Peer Performance Conversations: Feedback Without the Baggage

I’ve had mostly poor experiences with performance reviews. They often left me feeling slightly dirty; like I wanted to take a shower and forget the whole thing ever happened. I am not alone, it seems. Some people call them a joke. Some say they’re tayloristic, elitist or even evil. Very few enjoy them. It’s just one of those things that you “have to do” in business. Or is it?

What I have experienced as an employee is the Swedish form of performance review, most often referred to as a “development dialogue”. They are similar to their Anglo-Saxon counterpart, the “performance appraisal”; typically a little bit more coaching and a little bit less assessing, but only by a margin. At heart, they’re the same. The supervisor assesses the employee and indirectly or openly link that to their yearly compensation adjustment.

At Adaptiv, we wanted to get away from the negative stuff. But how could we? Just skipping performance reviews (I’ll use that term to mean all forms) would be one way, but why throw the baby out with the bath water? To me, there is clearly some value in getting honest feedback on your performance from your colleagues at least once in a while.

Would it be possible to set things up so that you could get that without the dirt?

At Adaptiv, we’ve come up with an exercise that I think is valuable but without the negative baggage. We haven’t named them but I propose we name them peer performance conversations (PPC).

They are really very simple. They work like this:

  1. You gather your peers (no supervisors) in a room. Around 4-8 people is recommended. After an introduction by a facilitator, the group creates an order between the participants. All participants will go through the same process.
  2. The first person, let’s call her the focus participant, leaves the room for a few minutes, bringing pen and paper. She sits down and thinks about her work from the last period in question, e.g. a month or a quarter. Her thinking is guided by questions, for example “Where did I succeed and why?”, “Where did I fail and why?”, “What new strengths or weaknesses have I found?”, “What should I go for next?”. The rest of the group, back in the room, think about exactly the same questions about the focus participant.
  3. After a few minutes, the focus participant is brought back into the room. The group and the focus participant both go through their findings and have a conversation around them. The group comments and expands on the participants findings, e.g. if they agree or not. The focus participant listens to the group’s findings, reflects and asks clarifying questions. Often, ideas and insights are generated in the process. The focus participant takes notes of important ideas.
  4. When everybody’s happy, you switch. The next person leaves the room as the next focus participant. The same process is repeated.
  5. Continue until everybody has been the focus participant once. Aim for about 10-20 minutes per person. The whole exercise lasts 1-2 hours, typically.

The first thing to note about a peer performance conversation is that it’s strictly coaching. There is no assessment. Hence, there are no metrics and no grading. It’s simply an exchange of questions and answers and the ideas and reflections that emerge from those.

A second thing to note is that a PPC is between peers. There are no managers involved. This makes the feedback relevant and often interesting. Peers work together, often daily. They get to know one another and learn each other’s personal strengths and weaknesses. They have insights to share, often of things of which the focus participant is unaware. This is contrary to typical performance reviews, where an employee sits down with her supervisor. In that situation the speaking partners are not equals. This makes the conversation shallow, defensive or even dishonest. Managers can also be somewhat distanced from the operative work. This makes them slightly ignorant of what actually goes on and how people behave. Consequently, they have to base their opinions on guesses, rumours, intuition, and what little knowledge they have.

Of course, there is also a form of peer review in Anglo-Saxon management tradition. In this form, you are anonymously graded by a selection of your peers. Your supervisor then presents and discusses the results with you. Sigh. Can you imagine what could go wrong with such a process? This technique supposed to lead to more accurate assessments of performance. Well, it certainly could remove some of the inequality and subjectivity, but most other problems remain. Also, new problems are added. For example, it is much easier to throw garbage anonymously at someone you don’t like.

Just to be clear, strictly coaching and no managers mean that a PPC is in no way related to compensation (salary or bonuses). This is probably the most important attribute, because without it there is very little chance of having a meaningful coaching session.

A PPC is performed as a group exercise, face-to-face. This helps keep the feedback honest and important. As the recipient we are helped by seeing who is giving us this feedback. Then we can deduce what they are really trying to say and how much is relevant. We can ask for clarifications.

I have summarised the main differences between peer performance conversations and the other forms in the table below.

Table with Comparison of Performance Review Methods

Comparison of Performance Review Methods

Personally, I have really liked our PPCs together at Adaptiv. It’s still a bit tense to be the centre of attention, but they’re not threatening in any way. I find that these conversations make me a better consultant, even a better person. It gives me pointers on what I should learn next and where to take my career. Sometimes are hear things that make me think for days. And sometimes I hear nice comments about things I hadn’t thought of, which makes me feel all warm inside. And it’s fun too!

What if you work for a traditional company, can you still have a PPC? I think you can. Just make sure it’s a team thing. Or gather some engaged people that work together. At least then you’ll have a chance of hearing some honest opinions.

How often should you arrange them? It depends, but generally speaking, as often as there is feedback to share. Too seldom and there will be irritation in the group. Too often and there will be few new revelations. For us, since Adaptiv typically only meet Fridays, we need some calendar time to gather enough “data points”. Once a week would be silly. Once per quarter or six months I think is just about right for us. For people you work with daily, a higher frequency is called for. You could try once a month to start with and adjust from there.

One final word of caution. This exercise is less suitable for groups that are newly formed or where there is a lot of disharmony. You need to have reached some level of trust and benevolence. As the focus participant, you need to be absolutely confident your peers mean well.

Finally, if you’d like to try it, I’d be happy to hear how it went. Good luck!

3 thoughts on “Peer Performance Conversations: Feedback Without the Baggage

    • Hi Bob!

      Thanks for asking, I’d be happy to. I tried hard not to turn the answer into a blog post of its own, but I failed. You will find my response here.

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