Photo by Luke Chesser

Why (and how) we Traded Performance Reviews for a Peer Feedback System

My mom, one of many entrepreneurs in our family, was bound and determined to raise competent, self-sufficient kids. We learned early on how to take care of ourselves. I was doing my own laundry before the age of 7. When I was a kid, I made my own lunch and I did my own hair. If I forgot my jacket, I was cold that day. I didn’t get an allowance for doing chores or getting good grades; that stuff was just part of being a kid in our family.

My parents’ approach to child rearing wasn’t a cruel punishment or a violation of child labor laws. They wanted to empower us. To give us the tools necessary to be wildly successful in anything we did in life. My parents were confident that teaching us to be independent would build our self-confidence and teach us to trust ourselves. By the time we were grown, all three of us knew that the power to take action and make things happen in our lives was always in our hands.

It’s no accident that those same characteristics of self-sufficiency are ones that I value and work diligently to foster in my company’s culture. As if they are my work kids, I want to give my team the power to be accountable for their individual successes as well as the success of this company. One of the ways we’ve been fostering and distributing this power is by ditching bi-annual performance reviews and replacing them with a more personal peer feedback system.

Why we did it

Our performance reviews had already been naturally making themselves obsolete as our culture and ways of working have evolved. For some time now we’ve been driving towards a more even distribution of authority so that everyone on the team is taking initiative and thinking strategically about how to more effectively (and enjoyably) do what we do. Given these efforts, it made absolutely no sense that:

  1. Reviews that are intended to improve performance on our team were given only twice a year
    We’re a small team of 11 and we rely heavily on collaboration and efficiency. If our culture operates best when we’re trusting and empowering leaders (on many levels), continuously practicing open and direct communication, and incessantly learning and growing, bi-annual performance reviews aren’t a fit for how we operate. We needed a system that would provide the team with the opportunity to give and receive consistent feedback so that they can build trust, figure out how to work better together, and ultimately, through their actions, affect the trajectory and growth of their career and this company.
  2. The only person responsible for giving those reviews was me
    As the company has grown, even though I have let go of most of the day-to-day operations, I still support each team member with the knowledge and guidance necessary to continue leveling-up and achieving their goals. Until very recently, I have been the only person formally responsible for providing performance feedback, and because I’m no longer in the weeds day-to-day, I felt a huge burden that I was essentially owning individual growth on our team. The way we had performance reviews set up, I was the one telling the team what they needed to work on so the team wasn’t getting very thorough, first-hand feedback to support their progress toward goals. Not only that, but it fostered the idea that the initiative to succeed was all in my hands, not theirs. It was time to give them their power back.

So, earlier this year, we traded our bi-annual performance reviews for a peer feedback framework that would help the team not only work together better, but also help them take accountability for their own career paths. We’ve been testing this system over the last four months. I’ll share with you how we structured the system, what this has done for our team, and also the things we’re working to improve.


How we structured our peer feedback system

First, we started with Superpowers and vision

When I was in NYC earlier this year for the 99U conference, I spent some time at the SYPartners office. They took us through a tool called Superpowers that helps teams better understand each other by identifying individual strengths. When I got back from my trip, I had the whole team do the exercise. It’s made a tremendous difference in positively shaping the perceptions we have about each other, the way interact, and has helped us learn how to trust each other more deeply.

Superpowers exercise from SYPartners

After going through the exercise, each team member identified their most dominant Superpower, the strongest characteristic each person possesses that relates to their contribution to the team.

These individual strengths transcend the role that each team member plays (or was hired to do). So, for example, someone on our team who was hired as a Marketing Strategist may have a superpower in harmonizing and bringing out the best in people. Other people who were hired to fill a Producer’s role or an Email Marketing role could become the team’s go-to for gap detection, creative thinking, endurance, decisiveness, recalibration, systems thinking, or even problem solving.

Our team during Superpowers exercise

No matter their specialty in a specific channel, allowing the team to discover these characteristics and strengths about themselves — and then making them public — changed the way they understood each other, worked together, provided valuable feedback, and ultimately took accountability for their careers.

Each person on the team made their Superpower public by hanging it on the wall in our office

In addition to Superpowers, the team also walked into the new peer feedback system equipped with their own individual vision, the mountain they each were climbing, and the specific goals they wanted to reach. This was identified through a series of three simple questions related to their work:

Asking the question ‘where are you today?’ is an exercise in observation. Each member of the team takes a look at the mountain they’ve climbed to get where they are today. When you’re standing at the top, what does your current reality look like? Consider all the good and all the stuff you’d like to be different.

