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Company Culture

We Reversed Course on Performance Reviews – Here’s Why

The ability to change one’s mind, change course and try again is one of the things I like most about working at Buffer.

It’s totally normal to share about not just successes but also times we didn’t know the answer, mistakes we’ve made and experiments we’ve tried that didn’t quite turn out like we thought they might.

So even though the last time I wrote about performance reviews it was to share why we don’t do them, it’s not actually that weird (at least at Buffer) to return to the topic only to share that we have been doing them, or at least experimenting with them.

Earlier this year we tried our first round of 360 reviews and ended up really loving them! The ability to change your mind is a beautiful thing.

Read on for the story of what changed our minds, how we implemented 360 reviews, and what’s next for performance reviews at Buffer.

Why we changed course on performance reviews

A lot of what we shared in our original post on performance reviews still holds true.

We still view weekly or biweekly one-on-ones as our primary coaching element; pretty much everyone on the team has a team lead to teammate relationship and meets regularly to talk through successes, challenges and growth opportunities.

And we still strive for immediate, continuous feedback through these relationships.

But within this arrangement, we found that teammates still had a lot of questions. Even with continuous, personalized feedback, folks felt uncertain about where they stood, whether they were hitting the bar expected of them, and how to advance and grow their careers.

Perhaps the feedback was so personalized it felt tough to place their performance on an overall scale?

Our first performance reviews

So in 2016 we tried our first “performance reviews lite.” These were simple emails from each team lead to teammate that celebrated achievements and offered some specific thoughts on areas to grow. They focused on a few categories:

  • Things the teammate is doing well
  • Things the teammate is picking up on and encouragement to keep going
  • Things the teammate could improve on

Some, but not all, of these reviews included the teammate’s rating on an informal scale consisting of:

  • unacceptable
  • poor
  • solid
  • good
  • great
  • outstanding

Leads generally followed up the emails with an in-depth discussion in their next 1:1 with the teammate.

Our first manager feedback survey

And as we had developed more team structure throughout the year, we also instituted a review process for leads, loosely adapting Google’s awesome Manager Feedback Survey for our culture and issues. Using a Likert scale of 1–10, we asked these among other questions:

  • My team lead can identify my strengths and weaknesses.
  • My team lead provides with me with mentorship beyond the day-to-day of my role.
  • My team lead gives me the space to fail safely.
  • My team lead gives me praise regularly.
  • My team lead does not waste my time.
  • 1:1s with my team lead are meaningful.
  • My team lead listens to me with the intention to understand.
  • My team lead helps me work through my challenges.
  • My team lead exhibits the Buffer values and culture.
  • My team lead practices transparency and regularly shares information from his/her manager and senior leaders.
  • My team lead trusts me.
  • I trust my team lead.

We got some good feedback on both of these experiments’ ability to open up conversation, answer big questions, and help everyone at Buffer chart a confident path to growth.

Source: Small Improvements

Putting them together: 360° reviews

Having learned a lot from our experiments with performance reviews and team lead feedback, this year we attempted a next iteration that would tie the two together: the 360° review.

We were excited to try 360° reviews because they are designed to tap into the collective wisdom of all the different people teammates work closely with and give folks a well-rounded picture of where they’re excelling and where they have room to grow.

We wanted to try this process in order to get more thoughts and advice flowing across different teams and to reiterate the idea that everyone at Buffer can praise teammates as well as offer advice to help others grow – it’s not just the work of those “at the top.”

The process we used for 360° reviews

We first established that these would not be traditional evaluations and wouldn’t factor into future compensation or career frameworks discussion. These reviews were for teammate growth and development only.

Then we asked teammates to reflect on at least three people with whom they work closely.

For individual contributors, we identified that a good mix might be:
• team lead
• at least one teammate in the same area
• a teammate in a different area with whom they’ve worked together on a project (if applicable)

For team leads/managers/directors, we suggested:
• team lead or who you 1:1 with
• at least 1–2 teammates they coach directly
• at least 1–2 teammates in a role similar to theirs

Once teammates had their selected crew, they asked their chosen folks to fill out a survey on their behalf. For this survey, we were heavily inspired by the questions asked by the CultureAmp Effectiveness survey. This survey asks the following big questions:

  • What have you observed this teammate excelling at that they should continue?
  • What are this teammate’s biggest opportunities to improve that you think could make a real difference?

…with a large multiple choice checklist with options like “problem solving,” “technical competence”, “getting feedback” and many more, so teammates can get a sense of patterns as multiple folks provide feedback. There’s also plenty of space to share examples.

We kept the results private to the People team as we synthesized the data, and then we prepared a document for each individual teammate summarizing the feedback they had received.

Since team leads typically share advice and praise directly with the teammates they work with, surveys filled out by leads for teammates on their own team were shared openly with their names. We paraphrased and anonymized all comments from all other teammates.

What we learned from the 360° reviews process

We hope teammates have used these reviews to create a personal plan of development, and we’ve seen and heard a lot of feedback that indicates this is the case! One review from our anonymous feedback-gathering tool OfficeVibe:

“360 reviews were very enlightening and a great resource to know where to focus on improvements.”

