We often hear about empathy as a singular concept—a soft skill, an essential quality of being human that connects us to others. But empathy comes in two flavors. It has shades, and understanding them might make us better humans.
We often hear about empathy as a singular concept—a soft skill, an essential quality of being human that connects us to others. But empathy comes in two flavors. It has shades, and understanding them might make us better humans.
Two Sides of the Same Coin: Logical and Emotional Empathy
– Emotional Empathy: This is the classic definition of empathy that most of us are familiar with. It’s feeling what another person feels. If your friend is sad, you feel sad. If they’re excited, you feel their joy. Emotional empathy happens almost instinctively. It’s raw and visceral.
– Logical Empathy: This form is more calculated. It’s understanding what another person feels without necessarily feeling it yourself. It’s more about perception, awareness, and insight. It’s about seeing things from their perspective, even if you don’t feel their viewpoint.
Emotional empathy might be more natural for some people. You know the type, those who can feel a room’s mood as tangibly as a physical touch. I’ve always admired that, but it wasn’t me.
And then there are others for whom logical empathy might be more innate. These individuals are perceptive, analytical, and capable of seeing a situation from various angles without becoming emotionally entangled. Many of us who make our careers in technology are attracted to the industry because we have these skills.
Learning the wrong lessons early
Most of my first jobs were at large companies with very competitive and hierarchical cultures: IBM, Silicon Graphics, and Microsoft. Microsoft in the 1990s was legendary for its’ hyper-competitive culture. I worked there for eight years. Microsoft taught me that I had to expect that other teams were constantly looking for how to undermine mine and that every outstretched hand was likely masking a knife held in the other hand behind the back. I eventually realized that the environment was a bad fit for me, but sadly, I didn’t get out until I had internalized those lessons.
After Microsoft, I sought out more collaborative environments, but I struggled. I constantly expected ill intent behind every action from a peer. I knew that this was hurting me and that I needed to move to a mindset of expecting positive intent from others, but I didn’t know how to rewire my brain.
A Splash of Insight: David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water”
My epiphany came when someone recommended that I read David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College, “This is Water.” If you haven’t read or listened to it, it’s enlightening. Wallace talks about default settings, the unconscious, automatic ways we interpret everything around us. He speaks about learning to think more compassionately and understanding that everyone around you has a unique inner life full of dreams, fears, and struggles. And it’s not always about feeling their pain; sometimes, it’s about understanding their pain.
Wallace’s speech was a masterclass in logical empathy. And it gave me a better way to try and understand others’ intents, especially when you don’t know someone well.
Developing Logical Empathy When Emotional Empathy Feels Unnatural
So how can you foster logical empathy if emotional empathy doesn’t come naturally to you? Here’s a roadmap:
Listen More, Talk Less: You don’t have to feel what someone else feels to understand them. Listen actively, engage with their words, and seek to understand their perspective.
Ask Questions: If you don’t understand something, ask. Asking not only clarifies but demonstrates that you are engaged and interested in the other person’s perspective.
Seek to Understand Their Context: What could be the pressures on them that they may not be vocalizing? If you are talking to a salesperson near the end of the quota, could they be pressured to make their quota? Is the Product Manager being held to unrealistic expectations by their boss? Leverage what you know about the business or organization to understand what subtexts may be unsaid.
Reflect: Spend time thinking about the perspectives of others. Consider why they feel the way they do. Analyze their thoughts without judgment.
Use Imagination: Try to visualize the scenario from their perspective. This mental exercise helps in understanding without feeling.
Practice Compassion: Logical empathy may not be instinctive, but it’s still a form of compassion. Approach situations and people with an open heart, even if it’s an analytical one.
Embracing Both Forms
The truth is logical and emotional empathy are not mutually exclusive. You can be someone who mainly engages with logical empathy while still having the capacity for emotional empathy and vice versa.
The real beauty lies in embracing both and recognizing that there’s no right or wrong way to connect with others. It’s a journey, and it’s one worth taking, regardless of where you naturally fall on the empathy spectrum.
In our complex and diverse world, empathy in all its shades is more than a desirable trait; it’s a necessity. Understanding how you relate to others and working on enhancing that connection, be it through emotional or logical empathy, makes you not only a better colleague, friend, or partner but a more complete human being.
This exploration of empathy, fostered by wise words from thinkers like David Foster Wallace, has been a personal awakening. It’s water, and now I see it.
In our professional lives, growth is a constant pursuit, not merely for our development but also for the organizations we represent. We’re all learning all the time, albeit in different ways and at varying paces. In nurturing an employee’s growth within a role, two approaches frequently come to the fore: mentoring and coaching. While both are powerful tools, they serve different purposes and are best applied in specific contexts – sometimes, we need a guide, and sometimes we need a goal-oriented strategist.
Choosing the Right Approach: Context is Key
“Coaching is for performance. Mentoring is for potential.”
The choice between coaching and mentoring hinges on the context. Here are some hypothetical situations to illustrate this.
Consider an employee who is a subject-matter expert, consistently delivering quality work but struggling to make presentations to stakeholders. In this case, a coach could help the employee improve their communication and public speaking skills, with clear, measurable objectives for their progression.
In contrast, imagine a new recruit with immense potential but little experience in the industry. With their wealth of experience and industry knowledge, a mentor could provide this newcomer with invaluable insights about the sector and career development advice, supporting their long-term growth.
When explaining the difference, I often contrast these roles by saying, “With mentoring, I will give you my opinion. With coaching, I will ask you the questions necessary for you to form your own approach with my guidance.”
The mentoring approach works better for more experienced professionals expanding their skills to new areas. The coaching approach is better for someone who needs to deepen their skills in an existing area. Coaching is also effective when helping someone in an area where you don’t have as much direct experience. You can leverage your experience in other areas to help the person figure out the answer themselves.
Be explicit in your choice of method
Know if you are taking a coaching stance or a mentoring stance when helping someone. That does not mean you can’t give advice when coaching or ask prompting questions when mentoring. It means you and the person you are working with understand how you will approach the interaction. It sets the tone and expectations.
“Mentoring and coaching are not an ‘either-or’ proposition but a ‘both-and’ necessity.”
While mentoring and coaching have unique strengths, it’s essential to recognize that both are integral to fostering a growth culture in an organization. The mentor-mentee relationship builds a knowledge-sharing culture, and coaching empowers individuals with specific skills to excel in their roles.
In our pursuit of growth, remember that we’re not merely ticking off a checklist. We are on a journey that requires us to understand when to take the scenic route of mentoring, appreciating the broader view of the professional landscape, or when to go straight ahead with coaching, focusing on the immediate roadblocks ahead.
Remember to share your insights and experiences as you continue on this journey. We are all co-travelers in this quest for growth and learning; every insight contributes to the collective wisdom.
In this Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Phil Abernathy about his work helping organizations focus on employee happiness to drive customer happiness and shareholder return and the Bureaucracy Mass Index as a tool to identify where companies are bloated and ineffective. He also spoke about what’s needed for real transformation.
Great practical advice on building happier teams and a tool to measure bureaucracy in an organization.
A Brief History of the Metaverse: DIY Metaverse
Tony and Mark – supported by a global community of technologists, enthusiasts, and dreamers – brought 3D to the brand-new Web with VRML. This episode features Owen Rowley, Neil Redding, Linda Jacobson, Brian Behlendorf, John McCrea, Coco Conn — and Neal Stephenson.
With all the talk (and investment) in the metaverse, it is frustrating sometimes that people forget that the technology industry has been thinking and working on this for decades. Tony and Mark were instrumental in creating VRML, and I appreciate them documenting some of the history, but I was a bit disappointed that they omitted some of the other folks that were involved in the beginning.
CALLING BULLSHIT – Spotify: Starving Artists?
Stated purpose: to unlock the potential of human creativity—by giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by it.
Spotify is the most popular streaming service in the world, with 188 million people paying for premium subscriptions and hundreds of millions more listening for free on the ad supported tier. Which is why it has been called the world’s best place to get noticed as a musician. But getting noticed and making a living are two different things. In this episode we decide if Spotify is more about “Honesty” or “Little Lies?”. Listen in to find out.