‘Where are you going?’ is a more difficult question to answer when you’re standing in your current reality. Instead, the team is challenged to dream a bit here. To imagine they’re already standing on the top of their next mountain. The one they want to start climbing today. Let’s say they already made it. What does work look like when they’ve already summited?

The final question in the visioning exercise is ‘how will you get there?’ This question asks each member on the team to break down the tactics and steps necessary to actually reach their vision. This is what helps the team be accountable not only to the steps they need to complete to get up their own mountain, but it’s also what allows other members on the team keep them accountable for their journey (are they really doing the things they said)?

Both Superpowers and the vision exercise provided each member of the team with a foundation for not only understanding themselves, but allowing team members to understand who they truly are and what they’re trying to accomplish inside of and for the company. Communicating these vulnerabilities provided an opportunity for everyone to be open to not only giving honest feedback, but also receiving it and having the desire to do something about it.

Second, we embraced the ground rules

In order to support the team in taking the initiative with their paths in the company, the team formed a small group to set some preliminary ground rules that we would test as part of our new peer feedback system:

  1. ‘Conflict and Commit’ is still alive and well in our culture
    Peer feedback doesn’t replace the ‘conflict and commit’ ethos of our company. If there is something going on with a teammate, that feedback must be given directly and in real-time rather than waiting for a peer feedback session.
  2. Put the emphasis on progress, growth, and support
    Peer feedback provides an additional avenue for the team to support each other in shaping individual goals and refining paths up individual mountains. Because the team will now know the goals of their peers, they can provide the support to accomplish them. We wanted to make sure that peer feedback focuses on how a team member is progressing towards their mountain rather than a measurement of whether they’re doing their job. This will better support fellow team members as they take accountability for and shape their own careers.
  3. Have the courage to be honest
    Peer feedback allows for greater transparency among teammates and the opportunity for growth at a higher level. As a result, this system will thrive on the willingness to be direct and honest with teammates when delivering feedback. Have the courage to say what you really think.
  4. Have the courage to be open and self-aware and to take action
    Because this system requires vulnerability on everyone’s part, when receiving feedback, have the courage to identify trends and themes when receiving that feedback. Are the same things coming up each time a session takes place? Are the same things being said by more than one person? Show the team how valuable the feedback is by doing something about it. Make an effort to make a change.
  5. Everyone gets feedback from their peers and also from Mack and Mike
    Everyone in the company will receive peer feedback. Including Mack. Additionally, each quarter, Mack and Mike (my right-hand-man who leads the team on a daily basis) will have a one-on-one gathering with each person on the team. These sessions will supplement the peer feedback by validating what’s been communicated from your peers and providing additional feedback that will support you in your growth and also helping our company reach its goals.

Third, we provided guidelines for testing the system

As with anything we do for ourselves and our clients, it’s all a test. In order to get this thing off the ground, the team put together these guidelines:

  1. Work in teams of three
    In order to determine who would provide feedback to whom, we started with an alphabetical list and broke the team into groups of three. Over the course of a month, a team member would meet individually with both people in their group. For everyone in the group, each team member would both give and receive feedback throughout the month. Working in teams of three provides an opportunity for each person to identify trends and get more than one perspective at the same time, rather than just looking at the feedback from a single person. From there, we switched people around, so that over the course of four months, each person would have been in a group with every person on the team. So, by the end of the four-month peer feedback pilot, each person would have met with and received feedback from every person on the team.
  2. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
    We didn’t want the team to stay in the safe zone and pick the people on the team they are most comfortable with or have the closest connections to. Not that we didn’t want them to get feedback from those people, but we also wanted the team to get comfortable with receiving honest feedback from people who hold a different perspective and who they may typically get a lot of push-back from.
  3. Set time aside
    As we piloted this peer feedback system, sessions would be held every month. Each person on the team would be responsible for setting up their peer feedback sessions. The suggested time block for each session was approximately 60 minutes (20 minutes to give, 20 minutes to receive, and 10 minutes each for questions). Because we wanted to promote fresh perspective, we highly recommended that the feedback sessions did not occur at our office. The team also provided loose guidelines when suggesting the scheduling and parameters of this process so that they could discern what worked best for everyone. They decided whether they held all of their feedback sessions back to back on the same day or allowed for some buffer time between sessions (waiting until after they are all completed before processing the feedback).
  4. Come prepared with your feedback worksheet (as a feedback receiver)
    In order to make the most of the feedback session, each member on the team would prepare a feedback worksheet (we used Google Docs or Gdocs for this) with the following info prepped and ready to go:
    1) Your personal goals/mountain (what you’re striving toward)
    2) Anything in particular you may want additional feedback about outside of your goals (e.g. communication skills, brainstorming skills, specific job functions)
  5. Come prepared with your feedback worksheet (as a feedback giver)
    Note: With each of the following prompts, the feedback giver is encouraged to use actual examples
    1) Here is what you’re doing well (and what I really appreciate about you)
    2) Here’s some coaching opportunities; what you can do differently that would help me and/or help the company improve (e.g. respond more quickly to email)
    3) Considering your goals (and your mountain) here’s some things I would suggest in order to help you reach them
A sample peer feedback worksheet template