We enjoyed this process so much that that we’d love to do these on a regular cadence! Since it was a first experiment, we definitely took away a lot of lessons:

  • The reviews took a good bit of time. With multiple surveys, this was a bit of a commitment, even with prompts that made writing them easier. In the future we’d like to stagger these by area.
  • It’s a ton of data! Doing these on our own was great to validate the experiment, but leads to a ton of data collation – even on a smaller team like ours! Next year, we plan to sign on with CultureAmp in order to streamline the process of synthesizing the data.
  • We’ll continue our emphasis on addressing bias: As we started this process, we offered teammates a worksheet and tips to help them be aware of and steer clear of any potential bias traps. We’ll keep working in this area to keep reviews as fair and unbiased as possible.
  • Teammates shared more and more honest feedback through this process. As we continue to work through artificial harmony, it was helpful to see how much candid feedback was shared through this process.
  • We can connect coaching and these reviews much more closely. Teammates found a lot of insights in these reviews! Next time, it would be great to provide personalized growth resources at the same time we deliver the review synthesis, so teammates feel immediate support in their growth plans.

Over to you!

What’s your take on performance reviews! Have you tried 360° reviews before? I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments!

Photo by Climate KIC

  • Vignesh Subramanyan

    Thanks for sharing Courtney! Has the Buffer team ever tried building T-shaped skill charts for themselves? I’ve been fascinated with that recently and it seems like a great way to focus on skills that a person would want to gain over their career in addition to actual career progression or benchmarks for performance evaluation. Since career plans can always change, focusing on skills that a person wants to acquire is another a great barometer that can help employees measure how they’re progressing/learning.

    I’ve done 360 reviews in the past but the biggest learning out of it was around the approach that managers take to do a performance review. Traditionally, I have seen managers write reviews beforehand that would then be discussed in-person. As opposed to a manager coming to the meeting with pre-formulated thoughts but not having written it down. The purpose being to discuss the feedback before anything is “put on paper.” I think most folks would dismiss this as being a minor factor but I think it makes a world of difference to the teammate being evaluated because when you come in with your review written down it conveys a sense of finality i.e. the team lead has already made up their mind about how the person performed. As opposed to talking through the feedback first and then working with the teammate to put the feedback on paper. I find the latter approach elevates the process and improves the morale overall. It also allows room for team leads to learn what circumstances played a role in their teammate’s performance, which could be pretty useful.

    Besides that I’ve found conversations where the teammate talks first and spends more time sharing insights while the team lead asks leading questions can be very helpful. Performance reviews in my perspective are meant to be a positive, career building process and taking minor steps like letting teammates speak more, actively listening, and even minor body language cues can make a world of difference on the outcome and how the feedback is received/adopted.

    • Hey there Vignesh! We did do a lot on T-shape in the past; I think our marketing team might still put a lot of focus on this. I’ll check in with Kevan to see if there’s more he wants to share on that here!

      So interesting to hear this tip on coming in with some thoughts versus writing everything down. That sounds very “Buffery” to me! It might be quite interesting to give this a try. :)

  • Hugh Todd

    You have anticipated and avoided the most common mistakes made with performance reviews and 360’s – great work! In particular I think the work put in to moderate and synthesise the data ensures that it is objective and relevant, a role that I take on as an external coach in similar situations. Sadly, the alternative is often out-and-out bloodshed. I’ve seen some disastrous practice over the years.

    The process you have created very closely resembles Marshall Goldsmith’s ‘Stakeholder Centred Coaching’ model, which as the name suggests also recognises that many people stand to benefit from each individual’s growth and development. Going forward, I’d suggest you try Marshall’s concept of ‘Feed Forward’ (as opposed to feedback) which encourages suggestions about how the individual can think about changes and refinements in the coming weeks and months, so is blame-free. See this: https://youtu.be/BlVZiZob37I .

    Again, all of these suggestions should come into a coaching conversation so that the individual can decide for themselves which suggestions to adopt – ideally they would then encourage the contributors with appreciation and transparency about their intentions.

    Marshall’s team version also, like yours, keeps a close link with shared values and themes. It’s worth trying! See this: https://youtu.be/hq2CnccWdPs

    Thanks for sharing what you’re doing and how you’re wrestling with finding the best ways forward, warts and all – it’s great to be able to observe and learn through your updates.

    Cheers, Hugh

    • This is so interesting, Hugh! We did go through a period of renaming “feedback” to “feedforward” but I don’t recall connecting the reasoning to this model. Really excited to check out these videos and learn more!

  • Amy Kesling

    Would you be willing to share your bias tip sheet?

    • Hi Amy, that sounds like a great idea! I will try to do that in a future blog post super soon!

  • LeeAndra Blicher Fouts

    This is a fascinating idea to me. I’ve never had a 360 review and I have to say that’s probably for the best. I’ve worked in a few dysfunctional companies where I’m not sure that my peers would be able to give me adequate feedback on my performance because either the department was very closed off, communication-wise, or very divided without a lot of overlap or interaction with one another on a regular basis. I’d love to work for a company where 360 reviews felt great & could be counted on to be accurate and well-intentioned.

  • Michela Marini

    Would you be willing to have a conversation on this topic?

    • We’d be very happy to chat, Michela! Want to get in touch with us at hello at buffer dot com? :)

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