What’s a good approach to doing performance reviews at a very small company? There is a sense among all of us that we want performance reviews, because we want to improve. But also that it’s awkward at best and dangerous at worst. Dangerous, meaning, changing the nature of a friendship or uncovering something that hurts more than it helps.
Hey Team Player,
I’m going to make two initial assumptions based on your question and the way you wrote it:
- Your team is really small (maybe 5 people or less)
- There’s no obvious leadership structure (aka the team is flat)
The reason I’m making these assumptions is that it will change the way I guide you on this topic. Because even though your question seems to be about performance reviews, the heart of your question is about relationships, a concept that has huge stakes on small, flat teams.
Recently I read a short little book called Lying by Sam Harris. It’s basically an essay in which Harris lays out his argument for never lying. Not even a little bit. Not even the little white lies about how delicious someone’s homemade pie is or how you liked a movie or what you thought of the way something at work was handled. Lots of the book made me cringe, which made me wonder: how often am I lying to people? How often do we use social graces to mask our genuine concerns or feelings? And what does this mean for the personal and professional relationships that we’re involved in, not to mention the quality of the work that’s held hostage underneath?
Not everyone was born blunt. In fact, the majority of us have a really, really hard time telling people what we think. On a good day I believe this is because we’re all vulnerable and sensitive beings. On a bad day I mourn the infrequency with which we trust each other.
And so, dear friend, I think you’re asking about trust. How can you be sure that your feedback on someone’s work or writing or presentations or punctuality won’t be misconstrued as aggression or an opportunity to tear someone down? It all comes down to trust.
The worst advice I can give you in this column is to “get your colleagues to trust you more” because it’s vague and not immediately actionable and takes two to tango.
So I’m going to advise you to work on yourself.
If you can make gains (even incremental!) in truth telling, you own a superpower. The superpower is that, no matter what, people know you’re not bullshitting them. Do you know what a relief it is to know that the person you’re interacting with is not blowing smoke? What value there is knowing they will not turn around as soon as your conversation is over and complain about you to the nearest ear? THAT’S the kind of colleague you want to be, the kind of person who can tactfully say “I can see how your project came to be in this state… but I still think you can do better.”
YOU, buddy, can become more honest — and you don’t have to wait for performance reviews to do it. Little by little, you can tell it like it is. Each time you do this and everyone observes that the office is still intact, that you’re all still friends and the sky didn’t fall, you earn a couple of trust tokens which you can leverage forever and ever. For example:
- “Hey, you know, I’d have an easier time with my chunk of the work if you did XYZ. What do you think?”
- “When you’re not on time for our meetings, I don’t feel like you care about this work. Is that the case? Can we talk about it?”
- “When you put down other departments or colleagues that we work with, it creates difficult and negative tension on the team. Have you noticed?”
This is all fine and good, but how do you even know which feedback to share, especially if it’s been a good long while since you shared anything at all?
Have you ever cooked soup or gravy and followed the instructions for reducing the broth? You let it boil for a while until some of it evaporates and the rest reduces to the real flavor. Well that’s what you’re going to do with your feedback. First make a long laundry list of everything you feel you must say to the person… and then stick it on a shelf for a couple days. Seal it up if you must. Then pull it out and I bet one reread of this document starts to clarify things for you.
(Incidentally, if you pull out the document a few days later and it still all seems totally sane and justified, put it back and wait longer. Your gravy isn’t done.)
Next, take a literal red pen to the page on this. Cross out anything that seems totally childish and unrelated to the work at hand. Circle anything that comes across as your own issues coming through. (Often we’re triggered by someone at work because of something we’re trying to work on ourselves… while initially we think we have to give THEM the feedback, we actually need to turn it around and incorporate it in our own behavior). And then, at the end, there are going to be a few nuggets that remain.
Those nuggets are what you’re really after and the fascinating thing is that they really don’t have much of a bite. They sound reasonable, doable even, because you’ve removed the sting and the drama, the history and the fear hiding behind anger.
I would venture to guess that you even have a few takeaways of your own. (Get more sleep. Don’t schedule important meetings before 9am. Spend time connecting with these people so I remember why I like them and why I chose to work with them in the first place. That sort of thing.)
And remember that the follow-through to these conversations is almost the most important part. To create space for an honest conversation is a sacred thing. Never mock anything the person said later, never break confidentiality to your co-workers or go anywhere but to a healthy place with it. Because you’re proving that you can share feedback and that it won’t break the relationship. And that’s going to take a few practice runs before the trust starts to solidify enough to stand on.
Once it starts to do so, don’t mess with it. Just keep being honest and having real communication. The real reward of all of this effort is, of course, that you can move forward spending all of your energy on the work itself, rather than the dramatic distractions. And incidentally, being honest isn’t only about negative feedback — you should absolutely share feedback when it’s positive too!
You originally asked about performance reviews and I’ve given you a soul-searching mission. I know it. Will there be tears? Maybe. Will people get angry or upset, uncomfortable even? Probably. That’s ok. As long as you’re grounding the conversation with a healthy intention (to work better together, for example), keep pushing. You don’t need to introduce a formal review process to improve the work… focus on the relationships and the rest will follow.
Because this is what the real work looks like for a small team. And the only way forward is through it.
Good luck out there,
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