When it’s all said and done, the worksheet is shared via Gdocs with four people: the person giving feedback, the person receiving feedback, as well as with me and Mike.

The biggest thing to note about the feedback worksheet is that it is simply meant to guide. These sessions work best when they are candid, spark conversation, and allow the team to become more comfortable with each other. Following the prompts on a worksheet can feel pretty impersonal. The real goal is to ask questions, talk through things, and ultimately understand thought processes and feelings that come up about specific situations. These things won’t always get captured on the actual worksheet, but the power of this feedback goes a long way.

Lastly, we got the “managers” involved

Our team has self-managed for quite some time, so although Mike and I “manage” the team, it’s certainly not in the traditional sense. More so, we partner in how best to support the team by giving them the tools they need to be self-sufficient.

With the new peer feedback system, in addition to the feedback the team would receive from their peers throughout the month, they would also receive feedback from their “managers” once a quarter. More often than the bi-annual performance review, every three months Mike and I would also sit down with each person, one-on-one (or perhaps more of a one-on-one gathering since there’s three of us). This way, the team would get the best of both worlds: diverse feedback from their peers on a consistent basis and the 30,000 foot insight from Mack and Mike once a quarter.

Before walking into these one-on-one gatherings, Mike and I would review all peer feedback that has taken place over the last quarter. So that we have all feedback for the team in one spot, we created a private spreadsheet that would get updated each quarter to hold the aggregated feedback. The first five columns in the spreadsheet aligned with the items in the team’s individual feedback worksheets:

  1. Date
    The month in which the feedback session took place.
  2. Mountain/goals
    The list of individual goals they were working on to get up their mountain.
  3. Additional feedback
    The additional items the team member had asked their peers to provide feedback about outside of their goals.
  4. Things they do well
    All the stuff their peers said they were doing well.
  5. Coaching opportunities
    All the stuff their peers said they needed to work on.

As Mike and I aggregated the feedback from the team’s worksheets, we captured key takeaways, grouped like feedback, and also removed emotion. This took us about two hours total for all team members. Going through this exercise helped us to effectively review all feedback and also internalize the data so that we knew what was needed to support each team member in taking the initiative in their journey.

Once we updated the first five columns in the spreadsheet, we populated the following additional columns to help us record the trends and opportunities in the feedback and also provide guidance during their one-on-one gathering. Because of the work we invested in reviewing and aggregating the feedback ahead of time, this took us less than 15 minutes per team member:

  1. Top three areas of focus for progress (from the “manager’s” perspective)
    Based on the feedback they received from their peers, the observations that Mike was making in the day-to-day with the team, and my more high level assessment of behaviors, what are the top three areas of focus for this team member?
  2. Mountain to company goal alignment
    Based on the individual goals they were working on to get up their mountain, are their goals aligned with the overarching goals of the company? If they accomplish their vision, will we accomplish ours?
  3. Support for what’s been said
    Is the feedback that the team member is receiving aligned with what Mike and I are seeing? In other words, what feedback are they getting that seems right?
  4. Gaps in the feedback
    Are there holes in the feedback the team member is receiving? What feedback are they getting that seems wrong? What feedback have they not received that they should have received?
  5. Top three areas of focus for progress (from the team member’s perspective)
    Once we’ve learned what the team member is focusing on based on the feedback they’ve received, and we’ve had a discussion about additional areas to consider, we can record any insights or action items after the one-on-one gathering takes place.

What’s great about the peer feedback system is that once they get to their one-on-one gathering, each team member has already had many peer feedback sessions and has already had the opportunity to process and make adjustments to their ways of working with each other.

