Performance reviews mark a difficult time of year.
You need to give feedback, receive feedback, gather information, run around a lot, and do a ton of work. That alone is hard enough.
But the worst part: you have to tell others to change.
You need a lot of preparation to get this right. You need a strong process in place, and you need to sharpen your skills in gathering, synthesizing, and delivering feedback to your reports.
We walk through building this from the ground up with Lara Hogan, legendary leadership coach at Wherewithall and former engineering leader. This post is based on an interview hosted by Karolina Toth on episode 46 of the Level-up Engineering podcast.
This blog post covers:
Lara Hogan is co-founder and leadership coach at Wherewithall. She runs a leadership blog and often does public speaking. Formerly, she was engineering director at Etsy and later VP of engineering at Kickstarter.
She champions management as a practice, building fast websites, and celebrating your achievements with donuts (and sometimes sushi).
Performance reviews vary widely based on the organization’s age, scale, and other factors.
Formal performance reviews can include 360 reviews, require documenting and communicating the results, and include follow-ups between review cycles. Some companies use informal feedback cycles and call that a performance review as well.
I tend to use the term “performance review” for the formal review process. This includes the leaders documenting the feedback for their team members for purposes like career growth, identifying goals to serve as a reference point, and to help future managers.
Ideally, you continuously receive feedback from your superiors, peers, and direct reports. We need performance reviews because humans aren’t great at remembering to give feedback. It's scary both to give and to receive feedback because it can trigger a fight-or-flight response in either of you.
The point of the performance review is to provide a routine to giving feedback. You synthesize and document all the feedback your direct reports receive at that point in time. It serves as a check-in that gets everyone on the same page and as a future reference point.
You don't need to repeat performance reviews often. You need to build a healthy feedback culture where giving and receiving feedback is routine. As long as you document your feedback in some way, it’s not that important how often you memorialize it.
Some companies do it annually, bi-annually, or quarterly. Quarterly performance reviews come with a lot of overhead for the managers tasked with delivering the reviews, while annual reviews may be too far in between.
I usually advise to go with performance reviews every six months. This way they aren’t too close together or too far apart. I always emphasize the importance of routinely giving feedback throughout the year, rather than forcing more performance review cycles.
Every company has a different process that depends on scale and maturity. There are different requirements in terms of goals and the documentation process.
As a rule of thumb, managers should start by considering whose input to include for their direct reports in the upcoming performance review. You can ask your reports to come up with people whose feedback should be incorporated. Usually, the manager has names in mind as well, like cross-functional leaders, peers, or teammates.
Start gathering feedback the way your company prescribes it. Make sure to start early enough for everyone to be able to give feedback. Count on others being busy and taking time off, so give them time to get it done.
I give people a heads up that I will send them some questions to set the expectation that their feedback would be documented in the upcoming performance review.
Giving feedback to me about my direct report can be easier than giving it to them directly. Some people prefer to give feedback in-person to talk through it, while others prefer to write it. I provide both options if I can, and I triple-check with everyone to make sure I get it right.
You know in what ways your reports want to grow, so tailor at least a couple of questions for feedback-givers towards that. Here’s an example:
It’s also useful to put in at least one broad question as well to catch anything else you may not specifically ask about. Here’s an example:
Synthesize all the feedback you’ve received for each of your direct reports. It’s a lot of work. You need to take into account different perspectives you’ve received via different mediums and come up with coherent feedback to share.
You also eliminate biased or irrelevant feedback. This part is difficult because of your own bias.
Sometimes you know that your report doesn’t fit the archetype of what they’re trying to achieve. Let’s say it’s a leadership role, and your report should speak up more. You need to hone your feedback into something behavioral and actionable to make it fair. It takes time and effort to figure this out.
If you receive feedback from someone that’s different from everyone else's perspective about your report, follow up with them. Understand what may be the reason for that feedback. It may be their relationship, their dynamic, their goals, or a lot of other factors.
As you understand it better, you’ll be able to own it when you deliver it.
Once you’ve delivered the feedback, do what you can to get them what they need to achieve what they set out to do. That's the homework for you as a manager. You need to make it clear how to make those improvements happen.
Often a person will make a request like, “I need a bigger team to be able to deliver.” You always need to make it clear to your reports what is on the table and what isn’t. This sets their expectations and helps them move forward.
No one should get surprising feedback in a performance review. In a perfect world, you receive feedback from everyone you’re working with between performance reviews, so you should know what they have to say by the time a review cycle comes around. This doesn’t always happen in reality.
Make everything included in a performance review specific. Give feedback based on specific events or actions in a specific environment. In a worst-case scenario, at least specify the outcome you’re looking for.
Focus on behaviors. Saying, “You’re so smart,” is too broad. Clarify the specific behaviors you’ve seen them demonstrate before, or behaviors you’d like to observe in that person going forward.
The worst kind of feedback is when it’s not clear what you can do about it.
