In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies paused performance reviews while people adjusted to a rapidly evolving set of demands at home and work. But now, performance reviews are most definitely back, as economic uncertainty could make organizations reevaluate their workforce. And while reviews have evolved from top-down, single-perspective monologues into the 360-degree collaborative process they are today, they can still be uncomfortable. That’s because peers’ feelings about their colleagues hold far-reaching implications for day-to-day work.
Peer evaluation can offer valuable, on-the-ground color; it’s as close as a manager will get to knowing what it’s like to proverbially work shoulder to shoulder with an employee. Peers are empowered to both sing high praises and flag opportunities for growth. When handled with care, peer feedback can also help inform a plan for individual and team development.
Of course, the peer element of performance reviews also calls on leaders to be mindful of pitfalls that can potentially detract from the process. Despite how important feedback is to our growth, part of what makes peer feedback tricky is that it can feel awkward. There’s plenty of uncertainty in the review process to begin with — from how the information is used to whether it will be anonymized to protect relationships — which causes our brains to respond with a certain level of threat.
Requiring peer feedback can also present a challenge to employees’ sense of fairness. People may feel uncomfortable providing feedback if they consider it a manager’s job or feel they don’t have a good line of sight into what a colleague’s job entails.
Evaluating our peers is also contextual, making it difficult to get a full picture. We can’t always know that our colleague is a little salty because she hasn’t slept since giving birth to triplets or that our co-worker may be receiving ADA accommodations that aren’t visible. And because of how our brains work, it’s easier to empathize with people more like us, leaving those with different backgrounds than their reviewers wondering if their peers can deliver fair and balanced feedback.
When done right, though, peer feedback can be a powerful way to improve workflows, spur employee growth and learning, track performance, and address issues that may impact the entire team. Consider these ideas when going about peer reviews:
- Wins in progress (WIPs): This team ritual encourages everyone to acknowledge colleagues or teams that have contributed to great work, which can activate the reward circuitry, boosting motivation and employee engagement.
- Listening circles: These are planned opportunities for people to speak up. Moderated thoughtfully, listening circles can help widen understanding of different backgrounds and experiences and improve relatedness. One caveat is that organizations need to consider how to define and develop an ongoing sense of psychological safety at work so that this type of session can be meaningful and productive.
- Team retros: Team retrospective meetings are an opportunity to look in the rearview mirror and provide feedback on projects, workflows, and events. They can help improve processes and role clarity, flag problems, and further cultivate psychological safety. In fact, meetings that encourage the building of relatedness between team members promote prosocial behavior, which can result in more helpful future peer reviews.
As the world of work continues to evolve, an important choice is at hand: We can keep using the same tools in the same ways or reimagine how they can serve our organizations better. Building a workplace culture that encourages casual, frequent, and constructive peer feedback provides a better snapshot of day-to-day work. It’s one of many ways to recast and refresh a once-dreaded process.