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"High-performance groups see the giving of FEEDBACK as an outward expression of caring for someone. People who believe this about feedback understand the following concept: that how a person thinks he or she appears to others and how that person actually appears to others is often very different."
From "The Primes: How Any Group Can Solve Any Problem" by Chris McGoff [Book]
Last week, we rolled out a new iteration of our performance management program at Barrel, comprised of three parts.
We designed the new performance management program to foster a culture of accountability where everyone holds one another to a high standard and strives to elevate each other's performance daily through feedback. We see giving and receiving feedback as critical input for our growth as an organization and as individuals.
When employees have little insight into how their peers view their performance, the path to leveling up can look unclear. When performance is an issue, this lack of feedback makes the situation worse for the employee, team, and agency. In most cases, clients feel the impact, too. Poor performance eventually leads to a Performance Improvement Plan (or PIP) and often ends in termination.
Unfortunately, this story has played out more than once over the years. Despite several iterations of performance management, we have never been able to avoid the dreaded PIP. Even when managers had explicitly discussed feedback with the employee during one-on-ones, it didn't seem to become a priority or feel serious to the employee until it became formalized in a PIP. With performance reviews only happening at designated times of the year, PIPs became a helpful tool for formal, ad-hoc performance discussions.
While I've seen folks make remarkable strides through PIPs, the issue with them is they are often the beginning of the end for an employee. An employee's performance has to be pretty bad to trigger a PIP. By this point, they feel blindsided by the feedback and are trying to figure out how to get on track and fast. Meanwhile, the employee's peers are already frustrated by their poor performance. Their manager wants to see them improve but is considering how a future without them might look. They might even start interviewing replacements. Sadly, this is why PIPs have a reputation for being a means for management to build a paper trail on an employee before firing them.
All this to say, we don't love PIPs or the idea that we only talk about feedback when there's an issue or a milestone. In our updated performance management program, we're introducing bi-monthly feedback. Essentially, employees are on a "performance plan" throughout the year, receiving written feedback from their manager summarizing comments from peers and themselves. After reviewing the feedback, the manager shares it with the employee via Lattice.
To reduce friction in giving feedback, we are moving away from the in-depth peer review forms we used to rely on for performance reviews and instead keeping it casual. Our goal is for employees to feel comfortable providing honest feedback in any format they choose. For now, feedback is anonymous, but this may change at some point down the road.
Below are two example responses:
Please share feedback based on your recent experience working with [Team Member] across projects. I encourage you to be open and honest in your response. All feedback will be anonymous.
I am looking for your feedback no later than EOD Monday, 2/27.
I've had the pleasure of working with [Team Member] on multiple website projects this year. They’ve been instrumental in staying organized and delegating tasks among the internal team. [Team Member] has been wonderful about keeping the team in the loop of any new dev requests or flags from the client and maintaining a positive and fun demeanor with the team.
One challenge I’ve noticed, though, is they don’t seem to have time to collaborate with me as much as I’d like, due to other priority projects. This can result in being unable to join meetings last minute, both internally and with clients. [Team Member] has been open about their availability challenges but I haven’t seen anything change. It has made it difficult for me to manage expectations with the client and keep everyone on track.
It’s been great working with [Team Member] but I hope to see this get better soon.
I enjoy working with [Team Member] and am always pumped when we’re on projects together.
Our hypothesis is the more frequent, open-ended nature of the peer reviews will generate more productive feedback. We ran a pilot program of this late last year and were pleased with the engagement we received across the team. We originally planned to do it monthly but figured the feedback might become redundant and a burden for managers and the team.
While we hope to see more regular feedback discussions lead to improved performance across the team, we acknowledge there will still be situations when an employee is not performing at the standard of their role. In these instances, the manager will issue a warning if they are not seeing improvement in bi-monthly feedback. The employee will have until the following feedback conversation to show progress in the outlined feedback areas. Failure to do so could result in termination.
Depending on the feedback, we don't expect a sea change in the employee's performance in just two months. What managers will be looking for is a notable difference in how they are prioritizing the feedback areas and working to be better.
Underperformance can take shape in many ways across roles within the agency; however, here are some of the common themes we've seen:
We're continuing our cycle of annual compensation reviews based on the employee's start date. The employee will still fill out a self-review reflecting on their year; the main difference is tying their compensation more closely to performance with a formal recommendation from the employee's manager based on their bi-monthly feedback discussions.
The challenge in previous years has been situations where an employee was about to have a compensation review but hadn't yet received their performance review, especially when poor performance meant a lower % increase. These situations should no longer happen within our new performance management program.
Even with managers receiving peer feedback, we see the value of an open discussion with their team about how they're doing as a manager. This discussion takes place through bi-annual upward feedback.
Similarly to bi-monthly feedback, managers will request input from their direct reports. Feedback is not anonymous. Once all the feedback is in, the manager reviews it to identify any themes and areas that need clarification. In a session with their team, they go through all of the feedback, asking questions and digging deeper.
The beauty of these sessions is how they normalize feedback for the team. It's also great for team members to hear how their peers work with their manager and what can be effective. For the manager, it's an opportunity to find out what's working across the board and what areas need improvement. Not everyone will share what's on their mind in the written feedback, but when it becomes an open discussion, we often see folks speak up and contribute to feedback that resonates with them.
Read here for more on this process.
I'm excited to get our new program running this month. As hopeful as I am that it will solve some of the challenges we've seen in the past, I know there will be questions we hadn't considered and issues that didn't cross our minds. With that in mind, I expect aspects of what I've outlined above to change and evolve this year. Nevertheless, it's nice to try something new and take steps further steps to develop and grow our company culture.
How might feedback make our team more effective? Where is a lack of feedback holding us back the most?
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