It’s that time again: annual performance check-ins, calibrations, and evaluations.
It is a time for celebrations and exciting frontiers for you, your peers, and your reports. But this is not the overriding feeling we get when this time comes by. We drag our feet, a heaviness sets in – a trepidation of things to come. We wait until the Friday 5pm deadline to hit ‘Submit’ and then heave a sigh of relief!
But why are performance evaluations so exhausting instead of being energizing and motivating? Why do they trigger our amygdala or fight-or-flight response? And, why, in spite of spending hours of time writing, reviewing, calibrating, and communicating performance feedback, do we still walk away disappointed and dissatisfied?
I don’t believe engineers lack motivation, I believe it is the systems that fail to create an environment for engineers to make magic. So, instead of looking at engineering performance as an individual problem, I’ve found it useful to apply the systems-thinking lens to identify the set of interconnected elements, their relationships, and their function or purpose.
We need to take a look at the wider picture to overcome this individual problem and see that performance reviews involve systems of systems: from yourself, to the team, to the team of teams (the organization), and broadly, the business. And within these, there are various factors, including the expectations of the broader organization and the career path frameworks you have in place. Simply put, it’s impossible for performance reviews to solely be based on the individual; they need to include the wider context of the team and the org, to be fair, consistent, and accurate evaluations.
So how would you, as an engineering leader, navigate these systems, build the context, and evaluate impact? Be it your own, your peers’ or your team’s.
This is the first of a two-part series; in this article, I will be describing the performance cycle, its importance, and I'll be detailing its first phase – writing impactful self-evaluations and giving effective peer (or 360) feedback.
Let’s assume that there exists a well-defined career path framework, in line with the organization’s culture, values, and mission. This yardstick or rubric can take different forms: a ladder with levels (Rent the Runway, Patreon, CircleCI), or a career framework (Buffer). Each highlights a set of traits and expectations, along with a progression along certain criteria to articulate increasing scope, influence, and impact. This progression typically translates into a promotion or uplevel.
People are intrinsically motivated to excel when presented with a good mix of competence, autonomy, and purpose in their role. We’ll assume that the vision for your team and its mission are well established, so the north star – the purpose – is mostly solved for. How do we then become competent while also being autonomous, and how does navigating a performance review fit into that?
A formal performance cycle typically involves the following three distinct phases (the completion of each triggering the next):
- Self-evaluation and peer (360) feedback;
- Manager evaluation and calibration within a team of teams. At this stage, for every employee, there is a decision made about:
- A performance designation: different companies implement these in their own ways. For example, a weighted 3-3-3 (9 point scale) across certain dimensions, or a 1-5 rating (5 = Greatly exceeds expectations, 4 = Exceeds expectations, 3 = Successfully meets, 2 = Partially meets, 1 = Does not meet), or;
- A promotion.
- Feedback communication.
A formal performance cycle: what to remember
Language matters. Try to avoid superlatives, hyperbole, or unnecessary adjectives to describe performance. They tend to take the focus away from quantitative or qualitative impact. Instead, use objective statements with supporting data and metrics. For example, instead of saying an individual is ‘a fantastic mentor’, say that ‘they helped onboard three new hires, enabling them to be effective two weeks ahead of schedule’. As you can see, the latter leaves much less room for subjective interpretation than the former.
Be aware of and mitigate biases. As humans, our brains are wired to take shortcuts in decision-making. We often exhibit tendencies favoring recent information, commonalities, and likeness; we can also be influenced by the media or our own upbringing. These unconscious biases rooted in stereotyping (e.g. based on age, gender, or race) can lead to unfair and inequitable outcomes. As a leader, you should be focusing on working with your peers and manager to recognize bias; treating individuals fairly, equitably, and objectively with fact-based information. This will translate to better individual and business outcomes in the long-term. I love our HR team at Stripe, where during every calibration, they explicitly list common biases and add a reminder to call each other out if we happen to witness any.
Be empathetic and kind; focus on creating a warm and inclusive process. If giving feedback, please see if your teammate has listed pronouns and then use those pronouns.
The first step of the performance review begins with a self-evaluation. This is a summary of your work over the period under review. It involves writing about your accomplishments and impact, highlighting strengths, and reflecting on areas of improvement.
I recently volunteered to offer FaaS (Feedback-as-a-Service); a 30-minute slot for individuals to share their self-evaluations, which I would review and provide feedback on. For each of the 17 sign-ups I received, I ended up spending 2+ hours over multiple sessions, working with individuals to hone their content, their format, and most importantly, how each conveyed their impact. Of those who were nominated for a promotion, 86% received it, including a Research Bio-Scientist from a non-engineering domain!
Setting the stage for self-evaluation
Firstly you’ll need to understand and evaluate where you are in your career and what you’d like the upcoming half/year to be about. For example, maybe you’d like to lead a small-medium sized project from idea through to execution, or you’d like to dig into design and architecture for some systems. Set aside time (on a monthly cadence) to evaluate your goals, your career plan, and your deliverables in line with your level and role.
Next, seek out time with your manager to align yourself with their expectations of your role. For senior individual contributors and engineering managers, seek this alignment with your skip level (manager’s manager) and ensure that their expectations are in-line with your plans.
