Organizing a performance review for your engineering team
When could I expect a promotion, as I feel I'm performing on senior level?
People expect rewards and they value security and certainty. In a less mature company, most processes are self-driven. At some point, your team will start asking important questions:
How does the career ladder look for me?
When could I expect a promotion?
And these are very important questions. They might be running on the same salary or title for years and they feel it’s no longer a fair relationship. Depending on how univocal your answers are, it will either set their peace of mind, or they will realize that the future is uncertain for this them.
Before we move on, let’s do a small exercise now. Choose a team member from your team and try answering the following question:
"As a manager of your team, how can you tell if this team member is (NOT) fit for promotion?".
By answering this question, ask yourself - are the reasons for denying someones promotion based on your subjective opinion? If yes, you’re on a slippery slope. The team member you just thought about will challenge you, and you won’t have any counterarguments.
This is a pretty uncomfortable situation to be in. This person will lose trust in you, as they will perceive you as someone who’s wanna stop them in their growth.
So we usually have three choices:
You won't promote anyone.
This can work just for a while, but eventually, your peers will feel that they are operating on a completely different level and it'll come naturally for them to start asking questions.
You will promote most team members.
This is even worse, especially if they aren't ready for promotion. This is giving them a false understanding of their skills.
You will explain why someone is not fit for promotion.
Without any documentation or metrics, provided explanation is your subjective and biased opinion. Your peer can disagree and it's the end of the game. What follows is usually a loss of trust.
So you need an objective insight into the growth and performances of your team members.
Each one of us, especially in tech would like to know the following:
projected salary growth
Expectations and competencies
If you're a startup, chances are that:
You don't have levels per position defined.
You don't have expectations set per level.
You don't have competencies defined as well.
This limits how precise your performance review can be. That's because you can't say that someone is "above/below expectations". What if they ask "based on what expectations I am below"?
You will lose credibility. The importance of such a performance review is no longer relevant. Thus, you have to define a performance review, which is a bit flexible, because you don’t have a career ladder defined.
Set goals for your performance review
What is it that you want to achieve with the performance review? When defining the goals think of the following:
At what stage of growth is my company?
How mature is my team?
Am I trying to solve some hidden problems with the performance review? Run 5-why's analysis here.
My team is not growing professionally. Why?
They are not proactive in learning new things. Why?
They don't have time to do so. Why?
They are in a delivery mode with huge scope. Why?
Our sprints take too long. Maybe we should write more granular user stories and limit the iteration scope instead.
Do I need a performance review just for this?
When I went in front of my team, these are the goals wanted to achieve with the performance review.
Presenting transparent promotion plans and compensation adjustments.
Set growth areas for every team member.
Tie compensation and promotion cycles to it.
Communicate underperforming aspects on time and out loud.
To the performance review!
In my team, we did not have expectations and competencies set. So we've come up with the following procedure for the performance review process.
Every team member has to write down a self-review.
Every team member has to write two peer reviews. One for a close collaborator, and one for someone outside of his team.
The manager has to write his review for his peers.
The manager will sum up all documents and write down a final performance review
Schedule a performance review meeting with every team member.
Send performance review documents to your team members 24h upfront.
This will make sure that everyone has the time to process the review emotionally and prepare the questions for you. 24h is a good offset. Not too early, not too late.
It is important to control the narrative of the review process. To do that I have prepared document templates for each step.
These are the template documents we have used.
Self-review template (team members to fill for themselves)
Peer-review template (team members to fill in for others)
Performance review template (for the manager to fill in for their peers)
Things to pay attention to
How you announce the performance review to your team is important
talk about it on your one-on-ones
don't send a too official email, as it'll boost the seriousness around the review process
schedule an all-hands call on the topic of the performance review
communicate performance review goals clearly
communicate the review process in detail
answer all questions honestly and openly
It's stressful for team members
If you are a manager, chances are that you don't perceive performance reviews the same way as your peers. They see it as a checkpoint. It will set their future in the company, based on what you tell them.
Reserve time for performance review
Your team members deserve objective and detailed performance reviews. You have to find enough time for writing each one of them.
By delivering generic performance reviews, the process will also lose credibility. This is especially important if you're conducting it for the first time in your team.
Set 'no blame' narrative
Even if some reviews won't be pleasant, use this opportunity to set the ground for improving and fixing things. Listing out deficiencies only, won't help.
Watch out for biases
None of us is immune to biases but we should be aware of them as much as possible.has a nice video on this topic. Some of the biases to look after:
Recency bias - when we're under the impression of the most recent things that happened.
Strictness bias - you shouldn't be strict with members you are not close with.
Leniency bias - don't favor team members you communicate with often.
Horns bias - if someone made a mistake once, that shouldn't flag them.
Hallo bias - if someone made a fantastic achievement, it shouldn't mask their inefficiencies.
Similarity bias - treat everyone equally. Gender, skin color, office location, and education can affect your judgment.
Contrasting bias - Avoid comparing team members with one another.
Continuous feedback vs performance review
Opposite to performance review, some teams advocate for continuous feedback instead. To paraphrase one of my former team members:
As we're talking every two weeks on our 1-1s we can always discuss growth areas, as well as things to improve on. We don't really need a performance review for such things.
In essence, this is true. We do have regular one-on-ones and we discuss and plan the next steps and growth areas.
However, it’s important to understand that there is some “politics” in every company. HR and company leadership will expect some reports about your team members, that explain why someone is eligible for a promotion or salary raise.
Therefore, performance review has a two-fold value. One that is directed to the company administration, and another to our team. The latter is more important though.
In our team, we looked at performance reviews as a point in time. A checkpoint where we retrospect everything we already discussed in the past 6 months.
That's why, the performance review in our team wasn’t a surprise to anyone, as every topic we discuss during the review process, is already discussed in our one-on-ones.
Follow-up and cadence
Performance review conclusions must not be left aside. If you don't iterate on what you and your peers agreed on, then the review itself is pointless.
This sets you up for failure for the next review, as no one will see the value in it.
I am sure that many teams are conducting performance reviews in different ways. What did we do wrong here? Let me know in the comments, I’d like to revisit this approach.