Different from more traditional performance reviews, the one-on-one gathering is not a discussion of what we want them to do. Each team member already knows what they need to be working on and has already turned their peer feedback into action. So instead of putting the pressure on the “manager” to deliver performance-related feedback and the team member building up anxiety about what their manager is going to say about their progress, the team member comes equipped with the initiative they’ve already taken.

During the one-on-one gathering, Mike and I poke holes, provide focus, and coach them through feedback as necessary, all the while allowing them to take the lead. Ultimately, we connect the conversation back to what we’re working on as a company. The best part is we’re determining together how each person fits into the progress of the company’s vision and it’s up to all of us to get there.


What our peer feedback system has done for our team

Since we started the peer feedback sessions, I’ve seen much more cohesion, efficient collaboration, and self-directed initiative across the entire team. Because everyone has been willing to be open and honest with their feedback, each individual isn’t just working on improving themselves, they’re being sensitive to what their teammates are working towards as well. Even more, everyone on the team is recognizing the challenges we’re facing as a company and they’re taking the initiative to collaboratively find solutions to fix them.

We’re certainly still testing and making adjustments to the system (more on that in the section below), but the time we’ve provided the team to invest in each other has made a tremendous difference in our culture, the value we’re delivering to our clients, and how we’re working together to achieve our goals as a company. Here are some of the benefits the team has experienced first-hand:

More thorough, helpful, and relevant feedback

The level and depth of feedback the team is experiencing now is remarkable. When we used to do performance reviews, at best, the team received two people’s (often second-hand) perspective of their value on the team. Because the feedback isn’t just coming from me anymore, each team member benefits from the diverse viewpoints which holds a great deal of value for them.

Not only does the team receive better, more relevant feedback on a consistent basis, but now Mike and I can truly support where each team member needs it. We’re also learning to open our eyes to coaching other team members who could be more effective leaders than we can in certain situations.

What we’ve been realizing with a peer feedback system is that the team can help each other in their growth probably a whole lot more than Mike and I can simply because they spend so much more time with each other on a daily basis. If the team has the opportunity to learn about their team mates at this level, and the feedback they’re receiving is honest and constructive, everyone in the entire company benefits.

An opportunity to experience both professional and personal growth

One of our company values is Professional and Personal Growth — challenging the team to work on improving themselves so that they can help others. This value asks them to be mindful, self-aware, and to embrace the work necessary to grow not just at work, but in their personal lives. This peer feedback system has really helped the team understand how to live this value.

Our team has always possessed a great deal of compassion for each other. Especially in times of struggle, our team comes together and does whatever necessary to show support.

As the team continues to open up to each other in their feedback sessions, they discover new things about themselves and their team mates. They’re realizing it’s OK to be vulnerable and that their perceived weaknesses are not insurmountable. That doing the work to be a better person and a better teammate is going to make their lives — inside and outside of work — a whole lot better. Unintentionally, the entire team is becoming more personally connected.

The power to communicate, connect, and improve

Because our team is small and we are building fully integrated strategies across channels, on some level, the team does have the opportunity to work with everyone. But they do work more closely with some than others, so this peer feedback system has been a great way to get people connecting and working together more often. Overall, the entire team has become much more comfortable with each other which makes a huge difference in many things, including the way they’re communicating.

One of the biggest benefits that peer feedback has given the team is the motivation to take it on themselves to make progress. With performance reviews, the team was really only accountable to me. Because the team is building more trust and learning to take ownership when communicating directly to their teammates, they’ve been empowered to take care of themselves (as well as each other). Instead of coming to me and Mike when they’re met with a teammate challenge, they have the courage to take the constructive feedback straight to the other person and resolve the conflict.

All of these changes in the way they communicate is improving the entire company, far beyond what we were getting out of bi-annual performance reviews.


What we’re working to improve

As we’ve piloted this peer feedback system over the last four months, we’ve uncovered some adjustments and have been working on integrating them:

Reducing the frequency of sessions to every other month

At first, it was helpful for the team to participate in peer feedback sessions every month. That way, by the end of that first four months of the pilot, they had met with every person on the team and had an opportunity to get comfortable with our new way of providing feedback.

But now that they’ve all met with everyone on the team, they’re starting to see that having that second feedback session with the same person too close together causes redundant feedback because we’re not allowing enough time between sessions to apply changes.

The good thing is that because peer feedback directly affects their daily interaction with team members, each person on the team has been working to hold themselves accountable to fixing whatever they can right away. As they’re talking through areas of improvement in their feedback sessions, they consider their conversations verbal agreements. If they don’t hold up their end of the deal, they’re not only disappointing the team, but also themselves.