Self-evaluate yourself against your company’s engineering ladder with a lens toward demonstrating impact (focus on the ‘what was enabled’ in terms of metrics moved for the business vs. the ‘what was done’). Articulate that impact to the audience that matters in a medium that’s most convenient for their consumption – and do it timely. For example, if you completed a long-running and important migration, ask your manager to help signal boost your work to the broader org. The PIE model (Performance, Impact & Exposure) states how performance counts for 10% of your success, impact 30%, and exposure – an unbelievable 60%!
Finally, track your ongoing accomplishments and impact. I’ve found Julian Evans’ brag doc format tremendously useful for this.
Writing your self-evaluation
Focus on the narrative of your impact. What was the before and after story for the work you delivered? What got better? What problem was eliminated? Why does it matter to the business? Leverage metrics if available, both quantitative and qualitative. For example, ‘I shipped project Daytona on schedule, and this optimization reduced our infrastructure spend by 65% (or $2M).’
When discussing your strengths, anchor them around what traits and core competencies you are proud of having demonstrated in achieving the above impact – especially if faced with adversity. Reference your ladder or career framework for the set of competencies the organization expects at your level. For example, ‘Demonstrating critical thinking and rigor through careful rollout of a new service, causing zero customer downtime for 20K users.’
When discussing areas of development: embrace them! Look inward – really! This isn’t one of those weakness-as-a-strength trick interview questions. Focusing on this section will help assess the gaps against the role you want for your future self. It will help you navigate your career with intent vs. happenstance. Ask yourself: ‘Where do I want to go and how will I get there?’ Exhibit a growth mindset and own your career development as an ongoing cycle of planning, action, reflection, and learning.
Selecting your peer reviewers
As you go through the cycle of reflection and learning, identify who can support you and help you grow through useful feedback. These could be folks whom you directly or indirectly worked with on a recent project, the stakeholders of the work you delivered, or folks whom you look up to and admire. Select three-to-five such peer reviewers; shortlisting those who have the highest knowledge of what you delivered and how.
I also like to send a note asking folks if they have the bandwidth and the information needed to provide meaningful, actionable feedback if submitted as my peers. This is especially useful if you have a maximum of two peers and want to ensure that you will, indeed, receive useful feedback.
Evaluating your peers
Peer and 360 reviews are an excellent way to help one another develop. They help foster open, honest, and transparent communication and collaboration. They also provide an opportunity to share valuable recognition for your teammates’ contributions. When done well and effectively, they help build trust and empower teams to evolve and excel through mutual learning and respect.
Acting as a peer reviewer
If you’ve received a request to be a peer reviewer, please acknowledge whether you have enough time and context to provide meaningful, actionable feedback. If you’re a senior engineer or have a wide surface area of influence, remember that all these tend to be due around the same time, including your own self-evaluation. So plan accordingly.
When it comes to writing your review, be specific. Provide tangible examples of how their work impacted you, the team, or the business. This will help them identify what’s working well and what they should focus on – for example, ‘Jane took on a complex cross-functional project spanning four teams, and was responsible for a,b,c outcomes. With their project management, we successfully shipped all deliverables on time and received a 90% net promoter score.’
Be unfailingly kind – but this is not to be mistaken with nice. Trust that the recipient is looking to grow and give them the chance to receive your gift of feedback. Additionally, focus on changing patterns and not outcomes; avoid calling one-offs unless those were either egregious or detrimental to future growth.
Finally, put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself how you’d receive the feedback, and whether it provides enough specific content and context to take meaningful action. If you’re unsure how to phrase your feedback, follow the SBI (Situation Behaviour Impact) framework – it can help untangle the facts from the thoughts and emotions.
Performance cycles can either be stress-boosters or fertile environments to exhibit, nurture, and embrace growth. It depends a lot on how we set the stage for it over the course of the half or the year. And it starts with how we evaluate ourselves and our peers.
While navigating your own career and evaluating yourself:
- Achieve clarity by sowing the right seeds. What impact do you want to achieve? How do you want to grow?
- Seek alignment by setting early expectations. Get actionable feedback, mentorship, and coaching. What should you be doing more of or less of for your role and level? What’s working well and what needs to improve?
- Advocate for yourself timely and effectively. Who cares about this work? Why does it truly matter?
While evaluating your peers:
- Plan in advance. Make the time for the review.
- Be specific. Provide examples of tangible impact and concrete areas of growth where they can take meaningful action.
- Be unfailingly kind. Trust that the recipient is looking to grow and give them the opportunity to receive your gift of feedback.
When we step back, we can see that navigating performance reviews requires understanding the systems of systems: the factors and the frameworks that can help foster growth and learning. As an engineering leader, supporting yourself, your peers, and your team effectively through these provides you the highest leverage for building, empowering, and growing high-performing teams.
You now have a rulebook for navigating the performance review’s first phase: evaluating yourself and giving effective peer (or 360) feedback. In the subsequent article, we’ll cover the next two phases: evaluating your team, writing manager evaluations, leading cross-team calibrations, and finally, having the feedback conversations to help close the loop.