One of our board members at Anaconda turned me onto this podcast. It’s about purpose-driven companies that don’t live up to their professed goals. This episode focuses on Spotify but also talks about the broader streaming music economy.
A16z Podcast – Creators, Creativity, and Technology with Bob Iger
A wide-ranging conversation with Bob Iger on the interplay between technology, content, and distribution; as well as Bob’s journey — and that of various creators! — especially as the industry evolved from TV and cable to the advent of the internet/ web 1.0 to 2.0 to briefly touching on web3 and other emerging technologies. As well as topics top of mind for all company and community builders: from build vs. buy and the innovator’s dilemma, to managing creativity, decentralization, remote work, and much more.
I didn’t expect to like this podcast as much as I did. I appreciated it not only for his takes on leading teams of creative people but also for his business acumen and for getting more details about creative people I admire and their work.
20VC – 20 Product: Marty Cagan on The Four Questions of Great Product Management, Product Lessons from Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz and eBay’s Pierre Omidyar & The Difference Between Truly Great Product Teams and the Rest
Marty Cagan is one of the OGs of Product and Product Management as the Founder of Silicon Valley Product Group. Before founding SVPG, Marty served as an executive responsible for defining and building products for some of the most successful companies in the world, including Hewlett-Packard, Netscape Communications, and eBay. He worked directly alongside Marc Andreesen and Ben Horowitz at Netscape and Pierre Omidyar at eBay.
I was not a fan of Cagan’s book Inspired. I called it “Ayn Rand for Product Managers.” I worked with some product managers who were all huge fans of it, and the result was not great for working with engineering.
In the time since, I have appreciated what Cagan said in his blog, which was a lot more focused on Lean-style product development and cross-functional collaborative teams. This podcast was further evidence for me that I need to re-evaluate how I see Cagan. I appreciated his perspective.
Planet Money – Episode 576: When Women Stopped Coding
Mark Zuckerberg. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Most of the big names in technology are men.
But a lot of computing pioneers, the ones who programmed the first digital computers, were women. And for decades, the number of women in computer science was growing.
But in 1984, something changed. The number of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged.
Today on the show, what was going on in 1984 that made so many women give up on computer science? We unravel a modern mystery in the U.S. labor force.
This podcast was oddly personal for me. It talks about how advertising and culture perpetuated a vision of computers as being for boys, discouraging women from entering the computing field. This was the time that I became fascinated by computers. I remember the ads, tv shows, and movies they discuss, and when I entered college for Computer Science my class was 70 men and 2 women. They also talk about my alma mater Carnegie Mellon and the steps that they have taken to address this imbalance.
It is amazing how quickly culture changed computing from being a female-dominated field to being a male one and then how long it has taken us to try and bring it back into some sort of equilibrium.
In the last post, I shared the books that I found worth recommending that I read in 2022. The next post shares podcasts that I found valuable. In this (longer) post, I will share links to the blog posts from 2022 that I think are recommendation worthy. I’ve broken it into sections based on content.
Learn about the How HashiCorp Works project and why there are links to internal HashiCorp materials in this article. Our…
I like the movement in making how companies work transparent. It is useful to read as a leader and a great recruiting tool for those companies. I always wonder how much reality matches the shared documents. If you know you will share with the public, you are likely to be a bit more aspirational than actual, but it is still useful to read.
Medium sees more employee exits after CEO publishes ‘culture memo’ – TechCrunch
The sign that Netflix’s culture had irreversibly started to…
The genius of Netflix as an employer was that it has always been very upfront about who it is and how it works, with the understanding that anyone taking a job there knows what they are getting into. This works great until the culture starts to change, so this isn’t about an individual employee being unhappy. It will be interesting to see how Netflix navigates this (or doesn’t).
Culture as a Product: How HubSpot Built its Famed Startup Culture
Around Boston and beyond, HubSpot is known for its strong entrepreneurial culture . The company has received many awards over the years and was recently named…
Hubspot is an interesting company. Having read Disrupted (https://www.amazon.com/Disrupted-Dan-Lyons/dp/0316306096) I am a bit skeptical of how they talk about themselves, but of course, one always should be. That said, even if the public face of companies’ cultures is more aspirational than real, there is still something to be learned. I didn’t decide that the 37 Signals books were worthless because when under stress, the company didn’t live the values they proclaimed.
Bolt Loaned Employees Thousands to Buy Stock—Then Laid Them Off
The challenge of startup options is that employees rarely are allowed to sell them. When a startup has been around a long time, and startup options are starting to expire, but employees have had the liquidity event necessary to have ready cash to exercise their options, what are they to do? A company I was in also considered a loan program for employees but decided it was potentially problematic. Bolt learned that lesson the hard way, and their former employees are worse off for it.
A big 32-hour workweek test is underway. Supporters think it could help productivity
This article was originally written for LeadDev . In tech, we talk a lot about failing fast: implementing small, incremental…
I talk a lot about failure, failing fast, etc… This article is an actual case study in how to recover when your team has a big failure. I always like real-life stories instead of vague opinion pieces.
Career Development: What It Really Means to be a Manager, Director, or VP
It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of big-company HR practices. I’m more of the First Break all the Rules type. Despite my general skepticism of many standard…
There are tons of posts and books about being a line manager. There are substantially less about levels beyond that. I’m always looking for informative articles or books about more senior leadership levels. This was a decent one.
Tech’s Talent Wars Have Come Back to Bite It
by Erin Griffith
What Tech People Should Learn From This Era of Excess
There is a euphemism in rocketry often heard at SpaceX – Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly. A catastrophic explosion, in other words. Until now, it was not…
The speed of Elon’s decline from “genius who can see a better future and bring it about” to “asshole snake oil salesman with a narcissistic personality disorder” was sudden by any measure. How do we keep people like this from ruining our favorite apps/sites? By keeping ownership and infrastructure distributed…
Remote Work/Return to the office
For the last couple of years, the push and pull of remote vs hybrid vs back-in-the-office has been a major story in the work press. I’ve already made my decision that I’m going to keep working remote and will choose companies that allow me to do that, but in all of this discussion I’m also looking to understand how other companies are approaching things.
Why workers are calling BS on leaders about returning to the office
This may be losing some of its value as it ages, but speaking as an all-remote company CTO, if you don’t listen to your employees about how they want to work, I’ll be happy to take them off your hands.
The Future of Work Isn’t Fancy Tech. It’s Remote Work and Smarter Management
The remote/office debate is dying down any time soon. There is more pressure on returning to offices now, but there is also more resistance. Given the layoffs, employees may not feel empowered to resist the call to return to the office, so maybe that will gain ground.
The Worst Part of Working From Home Is Now Haunting Reopened Offices
How to get started with async GitLab believes that…
The secret to successful remote work (especially if the team is spread across time zones) is moving to be asynchronous first. The companies that have been distributed for long periods and have scaled have embraced this, but it is harder than it seems, and many companies struggle. Even those that have always been distributed. This GitLab guide is very helpful.
I spent much of 2022 learning more about WebAssembly as we launched PyScript at Anaconda. I think that it has some amazing potential and is one of the most important technologies of the last few years.
This article explains the concepts behind how WebAssembly works including its goals, the problems it solves, and how it runs inside the web…
If you are in technology, you need to understand WebAssembly and how it can be used. It can potentially be more transformative than many of the technologies we depend on for software development today.
A short history of Flash & the forgotten Flash Website movement (when websites were “the new emerging artform”)
This post is a transcript of a talk I gave at UCSC. Thank you for inviting me! I’m sharing it here because It’s a GOOD summary of the history of a technology…
If you were active on the web in the 90s and early 2000s, you will remember the explosion of massively creative web experiences propelled by the Macromedia/Adobe technology Flash. While you can still create those kinds of experiences using modern web technologies, it now requires a level of coding expertise that puts the programmers in the driver’s seat instead of the artist/designer and requires a team instead of a single creative person.
The genius of Flash was that it made complex interactivity and visuals easy for many artists to create, and the result was beautiful chaos. The web is just a bit more boring for the death of Flash.