When you deliver feedback, make sure to frame it to make it clear for the receiver what they could do about it. Whether you give positive or constructive feedback, make it actionable so your employees know what they should start doing, what they should keep doing and what’s the reason behind it.
People often give feedback without saying why it’s important. That’s a mistake.
It can be specific and actionable, but you also need your team members to understand what you’re trying to achieve, and why it matters to their colleagues or the company. Make it clear why a specific behavior is great or why it’s a problem, so they have a clear goal by repeating or changing that behavior.
Giving feedback based on a formal performance review includes synthesizing feedback from others. You have feedback about your reports from their teammates, their direct reports or their cross-functional peers.
It's a challenge to incorporate all the feedback and make it land with your report. It's a part of your job to filter the feedback you’ve received and to make it relevant for their personal growth and for their career growth.
You need to own the feedback as much as possible. Even if it’s about a behavior you’ve never witnessed but three of their peers gave similar feedback, you have to own the feedback when you deliver it. Owning the feedback will help you land it.
You can frame it like this:
Fairness is one of our core needs at work. When we perceive something as unfair, the amygdala takes over and we want to avoid that. When you deliver feedback, make sure to make it as fair as possible to your report.
When you deliver feedback about behaviors that you haven’t witnessed, you need to triple check whether it’s valid; otherwise, it can’t be fair. You also need to understand the context to make it actionable and to answer any questions your report may have to help them improve.
Many of us can't control our fight or flight response. It takes a lot of effort and practice to. Here are a couple of things you can do to prepare to receive feedback.
When you’re going to receive feedback, try to find a setting that feels safe. The place, the mood, and the preferred time of day can all make it easier for you. A calm environment can make all the difference in allowing the feedback to land.
In a feedback discussion, you can always say, “Your feedback is important to me, but my brain can't process it right now. Can I get this in writing later?” Alternatively, you may go with, “Can we check in again soon after I've had some time to think?”
Come up with a one-liner that says the feedback is important to you, but you need time to process it. Knowing that you have this option will help you keep your cool. This is especially true if your manager doesn’t cater to your preferred way of receiving feedback, which may stop you from getting into your healthiest brain space.
When you need to process the feedback you’ve received, focus on bringing your prefrontal cortex online. Taking a walk can help you do that. You can also help yourself along by doing a puzzle; my favorite in these situations is sudoku.
People are often stressed out going into feedback conversations, or they snap into fight-or-flight mode when receiving surprise feedback. They can barely hear you in this state.
The amygdala part of the brain triggers the fight-or-flight response. When you give feedback, you want to keep the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain, online. That makes it possible to process the feedback and to ask questions rather than go into fight-or-flight mode.
This isn’t limited to work; the same thing can happen with your partner at home.
The two main ways of giving feedback are a face-to-face discussion or sharing it in a document via an async medium.
Everybody prefers to receive feedback in a different way. Personally, I prefer to read it first, so I can digest it before I have a conversation about it. It’s important for you to know how your direct reports prefer to receive feedback, so you can make it stick the most.
Start with their preferred method, then follow it up with the other method later. Either way, make sure to send them a written review and have a conversation about it as well. This is the best way to make your feedback stick.
Provide yourself with everything you need to deliver feedback. Giving feedback is just as stressful, which is partly why people often avoid it. It’s the same problem: the amygdala kicks in and the situation can spiral out of control.
You can’t land your feedback perfectly every time, but do everything you can to maximize the results.
Ask these questions after you deliver feedback:
You don't have to provide options. When the manager brings up an option, it looks like a request. It's helpful to have options in mind to help jumpstart a brainstorming session about it if necessary, but don’t lead with that.
Focus on asking questions that make your report consider the problem and come up with their own answer. Micromanaging stops them from building up their autonomy, which will stop you from building a self-managed team.
When you’re mentoring, no one is growing. Mentoring means sharing advice and sharing our perspective, suggesting things your report could try. We’re often told that knowledge sharing is the most valuable thing we can do, but that isn’t how people grow.
Coaching and sponsoring supports people to grow by connecting their own dots, experimenting, and failing. In coaching, you ask open questions because you want them to ask themselves, “What am I optimizing for when I'm doing this?” That is a learning moment.
By providing suggestions, you short circuit the learning process. You have to hold back in this situation, and ask 3-5 coaching questions rather than come up with potential solutions. When your report figures out how they want to grow, what they want to do, or how they want to experiment, you become a sponsor for them.
A sponsor finds opportunities for their reports to stretch their skills. It’s not about teaching but about providing space and support for your reports to experiment and learn. That’s how people grow, and research shows it correlates to career trajectory.
Figure out how the meeting will go and share it with your report to set the expectation.
Here’s an example of how you can do it:
When it comes to new team members, build context around the process. Tell them how you think about feedback, or let them know that they have an optional exit if they need time to think. The more predictable you make the process, the more likely they can keep their fight-or-flight response in check.
You can come up with a hand gesture or a word that means they need a timeout and you’ll pick up again later. Provide them with agency to make sure that they can process the feedback as much as possible. Just having this option will make the discussion go smoother.