As we continue to make this system part of our culture and ways of working, we’re going to test holding feedback sessions every other month and see how that goes. As Max Ventilla mentions of AltSchools new performance review system, you’ve got to find what frequency works best for you. These sessions take a lot of time and mental energy (filling out docs, providing valuable feedback, meeting, etc.) so reducing frequency may be a better way to sustain the efforts and ensure we’re making them both meaningful and useful.

Making the system more easily accessible (and scalable)

To date, this entire system has been organized and available for access using Google Docs. To be perfectly honest, the first go of this was a shit-show. We struggled a bit getting each team member to not only label their worksheets so that they could be searched for under the right context, but also saved in the right folder so that they were providing the right people with access.

As explained briefly above, each worksheet is shared with four people total: the two who are involved in the feedback session as well as me and Mike. The first time Mike and I went to review and aggregate all of the feedback into our private spreadsheet, we had to chase down many of the worksheets. Turns out, they were complete, they just weren’t saved in the right places.

As a result, two people on the team tasked themselves with standardizing how the worksheets get labeled in Google Drive for each session and ensuring that the team understands (and is trained on) how to save the worksheets in the right folders so that when Mike and I are ready for our quarterly review, we don’t spend an hour tracking down worksheets.

If you’re considering testing this peer feedback system for your team, I’d recommend that you take some time to think about how to set access up. You may want to consider:

  • where do the docs need to live so that they’re easily accessed throughout the feedback process?
  • which docs are going to be public (meaning internal but shared with the entire team)?
  • which docs are going to be private (meaning the docs would still be internal but only shared with a few select people on the team)?

Based on those stipulations you can then organize and scale the system based on the size and needs of your team. As our team grows, we’ll need to reconfigure how the feedback teams will work based on our new numbers. If you have a large team or work for a large company, you can still break your feedback teams down into groups of three, it will just take longer to go through one full set of feedback sessions.

Something else to consider in using a peer feedback system like this is that it can become a tool for breaking walls down between and among departments. You can structure it so that you’re pulling people across teams where relevant. This would work particularly well if, say, your social media team isn’t working well with content or email, or perhaps customer support isn’t working well with sales. You just want to make sure that the people giving and receiving feedback actually have work interactions with one another so that they can give valuable feedback.

And finally, keep in mind that in order for this system to be effective, you’ll want to empower your teams to not only build but run it, rather than demanding that they implement the system. This will require presenting them with a challenge so that they can be part of the solution.

Maintaining a comfortable level of privacy

Although we have a very open and transparent culture, when it comes to the vulnerability of peer feedback, we’ve discovered that not everyone on the team is comfortable with having the details of their feedback public to the entire company. In talking with the team about this, everyone is okay with divulging the mountain they’re climbing, the goals they’re working on, and perhaps some of the high level insight they’ve drawn out of their peer feedback.

The team has decided they want the record of the actual feedback worksheets to be private because they feel like it’s a part of a conversation that should not be taken out of context. Having it private also allows them a safe place to record the conversation in as open and honest a way as possible. This, in turn, helps them have the courage to write the stuff down and then they can choose whether they talk with people about it, face-to-face.

As such, we’re considering an internal doc that is public to the entire company but that provides only the high level view of peer feedback. In other words, each team member would choose the information they’re comfortable having public to other team members. So, for now, we’re going to allow the details of feedback to be accessible only to those participating in the feedback session with those teammates, me, and Mike.


Empower your own team and company

If we’re building a company full of people who are self-motivated and self-managed — where everyone is responsible for leading at some level — putting the accountability for individual growth and improvement on every member of the team makes a lot more sense than a few “managers.” A peer feedback system has encouraged our team to be accountable for their performance and progress to their peers. And it’s exactly those peers who should be speaking up when they’re blowing it, supporting each other to improve, and telling each other how awesome they are when they’re kicking ass.

What I love most about our peer feedback system is what it communicates about our culture. Mike and I didn’t go to the team and demand that they work with each other to provide constructive feedback. When I presented the challenge to the team that our current performance review system just wasn’t cutting it, they took it upon themselves to put together a team to serve up a solution. Their solution has worked because they’ve taken the ownership and invested the time. The power to take action was in their hands from the beginning and now that they’ve realized they can, they’ve become accountable for their success.

Although it will continue to evolve, we now have a new and improved “performance review” system in our peer feedback framework. Something that matches who we are as a company. What’s so amazing is that I didn’t do this, the team did. Even my mom would be proud.