Spotify’s grand plan to monetize its open source Backstage project via premium plugins
Backstage was created when I was at Spotify. Even in its earliest days, it solved many problems for us in a massively micro-service architecture. It’s cool to see how it has developed over the years, and it was also cool to see that Spotify had open-sourced it. I think it is interesting that Spotify is doing this experiment, but also disappointed because I know of at least one company formed by ex-Spotifiers that were trying to build companies on top of Backstage.
Google: The Model Your Site Was Built On Is No Longer Feasible
Hours before Elon Musk closed his deal to buy Twitter, he published an open letter to advertisers. Musk knew that big companies, in particular, were anxious about…
“Free speech” and an advertising-based revenue model are incompatible.
When blockchain emerged, I spent some effort to really understand it. Then I realized that it was a technology searching for a use case fueling a tulip-like baseless speculative market. When Web3 started to emerge, I delayed judgment until I could understand it better. While I believe that there are people who believe that it can fuel a world where creators have more ways to be paid for their work and other such lofty goals, the practicality of it is that very little of those schemes require the blockchain, and most of the people in the space are just trying to make a quick buck before the tulip market collapses.
Many good takes: eating popcorn, and watching the crypto bros burn down their empire.
5 key lessons after a week on Mastodon
by Sandra Gutierrez G.
I’ve been on Mastodon since 2017, but my usage really increased since the acquisition of Twitter. There have been a lot of stories talking about how people are abandoning Mastodon, but even if it doesn’t become what Twitter was, it is still a vibrant community.
There’s No Fixing Meta’s Metaverse, Scrap It, Start Over
I spent 6 years working on the metaverse at Microsoft during the 90s. While the technology has drastically improved, the reason we didn’t get the metaverse back then is that no one could figure out something to do in the metaverse except shoot each other or have sex with each other. All the folks working on metaverse now have learned nothing from the multiple generations of attempts that preceded them. There is still a smug belief that “if you build it, they will come.” The problem is that there is still nothing to do once they show up.
If these problems are intrinsically linked to consolidated tech giants like Meta, Google, and Amazon, why not embrace technologies that decentralize power? This has become a key issue for Brewster Kahle, the 61-year-old founder of the Internet Archive…
Having participated in various forums and working groups for decentralized web stuff over the last few decades, I’m consistently excited by the possibilities and enthusiasm of the folks who work towards those goals and disappointed by their naivete about what people are willing to put up with and how commercial entities are incentivized to coopt and pollute the technologies that do gain some momentum.
Your organization should run its own Mastodon server
All the agility has been sucked out of agile projects Doing agile is not the same as being agile Agile projects have become bloated, lazy waterfall projects…
One of my biggest pet peeves is people deciding that a bad experience they had with a poorly implemented framework or process must mean that that framework or process is clearly bad and that anyone who had a good experience is lying. So many of the “I was involved in a poorly run agile project and so agile must all be a lie” or “my company tried to do the Spotify model, and it didn’t work; therefore, it must not work at Spotify either” type posts just show the ignorance of their authors and nothing else. While I was worried this article was just another one of those, the author is concerned more about poor agile processes and not agile itself. He even gives some good advice. So worth a read.
Mozrt, a Deep Learning Recommendation System Empowering Walmart Store Associates with a Personalized Learning Experience
It needs to be said again, perhaps this time more strongly. Your Blog is The Engine of Community . Dammit. Blog More You are not blogging enough.…
Scott Hanselman thinks developers should be blogging more, and when they do blog, it should be on their own platforms. And he’s right.
I’ve been involved in music as a musician, radio DJ, label owner, and streaming software creator since I was 15. I was delighted to rejoin the music industry in December when I took on the role of CTO at DistroKid.
With 100K tracks uploaded a day, a longtail music cull is coming – Hypebot
by Music Business
Lucian Grainge doesn’t like that people aren’t listening to Universal Artists as much, so he’s putting pressure on the streaming services to remove content he doesn’t think is good. The problem is deciding what content is good and what content is bad. Streamers already remove fraudulent content. So, who decides if your band shouldn’t be on Spotify because you might take a stream away from Justin Bieber (who himself was discovered because he uploaded his songs to YouTube). Gatekeepers are all about protecting their interests at the cost of innovation and getting others a shot.
Why Amazon VP Steve Boom just made the entire music catalog free with Prime
It’s never been clear how much Amazon cares about music streaming as a business. It’s always been an also-ran in the streaming wars that only has listeners because it is an add-on to Prime and is the default service with Alexa. Amazon hasn’t invested much in the service, but maybe that is changing now…
I’d like to share some of the things related to technology, leadership, or management that I found particularly instructive. There was plenty of other good stuff, but these were the ones that stood out.
After making a concerted effort to write more in 2021, my blogging in 2022 fell off a cliff. I hope to be better this year, but while I wasn’t writing as much, I was still reading, watching, and listening. I’d like to share some of the things related to technology, leadership, or management that I found particularly instructive. There was plenty of other good stuff, but these were the ones that stood out. These are not affiliate links. I don’t get any kickback for recommending them.
You probably didn’t need me to recommend this book to you, because it is one of the classics of technology leadership. In fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve read it. I hadn’t read it for many years, and picking it up again, I was surprised at how relevant and valuable it still is. If you haven’t read it, it is a very easy read.
The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging
This book isn’t specific to technology; it is about building inclusive communities of any type. It is valuable for people leaders in that it talks about the necessary parts of belonging to any group. It is focused more on communities of choice instead of work communities, but the insights are the same. As someone who has also spent a lot of time building online communities, it is extremely relevant for that as well.
This isn’t a leadership or management book, but it is a book about living intentionally, and I found it valuable on multiple levels. As it was a New York Times bestseller, you didn’t need me to recommend it to you either, but I will say that I personally appreciate the author and his message.
The Business of Belonging: How to Make Community your Competitive Advantage
This book is about building online communities for companies. It has overlap with the Art of Community book, but it is much more practical and meant for people who do this for a living. I found it a bit introductory, but it had some good ways of articulating specific points that I will reuse. If you are new to this space, it is a great introduction.
The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter
Another classic of management that I had read before but reread as I prepared for my new role at DistroKid. Once again, it had been a long time since I had read it, and I was struck by how practical and true its advice was. I realized that when onboarding to previous roles, the companies where I started off the best were when I followed its advice deliberately or intuitively.
Lead Together: The Bold, Brave, Intentional Path to Scaling Your Business
This is either a book you will read and find yourself nodding along with, or a book that you will read and throw down in disgust after the first couple of chapters. It is a semi-practical guide about how to be more inclusive in your leadership. For those who have read Fredrick Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations and are trying to figure out how to move their company towards Teal, this book will be useful. For those who are tired of being in a top-down organization or are constantly accused of being a micro-manager, this book is worth toughing out even if you don’t agree with all of their suggestions because it will give you choices and ideas that will help you grow as a leader.
I came across this Twitter thread from Rein Henrichs, and I thought it had many good points about systems thinking and management.
A lot of managers, especially those from an engineering background, think that management is about doing stuff: defining rules, policies, and procedures; assigning tasks; creating external incentives; fixing problems.
It caused me to reflect a bit on my approach to systems thinking in the context of technical leadership.
One of the things that helped me the most as an engineering leader was developing a better understanding of systems thinking. When I (or others) use the analogy of “planting a garden” when setting up teams for success, this is what we mean. We are creating the system to enable groups and individuals to do their best work and then allow good behaviors (and results) to emerge. Of course, creating a system takes longer than pushing things down into the organization. Still, it produces more creativity and autonomy in the organization and makes it more resilient to change or challenges.
Managers who do not work with this understanding of systems think that management is purely about doing stuff: defining rules, policies, and procedures, assigning tasks, creating external incentives, and fixing problems. This “doing stuff” approach can produce good results in small teams or for a constrained about of time.
As Rein Henrichs also correctly points out, the act of building a system can be incomprehensible for others in the organization who are not directly involved (especially in other disciplines that are more transactional). This lack of understanding has often been my biggest challenge as a company’s senior engineering leader.