I try to bring my normal self to the table, not the serious-manager-face. Let them know that you understand how difficult these conversations are, and bring your authentic self to lighten the mood. Approach it the same way you would approach a one-on-one meeting.
Start by connecting your feedback to what they care about. Here are some examples:
Follow this up with the facts you’ve observed. Be careful to keep your judgements and your assumptions out of this. Here’s an example:
This could be anything like how quickly they respond to emails or tickets. The most important part is to separate your feedback from your assumptions.
You’ve stated what they care about and followed it up with a fact-based observation. Tying them together gives you the best chance to land your feedback. Here’s an example:
You want to make a performance review discussion a two-way conversation.
I’ve seen people say that you should end your feedback with a request like, “Could you pick up more tickets, please?” I consider this a terrible way to deliver feedback, as it shuts down any chance of a conversation.
Involve your direct report in the solution. Ask an open-ended coaching question. Here are some examples:
Asking what they’re optimizing for when they do what you’re giving them feedback about opens up the conversation.
Don’t go with leading questions like, “What if you tried this?” That’s a request. Finishing with a request makes it a one-directional feedback conversation, which is a terrible experience for everybody involved.
Leading questions may serve you well in a toxic situation, or when working out a performance improvement plan. When it comes to delivering constructive criticism in a regular performance review, make it a two-way conversation. This is the best you can do for everybody.
The best you can do is frame the feedback based on the performance review in the terms that your report cares about.
We often hear that we need to talk about why the feedback we give is important for us. That's not how humans work. Managers need to understand the goals of their reports, so frame the feedback in those terms.
Before giving feedback, always ask yourself, “How can I reframe my feedback to align with this person’s goals?”
For example, you know that your direct report wants a promotion.
You might give them feedback like this, “To get to the next level, one of the skills you need to demonstrate is product management. Here are some opportunities I see for you to demonstrate that skill.”
Here’s a bad example for the same, “It’s important to me that you do X, Y, and Z project management, because it's going to help the team, and it's a part of your job.”
Even then it may be tough for your direct report to hear your feedback, because they may need to change their behavior or pick up a new one. They aren’t good at doing that yet. However, if you frame it in terms that they care about, they'll be motivated to process it and to take action based on it.
Make sure your reports identify their goals. It could be different things like improving public speaking skills, learning a new language, or trying to reach the next level. Once they have a goal, they can ask for feedback on specific behaviors or skills tied to their goals.
Model it for them. Give them a cheat sheet of the questions to ask their teammates, their manager, or their reports.
I advise everyone to avoid broad questions like, “Do you have any feedback for me?” It doesn’t work because no one knows how to respond to it. Often they lack the psychological safety to give feedback, because it’s just as stressful as receiving feedback.
Ask for specific feedback. It may look something like, “I'm working on my public speaking skills. Do you have any feedback for me about my last presentation? How was the narrative?”
You can send your questions ahead of time. This helps you avoid surprises and catching anyone off-guard.
You can ask for feedback in different mediums based on your own preferences and the preferences of your colleagues.
The biggest mistake is assuming to know why another person is behaving a certain way. You may have a good reason to have an assumption, like you’ve seen that behavior with others, and you connect the dots. It’s still a mistake, because you can’t know.
Ask open questions to understand the motivation behind the other person acting a certain way. This is going to lead you towards a solution.
My example for this is moving desks. When new desk assignments are mandated, everybody has strong emotions about it. I’ve been responsible for desk moves, and I always projected my assumptions on complaints like, “They're mad because they can't sit next to this person,” or “They're mad because they didn't get a choice.”
There are endless reasons why someone may get angry about something as simple as moving to another desk. This is why it's important to ask questions and avoid assumptions.
A lot of the management work is intangible, and there is a long feedback loop from you doing something until you see its effects. This is why it’s hard to evaluate yourself as a leader.
Figure out what you're optimizing for as a manager. You may be looking for feedback on how effectively you manage for happiness or for building a strong team. Make what you’re optimizing for valid, like getting a project across the finish line, your own work-life balance, or scaling your engineering team.
After you’ve received feedback, you can check in with yourself and ask, “Based on what I’m optimizing for, how did I do?”
If you’ve gotten closer, that’s great. If you haven’t, think about what you need to do in order to get closer to your goals. It’s helpful to remind yourself that you may be going through a difficult time and you might have messed up a few times, but all of it is in the service of the big picture.
Find a group of peers you feel safe with who can give you reliable feedback.
Discuss your approach with them; you can even roleplay performance reviews. You can practice receiving and delivering feedback with your peers to improve your skills.
Gather a group of managers and leaders who have experience at giving feedback, come up with fake scenarios, and have everybody in the room roleplay in pairs. This works remotely via Zoom as well.
As everybody goes through a scenario, you can see different approaches to tone, body language, silence, questions, and balancing directives or empowering leadership styles. I’ve learned a lot from events like this. If you want to improve at giving feedback, help to set up these workshops and start practicing.
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About the author:
Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.