Feedback is critical for alignment and growth, but really awkward.
How should small, early stage companies handle performance reviews? This article gives some best practices from my perspective doing this a few times. I’ll emphasize a couple of themes:
Give critical feedback, but from different voices than your own
People are different. Treat them differently based on need.
What are you doing well? What could be improved?
Informal conversations are great. You’re probably already doing them. Should you also do something formal and structured with pre-defined questions?
Almost always my answer to questions like this is “No. Adapt to the situation at hand. Don’t defer to generic solutions.” In this case though I think that formal pre-defined structures is something that you can lean on to make critical feedback more palatable.
I typically structure the conversation around the following questions:
What does the employee think is going well?
What does the employee think could be improved?
What does the company think is going well?
What does the company think could be improved?
This is the most generic structure I can think of that both
gets the employee to talk about things
reates an obvious space for critical feedback.
When you as a manager give feedback it’s now because you were asked to by the form. “It’s not that I think you’re doing a bad job, it’s that I have to fill something out here to satisfy the form. But while we’re on this subject, let’s talk about this critical feedback I just brought up”.
Formal structure makes things less personal between manager and employee. Usually I dislike the impersonal, but in the case of critical feedback the formalism takes the blame and opens up a blameless conversation between two people who really need to converse.
Hi X, I’m collecting feedback for Y. Can I ask you to send me a few sentences about what they’re doing well and where you think there might be room for improvement?
I like getting feedback from others around the employee. This includes people that they manage (if they’re managers), their teammates, and other people not on their team, but who have some interaction with them. I always ask for both positive and negative feedback, typically asynchronously (this is cheaper for everyone than scheduling a bunch of meetings).
I then scramble that feedback (to avoid attribution) and share it with the employee just ahead of our performance review. Typically I also identify and write down a few themes at the bottom of the doc that I identify.
This accomplishes a few things that I like:
Again, this is a mechanism to deliver valuable critical feedback to the employee in a way where it’s not you directly criticizing them. Instead, you’re both analyzing a broader voice.
It’s a great opportunity to deliver a lot of positive feedback at the same time. People love complimenting their colleagues to management. This helps to provide the ultimate, multi-layered, feedback sandwich (lots of positive feedback wrapping some critical feedback).
It gives other teammates an opportunity to weigh in, and a sense that their voices are being heard.
Somewhere between monthly and yearly works for me. I think that this depends a lot on the employee, how much they’re growing / experiencing new challenges, and on how often you all communicate. If someone is stuck doing the same thing year after year and everyone is comfortable with it then frequent feedback probably isn’t necessary. If someone is growing a lot and working between teams then frequent feedback probably makes more sense.
Doubling down on the last point there, successful employees probably need more frequent feedback, not less.
I recommend taking notes, including any actions that either side should take. This may not seem that important during the meeting (typically people leave feedback sessions feeling more aligned, not less) but over time intentions will drift, and it can be helpful to point back to a document, especially if there is a recurring problem.