Building a system takes time. If you can get things to a good place where the system is starting to be self-perpetuating, the rest of the organization will see the improvements and become supporters.
Suppose the leadership team is impatient and doesn’t understand what you are trying to do. In that case, they will lean into the quick fixes listed above, namely re-organization or replacing individuals or trying to “drive accountability” through reductive top-down control mechanisms.
If that happens, you are stuck trying to mitigate the damage and build a longer-term plan to return to your original goals, but it is often a losing battle. The primary culture of the organization has re-asserted itself, and your chance to evolve it has mostly gone.
How do you avoid that fate?
Communicate! Make your plans clear in the hiring process, your initial days in the organization, and all along the process. Set realistic timelines for improvement and celebrate the successes along the way. When your peers are impatient, refocus them on the plan and the long-term gains you are working towards. Point to the achievements thus far and try to keep their “eyes on the prize.”
Will this always work?
No. It depends on the company’s situation and how much pressure there is on the leadership team. If the company is under stress, it might be better to refocus on shorter-term solutions that don’t actively detract from what you are trying to build.
My biggest successes in companies were getting the entire organization on board with the system I was working to build. Gaining support for a new systemic working is a culture change, and getting backing is contingent on the company wanting to change. If the company is on a “burning platform,” a situation where change is required for the company to grow or survive, you will find less resistance. A burning platform also provides the inspiration to persevere if the change is difficult.
My biggest failures trying to build systems were when I did not communicate my intentions clearly or did not get buy-in from the rest of the leadership team, or when I was not effective at communicating the improvements along the way.
Another challenge can be a change (losing a customer or a tough quarter) that puts pressure on the leadership team. In this case, you need to adapt quickly. Hopefully, the system you are putting in place encourages being nimble. You may need to pause the change to the system to focus on shorter-term tactical solutions. To minimize the disruption in the organization, be transparent about the need for the change, and set an expectation on how you will get reoriented towards your original vision afterward.
While there are many good books on systems thinking, the one I consistently recommend for engineering leaders is Management 3.0 by Jurgen Appelo. It isn’t just about systems thinking but weaves it into a broader book about management.
This article is the final in my series on valuable performance reviews. This article discusses how to deliver the review and salary news to your report.
This article is the final in my series on valuable performance reviews. The first part addressed preparing for the evaluation. The second part covered writing the assessment. The third part explained how to make a salary recommendation. Finally, this article discusses how to deliver the review and salary news to your report.
Each review discussion is one of the most important meetings in a person’s professional life. The primary goal of the meeting is as a milestone in a career journey. You will give the person an understanding of the progress they have made and insight into how they can get to the next stage of their career.
All the work preparing and writing the performance appraisal can go to waste by delivering the review poorly. I have always found the review conversation the most nerve-racking for me as a manager because that is where you see the effect of your (hopefully) well-considered analysis on the person. And people are… people. The conversation is always a bit awkward, given the stakes for the person receiving the review—but from there, it can go in many unexpected directions. I’ve had tense, combative conversations with people receiving a very positive review. Conversely, I’ve had a very unexpectedly genial and optimistic conversation with someone accepting a poor review. Even if you know the person well, the review conversation can be challenging.
Common advice is to give precise feedback to the people who report to you frequently during the year. If you do this, the review itself should not surprise them, as it would be consistent with what you have already said. However, while someone may have heard the feedback, it is another thing to see it written on a piece of paper with a review “score” (if your organization does that) and a salary adjustment connected to that feedback. Even if you are confident that nothing written in the review is new information, the person receiving it may not feel that way.
The best method I’ve found for having these discussions go smoothly is to come to the meeting prepared, give the person time to digest their review before the dialogue, and structure the conversation itself.
Preparing for the discussion
If you have followed the spirit of the process in the previous articles, you have assembled, organized, and interpreted a lot of data to write the review. This data is also helpful for your preparation and during the conversation itself. Having the information to explain things further if there are questions or disagreements is valuable. Their memory or interpretation of events is sometimes very different than yours or that of their peers.
Read over their review again. Make sure you have the data at hand to support the evaluation you wrote in case there are questions.
If you think the discussion might be tense, you may even want to rehearse the conversation in advance with another dev manager or someone from your company’s HR team. I sometimes rehearse challenging messages in the shower, looking for the right way to say something. You may also prepare positive messages to find the best way to say something without ambiguity.
Have empathy for the person receiving the review.
Think of the performance reviews you have received during your career. Both the good and bad. What made them stand out to you? Was it the review itself or the discussion (or lack thereof)? While the anticipation and the initial excitement of the evaluation are finding out about a promotion, raise, or bonus, and knowing that your hard work was recognized, the thing you will remember long after was the delivery of the information and the discussion that followed.
I’ve received at least fifty reviews since I started working. I don’t remember the numbers or most of the review scores. Still, I remember the manager who hadn’t put any thought into the process, the one who made promises review after review that they never kept, and the assessment where a manager made statements that were demonstrably false and, when shown evidence to the contrary, threw up their hands. I also remember the great conversations I had with the best managers I worked for that made me proud of what I had accomplished and excited about what more I could do (and how they would help me).
While you may be nervous about the conversation, the person you speak to is even more so. For you, it is the conversation that is scary. For them, it is the implications of the discussion on their livelihood. So come to the dialogue with that understanding and empathy for their position.
Give the person their review to read beforehand.
There is always the question of when to let the person read the actual document. Over the years, I have tried it three different ways:
Handing the person the review after sitting down to the discussion and letting them read it before speaking;
At the end of the review conversation, to read afterward; and
Giving the assessment to them the day before or the morning of the conversation.
The method that seems to work best is to give the person the assessment to review several hours before the review discussion, saving the actual numbers for the conversation.
When you give the person time to read and process the review document before the meeting, it allows them to prepare for the meeting. It takes some of the person’s concerns away because they know what to expect in the conversation itself, which makes the conversation less stressful for them. If they disagree with the assessment, it gives them time to prepare any argument/evidence they wish to present, making it feel less like an ambush. By sharing the review in advance, I have found that the conversation itself is often more substantive and valuable.
The review discussion
Start with a brief introduction.
While you both know why you are there, it is good to start the discussion with some of the broader contexts around the review process and anything around the company’s performance that will be relevant to the meeting (like a limited raise budget in a tough economic year). But, unfortunately, that broader context often gets lost in the review conversation itself, which can lead to confusion or misunderstandings.
If you’ve given the document to the person in advance, they will join the meeting with an idea of what to expect in the conversation. However, they will still be wondering about the salary numbers. While you may be talking about other things, until the person knows what their salary change is, they will wonder about it. To make the conversation more valuable, I like to share the salary change information or promotion early in the conversation. Once the person knows the most critical information they will receive, they can focus on the more extensive discussion about career development.
Discuss the document.
Discuss each section in the assessment together to make sure that there is a common understanding and agreement. Now is when you might share more details or data around your statements if needed. Do not just ask, “Do you agree with this section?” Instead, make sure they understand your comments, that you have answered any questions they have, and that they either concur with your assessment or at least appreciate your perspective and the data behind your conclusions.
Where to go from here?
If the review conversation is a checkpoint along a career, it is essential to help the person understand where the next checkpoint could be. It is vital in the review conversation to talk to the future and reflect on the past. Now is an excellent opportunity to give hope and support to someone who had a problematic review cycle or inspire someone who has been doing well to achieve even bigger goals.
Hopefully, you have been having regular discussions about the person’s career aspirations. The review discussion is the right time to confirm their goals and discuss how you can help them achieve them. What opportunities can you present to them that will help them grow professionally between this discussion and the next review discussion?
Be very careful about making promises that you can’t keep. There are many things beyond your control in the review process, like the raise budget, the stock pool, company performance, global economic situations, or a final promotions approval. Even if you had all those things within your control now, you might move on to a new role or new company by the time of the following review. If you make a promise and cannot keep it, you will demoralize the person and lose their trust. So choose your words carefully when talking about the future.
