Shane is me

A Thousand Feet Back

April 20, 2022

Many times, the performance review is looked upon with dread from everyone involved. Not many people ever enjoy doing a self-assessment. Your average manager needs to write up detailed feedback for many people, each taking a significant amount of time and effort. If done well, however, it can lead to some amazing things that lead to better retention, employee satisfaction, and general team cohesiveness.

Before I was a manager, I've gotten my share of bad to mediocre reviews I felt did several things wrong. Sometimes there were glimmers of actionable feedback that I was able to use and improve, or we aligned on previously unknown disagreements. I'm trying to find those nuggets that were hidden away and expose them to try and make the regular performance reviews that I give to my team something that everyone can walk away from thinking positively.

Feedback granularity

In the day-to-day grind, things will blur together. It's simple to lose track of where we're going and why we're going there. Projects ramp up and ramp down, quarters come and go, it's no wonder career goals and how your people are doing in general are afterthoughts. When we're talking about a regular check-in on these things, we need to take a few steps back, like say, a thousand. Imagine that you're an architect of a major construction project, and you take a walk that puts you 1,000 feet away. You could take in the entire building, but still see some detail like what floors were completed, where the scaffolding was, or where the machinery was working or not working.

Looking at your team's performance from this perspective allows you to think of trends, instead of things that happened the last week. Having this framing is crucial to delivering the type of feedback one needs to absorb in order to correct those trends, or lean into them. How often should we step back a thousand feet to look at a career trajectory? There is some gray area, but there are obvious things to throw out. A yearly cadence, although you definitely could take a thousand feet back, will often leave feedback too late to use with too much time between sessions to make useful. A case could be made for semi-annually, however six months still feels like long time to know you're doing something wrong. On the flip side of the coin, obviously doing it weekly or even monthly is too often for this level of feedback - we just talked about this, didn't we?

Having this talk quarterly seems to be the perfect cadence for providing this level of feedback. It's not too often, and it's not too late. You can both take a step back and look at how things are going over time. Look at these trends together, have a conversation about them and find out if you both agree or disagree on the other's point of view. Discuss those differences if they exist, bringing these out in the open is literally the entire point. Sometimes these disagreements can show this person is not a right fit for your team, or it can be the beginning of a new phase in your relationship with them because you see something new in the way you can work with them.

Give them something to chew on

When writing performance reviews for your team, it's important for everything to be actionable. To me actionable means measurable and testable, all while not skimping on detail that's appropriate at this level of focus. If you want this person to improve over time, even if they're already a high performer, then you need to put in the time and give something for them to chew on. To succeed at this, take detailed notes every week to keep track of the hundreds of details so you can look back upon them, and be engaged during all meetings. In other words you need to be "plugged in" to a team and not phoning in your involvement.

Once you have this appropriately detailed, and actionable, feedback you can continuously check in on this on a regular pace as a touchstone. If you noticed something they did that positively or negatively impacted one of these details you can mention it to them during a 1-on-1. Not only is this helpful to be reminded of these things from time to time, it shows that you're paying attention and are invested in their success.

The most important part of giving feedback is ensuring that it's absorbed. Giving the right feedback at the wrong time or in the wrong way can cause people to react emotionally and block you from helping. If you maintain a consistent relationship with your direct reports, you will naturally understand the needs of each person and you can use that rapport to get right to the center of the issue without the need to dance around a subject. Ask questions before making assumptions to make sure that you understand the fundamentals before providing solutions or coaching through a problem.

The person receiving the review has a job in all of this as well. They should also keep track of how they think they're doing in some formal way. I tend to give my reports a spreadsheet that has the action items from their feedback and/or career aspirations. I want them to put in all the things they did to positively impact their learning or actual growth toward these goals. This gets them deeply invested in things, generally keeps you from constantly checking in on them, and also serves as a tracking tool long-term that can augment any artifacts you bring to the table.

Put on your listening ears

In order to successfully give feedback, it's necessary for this to be a two-way street. Often, your company will have forms to fill out and questions to answer about an employee's self-evaluation. Largely they are framed to put the onus of proof of how well they're doing on themselves. I feel this is the wrong framing. In my opinion we should be asking our employees to rate our company, what the business did for them to improve their work and career. This includes your performance as their manager in no small part.

Be open to hearing about your blind spots, and critical feedback. As the person with the power in this dynamic, understand that if they speak truth to you that this shows a tremendous trust - do not squander it. Take it in and take notes, communicate back that you heard them and what you heard. Use this as your new goal, and make sure your trend lines for each person that reports to you improves over time just like they do for you.

If you're hearing things that sound like "I can't think of anything", ask probing questions to bring something out. Sometimes this reticence is due to lack of trust, sometimes the person simply doesn't want to give you their honest opinion, or doesn't know how. Put on your lawyer hat and cross examine them. Sometimes it's as simple as "so everything is absolutely perfect?"

A colleague came up with six questions that gauge how satisfied you are with your job:

  • How satisfied are you with your compensation?
  • How satisfied are you with your work-life balance?
  • How satisfied are you with your management?
  • How satisfied are you with your coworkers?
  • How satisfied are you with the company mission?
  • How satisfied are you with your role in the company?

Use these as a starting point if you don't already have a framework. I used these recently when my company was in between feedback frameworks and had great success with them. They each led to constructive conversations and feedback, including several things for me to improve upon.

No surprises

Management of surprise is one of my core philosophies with leading teams. I try to never surprise my team, but if something does come from out of left field I sit down and talk it through with everyone to make sure all are heard and all understand. This goes especially for performance reviews. If someone thinks they're doing a great job and gets a bad performance review, this whiplash could have drastic consequences that could lead to them leaving when they could have been supported and saved instead. The opposite might be true: someone that's unsure of how they're doing given a positive review could have benefited and perhaps even performed at a higher level given that feedback in chunks along the way. Worse case scenario is a person unsure how they're doing given a mediocre performance review. Any of these things can lead to good people leaving due to your mismanagement.

If your team surprises you, however, generally speaking it's due to a lack of trust - in you.

Giving this consistent feedback, nudging, correction, whatever is necessary, shows you are paying close attention. Close attention does not mean micromanagement, which shows the opposite of trust. Paying close attention is being involved in the day-to-day goings-on of the team, not skipping meetings or being distracted while in them. It's investing in 1:1's as the most important meeting you'll have at any given time. It's really only possible to give good, consistent, feedback when you do this. Giving the appropriate feedback at the appropriate time is a great way to earn trust, especially when you do this in a respectful way that shows your motivation is their success.

Being able to add all of this up and take a thousand steps back, seeing the forest through the trees every few months, is something that can energize your highest potential people. It can show quickly that some people aren't fitting the hole in the puzzle you hired them to fill. Both are a good thing. You want your happy people happier, and your sad people to be happy on another team, or place, or profession as fast as possible.

Put all of this effort into your next performance review, and every one after, and I promise you will see drastic results quickly. This is one of those things that can turn from anxiously dreading the process, to everyone actually enjoying the process and walking away knowing exactly where they stand. This is a comfort, and one you can provide if you put in the time.


2022/07/14 - Minor grammatical improvements

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