Clarke Southwick
Sep 5 · 5 min read

The following is adapted from Adaptive by Christopher Creel.

Employee review surveys can be powerful tools for improvement — or enormous time wastes. At worst, they can sow mistrust and frustration among your employees, achieving the opposite effect of what you intended. The difference between success and failure lies in which questions you ask and how you ask them.

Drawing from years of experience executing employee review surveys, I’ve identified six key values you don’t want to miss the next time you evaluate your team’s performance.


To create a tribal culture, colleagues need to know that they have one another’s backs and that team members will follow through on their commitments 100 percent of the time. Sometimes people score low on reliability because they are not reliable, but often this score, when combined with the organizational network analysis, spotlights imbalances on the team that could be driving individuals to be unreliable.

To gauge reliability, ask the following questions:

  • How reliable was John Doe in the previous quarter?
  • How would you suggest he improve?


“Skill” is a flexible term that might involve technical expertise, emotional quotient (EQ), time management, or a range of other more nebulous skills that positively impact the team’s results.

As an example of measuring skill, the company Valve refers to the T-shaped employee as someone who is good at what they do across the board but also has at least one deep well of expertise. This is what we want to cultivate — a team in which everyone has an area (or areas) of deep expertise that makes them valuable to the company. Different employees may cite different areas of expertise when surveying the same colleague. This is good!

You want your team to be fluid and ever-evolving, acquiring new skills to help drive the company strategy. This means that while one person may consider an employee’s area of expertise to be leadership, another may view it as their ability to develop great code.

To gauge skill, ask the following questions:

  • How would you rank John Doe’s skills in the last quarter?
  • What would you suggest he do to improve?


Even the most reliable and skilled team member is not going to add value to the team if they are not productive. Being productive does not always — and I would even argue rarely does — look like working ten or fifteen hours a day. When you ask about productivity, you are looking for impact and results, not the time spent getting to that point.

To gauge productivity, ask the following questions:

  • How would you rate John Doe’s productivity over the previous quarter?
  • What would you suggest he do to improve his productivity?


Of all the questions we have looked at so far, contribution can be the most nebulous to define. Contributing to the team and producing are not always the same thing.

For example, your teammate, Tammy, might be on the hook to write a python code for the team. That is what she is producing as an individual. However, if in the course of writing that code she creates a new process or tool to help the team in a more general way, that is a durable contribution to the team. Tammy has now contributed to her network’s strength in a way that will survive after she leaves. That is important!

With this question, we are looking for people who make a durable contribution to the team’s strength that will last beyond their time with the team.

To gauge contribution, ask the following questions:

  • How would you rate John Doe’s contribution over the previous quarter?
  • What would you suggest he do to improve his contribution?


In his book Creativity, Inc., Pixar CEO Ed Catmull writes about “the spirit in the room” as a critical team value necessary for high-performing teams. In his book The No Asshole Rule, Robert I. Sutton explains how jerks are not worth hiring or keeping employed.

In other words, an individual can elevate or drag down the mood of an entire group. With this team value, we want to get to the root of how a person affects the team from an energetic standpoint. Are they additive or detrimental? How much positive energy do they generate for the team?

To gauge energy, ask the following questions:

  • How much positive energy do you get from this person?
  • What would you suggest to them to improve that in the coming quarter?

Perceived Improvement

This team value is separate from the mathematical improvements an employee demonstrates in their scores. Instead, we are driving at the experience individual colleagues are having with their improvement. What perception do people have of a team member’s performance improvement?

Often, the answers to this question can be flat. You will see answers like, “Mary is just as awesome as she’s always been,” or “Ted is the same as usual.” That is great if Ted is great and just as telling if Ted is not! However, sometimes you also might receive feedback that an employee has slipped over the past quarter. This is not grounds for termination, but it does provide valuable diagnostic material.

To gauge perceived improvement, ask the following questions:

  • How much has this person improved over the previous quarter?
  • What would you suggest to them to improve even more?

The Questions Are Only Half the Equation

Now that you know what to ask your employees, you need to train them to give good feedback. After all, the survey is only as useful as the information they provide.

Before issuing your survey, sit down with your team and explain what the questions mean, what you’re really trying to get at through them, and why you’re doing this in the first place. Let employees know that the purpose of this feedback is to create a highly collaborative, agile team that can manage itself and improve as a group.

It is also important to clarify that subjective opinion need not be negative. In fact, you want to encourage people to stay as positive as possible, while remaining honest and effective. In teams that have been plagued with animosity for years, it can be easy to blast coworkers. Subjective positive feedback tends to yield bigger personal improvements over time.

This does not mean that survey respondents should provide false or dishonest feedback. Even negative feedback can be reframed in a positive way. Either way, feedback should always be actionable.

It may take more than one survey, but over time, you’ll collect a wealth of feedback that will allow you to make stronger improvements and lead your team toward success.

For more advice on building collaborative companies, you can find Adaptive on Amazon.

Christopher Creel has spent more than twenty years building and leading research and development teams at major companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Perot Systems, and CSC. During this time, he realized that trends in education, technology, and globalization had broken the traditional organizational model, and he began to devise a system that could improve business results, increase employee productivity and engagement, promote collective and individual growth, and raise the general level of happiness in the workplace. He refined this model through fifteen years of applied R&D, and three independent studies over the last five years showed dramatic improvements in engagement, productivity, operational efficiencies, and risk mitigation.

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