After the discussion
Within a few days of the discussion, write the person a note confirming any statements from the conversation, the answers to any questions you didn’t have during the dialogue, and the agreed-upon growth plan. If you have a shared agenda for your 1:1s or a list of topics to discuss, make sure that you regularly review any growth plans by adding them as a discussion topic.
What if the person disagrees with my assessment?
From time to time, someone will decide that your interpretation of the data is incorrect and, therefore, your review is wrong. When this happens, go over the person’s data you collected for the appraisal. If they have some information you didn’t receive in the process that causes you to reconsider, don’t promise them that you will change the review. Investigate the new information and if you want to change things, discuss it with your manager. This kind of late change rarely happens, however.
If they continue to refuse to accept your assessment, invite them to sit down with you, your manager, and a person from the people team to discuss it. You want the person’s concerns heard, but if they don’t have any new data, you also want someone in the conversation who will support you.
What if they want to negotiate a different raise?
People will occasionally believe that the salary discussion is a negotiation. I have heard that this is common in a few cultures, but it is not generally done that way. As I discussed in the previous article, the person’s new salary is arrived at as part of a long process, and there isn’t much—if any—flexibility by the time you are delivering the review to the person.
You generally can’t change their salary autonomously, so if you agree to reconsider and then you can’t change the number, you look ineffectual as their manager. Also, changing their salary will encourage others to try to negotiate in the salary review discussion (the word always gets around when something like this happens).
If someone is unhappy with their raise, discuss what they could do during the next review period to justify making a more significant raise recommendation. But, once again, don’t promise anything!
If someone was expecting an entirely unrealistic raise, you might want to share with them a bit about how the salary review process works and help them understand what normal looks like.
What if their friends at other companies got much larger raises?
Occasionally, in the salary review discussion, someone will tell you about their friend who got a 50% raise. They will also tell you about an article they read that says many companies are giving considerable raises to retain employees. Given how charged salaries are as a subject and how competitive the technology industry is for good talent, much disinformation about salaries is constantly circulating.
When faced with these stories, it is worth discussing your company’s salary benchmarking process. Help the person understand that there will always be outliers and unusual situations, but express that those are the exception and not the norm. It is also worth discussing the non-salary aspects of your company that make it an exciting place to work. Companies often look to salary as their only employee retention tool when it is hard to retain employees because of their culture, lack of growth opportunities, or uninteresting projects.
If you’ve been regularly giving feedback, you’ve prepared for writing the review, and you’ve prepared for the review conversation, it will almost always go well.
In this article, I talk about the many ways the review discussion can go wrong because that can make the whole process scary for many people. It is good to be prepared for the conversation to go in a challenging direction. However, if you have been open with people about their performance and regularly given them feedback, and you talk to them about how you will help them improve their performance, the tough conversations are few and far between.
I usually end the performance review process proud of what each person has achieved and excited about helping them reach their potential. That is my hope for you as well.
This article is part three of my series on writing valuable performance reviews. The first part is about preparing for the evaluation. The second article discusses writing the appraisal. This piece will help you make a fair raise recommendation. The final part gives you tips on delivering the review.
Determining compensation is a crucial part of performance management. I fully believe in the Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose trio for motivation outlined in Daniel Pink’s book Drive. However, experience has shown me that even people who have all three of the trio still expect performance in their role to result in more significant compensation.
Aside from hiring or firing an employee, compensation decisions are the most important decisions a manager can make. The decision is significant because the basis for next year’s compensation is this year’s, especially if you stay at the same company. A manager’s mistake in remuneration can result in a significant difference in lifetime salary for someone. Therefore, the compensation change recommendation must be highly considered and fair.
In some companies, the manager creating and delivering the performance review has little input in the compensation decision. If this is your situation, it is still helpful to understand how salary works at other companies, since you may hire people from those places. It is also beneficial when you are responsible for that decision after a promotion.
How does the compensation process work?
Many junior managers have unrealistic expectations around what can be done with compensation because they don’t understand that it is part of the greater corporate budgeting processes. As a result, they imagine an infinite pool of money to draw from for raises.
Every company does its budget and compensation processes differently, but there are common aspects across all the companies I have worked at. One generally true statement is that larger companies will typically be more fixed in their processes and make exceptions infrequently.
The compensation budget is part of the larger company budget, which is agreed upon with the board of directors at the start of the year. An essential measure of the ability of the senior leadership team is their capability of working within the constraints of this agreed-upon budget. This budget objective means that at the most senior levels of the company, someone is keeping an eye on the total salary budget for your organization and will work very hard to make sure that it is not over budget. There is a target salary budget for your team based on the team’s current salaries and the board’s agreed-upon raise budget as a delta.
Your manager will recoup the difference from another team if they allow you to go beyond that budget. Does this mean you shouldn’t go over budget if it is warranted? No, but it means you need to have realistic expectations about what is possible.
To avoid the budget constraint challenges, line managers in some organizations do not have salary recommendation responsibility.
If you can make salary recommendations for your team, how does the procedure generally work?
your teams’ current salaries and some indication of what their most recent raises were,
an idea of the overall budget target for the organization (usually presented as a percentage delta on existing salaries),
the salary bands that individuals are currently in, and
some guidance around the process (possibly including some default raise percentage for different levels of performance).
If you don’t receive all this information, you should request it. It is vital for the decision-making process.
You make an initial recommendation for each team member, which you send to your boss. Your manager combines your proposals with those of your peers, adds in their own direct reports (including you), massages the numbers somewhat, and passes it to their boss, who does the same. This process continues to the CEO.
A few weeks (or months) later, you receive the final salary numbers for all your reports to communicate to them, either as part of the performance review or separately. Sometimes the numbers are identical to those you recommended; sometimes they are different. Sometimes your boss knows why the numbers are different, and sometimes they do not.
Equity (stock), bonuses, and salary serve different purposes as part of a compensation plan.
Salary is just one part of a compensation scheme; stock, bonuses (if your company has them), commissions (usually only for the sales team), and benefits are all part of how a company attracts and retains its employees. Each of these elements has a different purpose.
Salary is a direct measure of employee performance. It is to reward someone for doing a good job. Employees who are “high performers” are paid more than others in the role whose work isn’t as valuable.
Equity, in the form of stock grants or options, is usually seen as a measure of employee potential. Since these vest over time, they are an incentive for an employee to stay longer. Therefore, you want employees who have a high potential to stay and grow at the company. Some companies also use equity to offset salaries, since the immediate cost to the company is less.
Benefits are often overlooked because they are given equally to all employees, but they can be vital to employee retention. For example, if an employee is interested in developing their skills, letting them know that the company can pay for additional training is a significant statement and may counterbalance a raise that they are not happy with.
When making recommendations around employee compensation, take all the aspects of your company’s compensation plan into account. Different elements will be more important at various times to your employees.
What about fixed compensation systems?
Some companies, notably Buffer and Gitlab, have adopted fixed formula models for employee compensation and transparency about those models. Company founders designed these models to be fair and reduce bias. I think there is a lot of potential in these models, and the people I know at companies that have them are fans.
Typically, the companies that do fixed compensation systems adopt them very early (instead of switching to them later). The companies are transparent about their compensation, which is critical with a nonstandard model. As such, people generally self-select into those companies. The mechanics of switching to that model seem very difficult to me.
It is worth paying attention to companies using these systems to see how they scale and grow and see if they become the norm.
What is the right raise for someone?
The significant part of the fixed compensation systems is that they take the bias and subjectivity out of the raise decision. The bias is all built into the decisions that created the original model. You should strive to be objective and fair for the more standard processes. You should validate the reasoning you use with your manager and peers to ensure that the organization uses a consistent rationale.
Start with their current salary.
Where is the person’s current salary within the salary band? Does that current salary make sense, given their past performance? Has the band gone up significantly since the last salary review period? Where do they sit relative to their peers in the same role/level doing similar quality work?
Now think about their performance since the last salary review.
Are they meeting your expectations or exceeding them? Not achieving them? What has been their trajectory over the last few periods? Are they gaining momentum? Losing it?
Is the person being promoted?
