: you do it so that you can become stronger. You should be giving your peers feedback to help them get stronger and better at their job, not tearing them down. If you’re imagining this exercise feeling unsafe on your team, it’s not the exercise for you. If you feel like it would be uncomfortable, but not unsafe, I’d encourage you to give it a try!
Isn’t it awkward?
Yes, and that’s okay. It can be awkward/uncomfortable to articulate feedback for others in the moment. But like any skill it gets easier with practice. Surprisingly, the most awkward part for many folks is hearing nice things about themselves in a public setting. It’s like everyone singing you Happy Birthday, but more personal.
Doesn’t this take a long time?
No longer than without collaboration. And I’d argue that we get better results, which makes it a good time investment.
Doesn’t this result in only positive peer feedback?
No more so than the usual processes. My philosophy about critical feedback is this: if you’re not giving it in the moment, or close to the time that it happened, you’re doing your team a disservice. So if you get to the end of the six month period and you have a laundry list of things that you wish this person would improve on, you’re harming their ability to grow.
I’m able to find patterns in people’s work this way, and can more clearly distill what I want to give feedback on, critical or otherwise. Depending on your team and the situation, you can give this feedback live in front of the rest of the team. I’ve heard it phrased as:
- “you did a lot of work in this area this half, and the team wants to help you with that area going forward. If you can share some of the burden in the next six months, I think that would be helpful”
- “You’ve been involved in so many critical things this half, and we’ve valued having you everywhere all at once. But it seems like it’s taking a toll on your ability to follow through on details, so that’s something to watch going forward”.
If this sounds interesting to you, or your team tries this, let us know how it goes!