If you are promoting the person, you should be gauging them against the bands for their new level. Unless the promotion is long overdue, or the person was very highly paid relative to their peers in their previous level, they should be coming into the lower part of their new salary bands. Placing them in the appropriate spot in the salary band gives them ample room for raises as they grow into their new responsibilities.
Now, look at the target percentage for the organization.
Some of your team should be over that, and some should be under. Your boss will tell you if they expect you to achieve a budget target or not. Even if you anticipate not to come in exactly on budget, you shouldn’t be wildly off it. Now, based on the target budget, the person’s current salary, and their performance, put in your initial number for them.
If you aren’t given a spreadsheet with your team’s numbers, you should create one.
I generally have something like this (and create it if I don’t get one from the HR team).
A spreadsheet helps you look at your recommendations for people relative to one another, and it enables you to understand what you regard as the target for your team.
As you figure out your initial recommendation for each person, enter it into the spreadsheet.
Don’t pay attention to any of the other data while you do this. If it helps, you can hide any rows or columns that you are concerned may throw off your judgment. You can also enter it into another tab if you prefer.
After you have done your first-pass numbers for everyone on your team, you can see where you are relative to your budget. You should also look across the team to ensure you are using consistent logic. It is better to look at percentages rather than salary amounts at this stage. Are the overperforming people relative to your career rubric getting more significant raises than those underperforming or merely meeting expectations? Are the raises going to underperformers in alignment with their performance?
One way to approach this is to think about the raise conversation relative to the performance conversation. Are you saying the same thing with both? For example, a sizeable raise completely blunts a stern message to someone underperforming. Similarly, a slight raise blunts any positive message in the performance review for an overperformer.
If the raise percentages seem fair, look at the budget total.
Are you over budget? If you are over by a relatively small amount, and your manager has not asked you to be right on target, you may be ready to show them the numbers for their input. On the other hand, if your manager has asked you to be right on budget, then you will need to make some adjustments.
There are several things you can try to reduce the overall amount.
If you are significantly over budget, you can use one or more of several techniques for bringing your numbers down.
You may reduce all the raise recommendations by a fixed percentage amount.
Applying the same amount of reduction to all your recommendations keeps them the same relative to one another.
Instead of giving small percentage raises to underperformers, consider reducing them to zero.
If someone is significantly underperforming, recommend no raise rather than giving them an insubstantial raise. Receiving no raise will ensure a difficult review conversation, but it will reinforce the underperformance message.
Decrease individuals’ percentages to achieve a rounded salary number.
When given their new salary information, people will look at the percentage and the new salary number and remember one of them, the salary. They won’t recollect the exact wage; they will round the number in their heads. Take advantage of that to get some extra headroom.
Let’s look at one of our fictional employees, Sandy. Sandy has done very well this year, and you want to reward them with a big raise. Your first idea is a 9% raise, which will give them a new salary of 70,850. After doing the rest of the raises, you are more over budget than your manager is OK with. Since Sandy is your second-highest paid employee and is getting a big raise, you can give them a slightly smaller amount, and they will likely not miss it. Instead, if you gave them an 8.46% raise, that would give them a new salary of 70,500 (a nice round number), and it would save you 350. If you needed more room, 70,250 or even 70,000 are still big raises from their initial 65,000, but are only minor percentage differences from your initial idea.
Robinhooding helps you give more significant raises to lower-paid employees.
The rounding trick I mentioned above is also helpful if you work against budget constraints, but you want to give more significant raises to those on the lower end of the salary spectrum. A small percentage change for a well-paid person can be a very substantial percentage change for someone who is less well-paid. I call shifting small percentages from higher-paid to lower-paid employees Robinhooding.
If you are under budget, should you increase your raises?
The answer to this question will depend on your organizational culture and norms. If this is your first time making salary recommendations, you might ask your manager for guidance. If all your peers come in over budget, and you are under, you may either look fiscally responsible, overly critical, or like an obvious place to find more funding for your peers’ excesses. You don’t want your team to suffer for other managers’ inability to meet a budget.
If you are significantly under budget, you may want to reexamine your recommendations, as this would indicate a seriously underperforming team.
Once you are happy with your overall recommendations from an individual and budget perspective, take one last look at them before submitting them to your manager.
Are your recommendations saying something you do not intend? For example, is there one group getting the majority of the large or small raises? Look for your own unconscious biases appearing in the numbers. Once you are fully satisfied that your recommendations indicate the performance of the individuals on your team, submit them to your HR representative or manager for the next phase of the process.
What happens next?
Your manager may want to review your recommendations with you, or with you and your peers together. Your manager must ensure that each report uses consistent guidelines for their recommendations. They may do this independently or may pull all their manager reports together for a more extensive session (at a previous company, we called this the “Battle Royale” ).
Come prepared when it is time to review your recommendations with your manager or peers. Preparation should not be problematic if you have followed the recommendations from the previousarticles. The more concrete examples you can provide to justify your proposals, the better.
Your manager will incorporate the input from you and your peers into a larger version of your spreadsheet. They may need to modify some of your numbers to make their numbers work. Your manager will then do a similar review with their peers, and it will go up the levels of the organization, potentially to the senior leadership team. The more information you give your manager, the easier it will be for them to preserve and defend your recommendations. The information you provide them will also give their manager more information.
Once there is agreement on the salary changes for the organization, the finance team updates the numbers in the payroll system. You then receive the final numbers to pass on to your employees.
I discuss the salary and performance review conversations in the following article.
This article is the second in a four-part series on writing performance reviews. In the previous article, I wrote about preparing data for the assessment. In this article, I talk about filling out the review form. The next article discusses making salary recommendations. The final post covers delivering the review.
Have everything ready before you begin writing.
Before you begin to write your review, make sure you have the role and level definition for the person’s current role and level. You should also have the description for the job at the next level. If you followed my suggestions in the previous post, you have the folder with earlier reviews, notes from 1:1s and project meetings, the peer feedback, the person’s self-evaluation, and your notes on the work output. Your company’s performance review form and supporting process documentation are necessary as well.
Review your documentation.
If you followed my advice from the last part, you have assembled a large amount of data. You will now go through it all to evaluate the person’s performance relative to the standard. You may find it beneficial to highlight essential information in the documents as you review them or copy/paste them into a new file for easy reference.
If you can, do your review in one sitting. This process helps you build an understanding of the person’s performance. You are creating a context with as much data as possible, so keeping it in your near-term memory is beneficial. If you don’t have enough time to do this in one sitting or think you may be interrupted, take good notes that you can review after a break.
As you read over the data, you should be consciously building a narrative of the review period. Each person will have some highs and lows, but patterns of performance should emerge. After reviewing the data, you should have one or two specific messages to convey to the person about their performance. That is the goal of data accumulation and evaluation.
Start with the review form.
First, read through the review form, making sure you understand the expectation for each question. Then, if you are in doubt, use the company documentation on the process. Get clarifications from your HR partner if necessary.
Understand the role/level definitions.
Make sure you understand the person’s role expectations at the current level and the next level. The current level documentation covers the performance expectations the person should meet now. The next-level documentation is helpful for you to recognize performance beyond expectations.
Go over any previous reviews.
Read all the previous reviews the person has received at the company in chronological order. This review will help you see patterns and trends, and goals met and missed. The essential evaluations are the most recent, especially any from the last couple of years. Take extra care reading these to remind yourself of prior performance discussions (if you wrote them) and understand the current development areas.
What if you disagree with the assessments in reviews written by their previous manager?
Suppose the person is new to your team, or you are a new lead for an existing group. In that case, occasionally, you will read prior reviews and realize that the previous manager used a very different approach to performance than your own. Ideally, everyone is evaluating against the company’s career pathing rubric, but sometimes it is applied differently. In this case, you may need to prepare for some challenging conversations.
You might choose to treat this review cycle as a transitional one, giving people time to adjust to your management style. If you do that, make sure they understand how future reviews will work differently.
Read through your notes from your review of e-mail or messaging exchanges.
Scanning through your messages from the review period will help remind you of any events, successes, or challenges that you may have forgotten about during the review period.
Study the work output to understand the person’s contributions to their projects.
A reminder from the previous article: a person’s code contributions do not reflect the sum of their contributions. Senior developers may contribute less code because they are more efficient or spend time helping other people. Look at code reviews, bug notes, documentation, Architectural Decision Records, or anything else that will demonstrate contributions to the team’s projects.
You’re probably arriving at some opinions at this point.
By this point, you will have started to build the narrative, identified some possible key discussion topics, and formed opinions on the person’s performance. You likely started the process with ideas already, based on your interactions with the person over the review period. The views you bring at the start of the process aren’t necessarily incorrect. Still, they may be untrustworthy because of recency bias, affinity bias, or the person being very good at promoting their accomplishments (or taking credit for others’ work).
Now you will start to review the more subjective data. Does what you find conflict with or reinforce your existing viewpoint?
Review the peer evaluations.
Peer evaluations can be problematic. First, people can be tempted to cheat, colluding with their peers. Second, many people don’t want to criticize their co-workers. Third, they may worry about how their comments reflect on themselves. For these reasons, you will want to read between the lines when reading peer evaluations.
As you read through the peer comments, look for examples that support or challenge the narrative you have been building. If you find many things that challenge your message, you may reevaluate your opinions.
Read the self-evaluation last.
When people are evaluated based on something they produce, they naturally tend to create a narrative that accentuates their positive contributions and minimizes their negative ones. It isn’t necessarily deceptive; it is human nature. Therefore, I always read the self-evaluation last. I don’t want it to influence how I evaluate all the other data. However, the self-evaluation is still relevant because it is the person’s view of how things have gone—their side of the story.
There are a few things I always look for when reading this document: Are there good explanations for some challenges they had during the review period? How aware are they of their challenges and strengths? Are there any comments that might be relevant for the reviews of others on the team? Where are they interested in growing? Finally, is there anything that you can do to support them better in the following review period?
Now, write the review!
Having reviewed all the data, you are now ready to write the review. You have one or two messages for your narrative as well as the data to support it.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when writing a review is trying not to be too negative or too positive. Particularly problematic is using the “compliment sandwich” or vague language to avoid a challenging conversation when delivering the evaluation. Another mistake is creating a “balanced” review by overemphasizing small challenges or successes to offset a too positive or negative narrative.
When someone reads your review, they want to know if they are doing well or not doing well. If the person doesn’t know after reading the evaluation, it is not helpful to them. In addition, they should have a clear connection between their review and their salary adjustment.
They can’t all be extraordinary.
Often, I see inexperienced or poorly trained managers produce reviews for their teams that are uniformly good. “Everyone on the team is doing great!” they say. However, even on the highest performing teams, some members will contribute more than others during a review period.
Universally positive reviews are a signal that a manager is either not promoting team members (so they are all overperforming relative to their level), not paying attention (they are missing things), not challenging the individuals on the team, or setting their expectations too low. Exclusively positive reviews are a signal about the quality of the manager more than the quality of the team.
Yes, you can have a great team where everyone is contributing well. However, each person still has strengths and weaknesses compared to the role/level rubric. You need to understand that you aren’t doing your duty to your team or the company if you don’t evaluate people objectively.
Suppose you want to emphasize that the individuals on your team are outperforming individuals on other teams (often crucial if your organization “stack ranks”). Make that point in the accomplishments noted from each team member. Rating your team universally high just looks like you are trying to game the system.
They don’t all suck.
Something I see less often is a manager rating their team uniformly poorly, usually when a new manager joins an existing group. When I see this, I wonder if the manager is trying to make a statement about the team they inherited, if they are setting the initial base level low so they can show improvement, or if they are setting their bar way too high. As with overly positive reviews, this behavior is often more indicative of issues with the manager than the team.
If you find yourself compelled to give poor ratings to the entire team, challenge yourself to defend your ratings by comparing each person’s accomplishments against the rubric. Are you being too harsh in your judgment or can you justify each of the ratings? Use a “five whys” exercise for each person’s rating. Do find unique causes for each person’s poor performance, or does it all come back to you?
Use the data you collected and analyzed in your review.
As you fill out the form, answer each question to support your message for the recipient. Answer each question with a statement, then provide data that supports your answer.
Avoid phrases that ascribe intent to the person’s actions. Instead, speak to what they did and the measurable effect it had. Do not use expressions like “I think” or “it seems.” These phrases show a subjective interpretation. You want to ground your assessment in facts. Being fact-based avoids any disputes about the review if the person does not like the result.
Provide a plan to help underperformers.
Identifying areas of growth for someone is helpful for them. However, if you are being straightforward, a review for someone underperforming can be demotivating. Rather than finding positive things to balance the assessment at the risk of making it less forthright, you should focus on how you will help the person address their performance issues. If the performance is so poor that the person will put on a performance improvement plan, be specific on what they need to change to move off of the PIP.
Provide next steps for growth for the people performing well.
What are the next steps for those on your team who are overperforming against their role/level? What opportunities can you identify for them? What new responsibilities? Are they on a path for promotion? Where should they focus on continuing their growth?
People who are doing well aren’t usually satisfied with being recognized for their work (although it is imperative to acknowledge their work). They want to know what is next for them. They want more responsibility, more challenge. They want to expand their skills. How will you help them do that in the next review period? They will want to know.
There is nothing wrong with just doing the job.
Most of your team will not be underperforming or overperforming. They will be doing their jobs well. The work that these folks do is essential. They are how the team’s work gets done. Recognize their strengths and weaknesses and tell them how you will support both.
Some are happy to continue to deliver solid performance, and unless your company has an up-or-out culture, this is fine. People will have natural ebbs and flows in their careers.
If the person is ambitious, focus on opportunities for their growth and be clear on what overperforming requires. The company’s career pathing rubric is a reference to show them what is needed.
When you have written all the performance reviews, reread them.
Once you have completed all the performance appraisals, go back and review them. Look for patterns in your assessments. Look for potential unconscious bias. Try to read them as your manager or some future manager of the person would. Are you providing enough information to justify your statements? As this process can take a long time, does it seem that you put less effort into later reviews when you got tired?
Before submitting them to your review system, make sure that you are happy with them individually and as a group. If you have time, you may want to wait a few days after writing the last review before you reread them to give yourself some space.
If your review process includes a grade, ranking, or nine-box classification, ensure that your performance reviews support where you put each person. Also, look to see what the distribution of rankings or grades makes sense. For example, are your recommendations so clustered that it doesn’t seem that you are using good judgment? Does your review justify your choices?
Now that you have written your reviews, be ready with your raise recommendations.
In some companies, salary change recommendations are part of the performance review writing process. It runs as a separate process in other companies (usually near the performance review process on the calendar). Line managers do not have direct input into compensation changes at some companies.
However compensation changes work in your company, it is good to understand how to make compensation decisions/recommendations for your team. That is the subject of the next article in the series.
It’s December, and that can mean only one thing. For many of us, it is now—or soon will be—time to write performance reviews for our team. Writing reviews can be daunting for many, especially those with large groups or little experience. There are some things you can do that will make the process less onerous, no matter what format or schedule your company has.
It’s December, and that can mean only one thing. For many of us, it is now—or soon will be—time to write performance reviews for our team. Writing reviews can be daunting for many, especially those with large groups or little experience. I often hear managers (even senior leaders) bemoaning the effort it takes to write the reviews for their group members. However, there are some things you can do that will make the process less onerous, no matter what format or schedule your company has.
The rationale we used to hear for performance reviews is that they are for the employee to know how they are doing, to give them helpful feedback on what they are doing well and where they need to improve. Today we try to provide this feedback often, throughout the year. I often tell the managers on my teams that there shouldn’t be any surprises in the performance review. It should instead be a summing up of the feedback that the person has been receiving all along.
If we give feedback throughout the review period, why do we need to do the performance review? It is for the company and us almost as much as it is for the person receiving it. Ideally, we maintain a narrative across the year with our feedback, reviewing months of our notes and prior communication before each one-on-one. All too often, the larger arc gets lost in the whirlwind of work. The feedback we give is usually very transactional about what has just occurred. If there are significant overarching discussions, we may be able to tie the feedback to that, but often the narrative gets lost.
The review is a chance to look across all that has transpired over a much lengthier period than the time between one-on-ones. It is a chance for us to take stock and find new patterns or trends that we may have missed. To look at the bigger picture and then build a shared understanding of that picture with the team member.
The review is also for the company because the company keeps a record of employee performance to justify bonuses, promotions, salary increases, and stock offerings. It is also vital to have a history of performance for a new manager if you move on from your role. Sometimes you will move to a new job, or the employee will move to a new team. When that happens, all the shared understanding you have built up is lost unless it’s written down. An employee who has been working years towards a new role may be set back significantly if their new manager doesn’t understand the efforts they have made over time and is looking only at what they see in the present moment.
A well-written review is a valuable document for the person receiving it. First, it is a checkpoint for them to refer to as they work towards their career goals. Second, it is a useful document for you to help them on their career path. Third, it is a favor to their future managers at your company. Finally, it is a critical document for the company and your manager to understand how to manage compensation for the person.
Preparing for the performance review. Start early!
Often writing reviews seems like a great deal of work because we wait until our company’s official “kick-off” of the review period. The people/HR team lets all the managers know the schedule, does a few meetings to discuss/update the process, and opens the forms for managers to enter data. If you wait for that moment to begin preparing your reviews, you may find yourself spending a lot of nights and weekends trying to get your evaluations prepared, since your regular work continues during this time. In the past, I’ve spent more than a few sad weekend days sitting in a ski lodge huddled over my laptop, writing reviews while my family was out on the slopes having fun.
Reviews happen at the same time every year.
Your company may adjust the dates slightly, but you can be confident that reviews will happen around the same time each year. When the dates are announced, you should be prepared. If you are incredibly diligent, you may be collecting and organizing data for your reviews year-round. If you haven’t done that, you can start reviewing, amassing, and organizing supporting data as review time approaches so that you don’t have to struggle and potentially miss things. While the format of the reviews in your company may change periodically, the general things that are measured likely won’t.
There are many sources of data you can assemble for the review.
As I start my preparation, I create a folder on my computer for the review period and a subfolder for each person. In each folder, I assemble all the documents and data for the performance assessment. I prefer to keep local copies because it is less likely that I will accidentally share the folder or file. To focus, I often go offsite to work on reviews, and sometimes these places have sketchy connectivity. Having the documents stored on my computer has functioned well for my process.
My primary data always comes from the notes I take during my one-on-ones and in meetings.
I used to store all my notes in Evernote organized by meeting (for recurring meetings) and tagged with the people in the discussion. This storage approach made it easy to find all my notes for each person to track what we spoke about across the review period. However, during the pandemic, I switched to paper notebooks. Now I keep an index of which pages people appear on. This index makes it easy to find all my notes referencing someone.
As I review my meeting notes, I assemble meaningful comments or things I notice into a new document in the person’s folder to organize my data for the review. I include where I got it from for each item in case I need to go back to the source.
The person’s prior reviews are essential.
I always download copies of any previous reviews for the person in the system and put them in the folder. It is vital to remember our prior review conversations and see any reviews before they reported to me. Reading previous reviews helps me understand the different challenges and strengths they have had and understand their career story at the company so far.
E-mail and slack exchanges may remind you of other events from the year.
Occasionally, things come up and are resolved between one-on-ones or meetings, so they don’t appear in your notes. I scan over the e-mail and Slack exchanges I have had with the person during the review period to see if I missed an event in reviewing my meeting notes.
I copy/paste these exchanges into the notes document in the person’s review folder, or summarize them there.
Make a list of peers of the person from whom you want to request feedback.
Your company may include a formal peer-review element in your performance reviews process. However, if it isn’t part of the company process, you will still find it valuable to ask for peer review feedback. The first step is to list the people you would like to ask for feedback, so you are ready. You may also write the template for the peer feedback request to prepare you to send them out.
I’ve noticed that in companies with a formal peer feedback process as part of their reviews, people quickly become inundated with feedback requests. Your chance of getting valuable (or any) feedback is greatly improved if you send the request early, before people have feedback fatigue.
If you know that peer feedback will not be part of your company’s process, you may still want to send out the feedback requests early to get the responses with enough time to follow up if there are questions. However, make sure that you specify a date by which you would like the feedback returned, and don’t make that date too far in the future, or people will put the request aside and forget about it.
The message template goes into the top-level performance reviews folder, and the list goes into the person’s folder. If you want to be tricky, you can put the list in a CSV file to make it easier for a mail merge. You may generate a lot of e-mail performance feedback requests as part of this process. I’ve automated this over the years.
When you receive the feedback, save a copy of it to the folder.
You may need to ask for a self-evaluation.
If your company does not include self-evaluation as part of the review process, you may ask the people you review to do that for you. If you are unsure what to ask, use your company’s career pathing rubric for their job/level. Ask them to compare themselves to the rubric and give examples of how they have met, exceeded, or missed the expectations. If you use individual goals or OKRs, they should talk about how they achieved or missed them. They should also talk about the areas they want to improve on for the coming review period.
You want them to complete their self-review early enough that you have time to follow up with them or others on anything that comes up in that document. Your company will set the dates for you if it includes self-review as part of the review process.
Save the self-evaluation to the person’s folder.
Review the work output.
A critical part of the performance review is reviewing the actual value the person created for the customers and company. A portion of your performance review as a lead or manager covers what your team achieved. Think through your teams’ accomplishments and think about how this person contributed to or detracted from those projects. Add concrete examples to the notes document.
Look over the person’s commits to the code of the project. Did they review others’ code? Did they contribute helpful comments? Did their code require many fixes? Did they contribute to the project documentation? Look over their comments in your project and bug tracking systems. Did they contribute helpful information? Did they help others?
It can be very tempting to try to be “objective” when looking at work output. Counting lines of code produced, number of commits, number of issues filed or closed, or story points completed might seem like unbiased data. Avoid this temptation at all costs. People have different approaches to knowledge work. Even if your team has strong guidelines on how work should be done, people will always have methods that your seemingly objective process might miss. Instead, focus on the value they contribute to the team and watch in the peer feedback for what they contribute that won’t show up in the source management or issue tracking systems.
Save your observations on their work output in your notes document.
What if the person didn’t report to me for the entire review period?
If the person is a new hire and is still eligible for a performance review, you will use this process, but just for their time in the company. You will have to make allowances for their onboarding and focus more on how they learn to contribute than on their actual contributions.
If you are a new manager to an existing team, spend as much time as you can with the prior manager to understand how they have approached each person’s development. Read the reviews for each person before talking to the manager. If the manager has left the company, you can still reach out to them. Hopefully, they will still want the best for their old team. Depending on how long you were in the team during the review period, you may need to emphasize the peer review component more than you would have otherwise. Be aware that changing a team’s manager is very disruptive to the team. You will only have seen the results of that disruption and how the team now works.
If the person joined the team from a different group in the company, consider doing a joint review with their prior manager to cover their work before joining your team. If that doesn’t seem necessary, you should still have an extended conversation with their former manager after going over the person’s previous reviews.
This process seems like a lot of work!
It is! It should be. It is important stuff. Think about the best reviews you have received from your current or former managers. Not just the performance reviews that were the most positive, but the ones that made you feel like your manager cared about your development. A good review inspires you with the knowledge that your manager and the company recognize the worthy work you’ve done. You know that your areas of improvement have been considered and are essential for your career development.
A good review requires good data. Therefore, it is incumbent on you to make sure you are going over as much as you can, not just what you can remember at the end of the review period (also known as recency bias).
The first time you go through this process, it will take a great deal of effort, but the payoff will be worth it. For the next period, you will learn to collect and organize this data as you go. If you assemble and categorize data all the time, it will be helpful in your one-to-ones as well and not just at performance review time.
Now you have the data. What next?
Now that you have assembled your data, you can evaluate the data against the expectations of the role and level. I will discuss that in the next part of this four-part series.