Separate development feedback and performance evaluation

Development feedback—intended to help team members learn and improve—needs an environment where the recipient can absorb information. This requires psychological safety: no blame, no pressure, no personal attacks, no consequences, no reason to get defensive.

Performance evaluation—informing employees how happy the company is with their output—is a high-stakes and high-stress situation that precludes learning.

While both are important, they're distinct types of communication:

Development Feedback Performance Evaluation
Goal Learning and information gain Assessment and rating
Scope Feedback on a specific action, close in time to the actual performance Feedback on performance over a longer duration
Frequency Daily-weekly: whenever reviewing a report's work output Quarterly/yearly or on-demand when performance problems arise
Level Often about details, such as: missing error handling code, a better way to do X, better wording for customer communication Higher-level, such as: progress toward yearly goals, or work output over the last weeks
Stakes Low stakes: "you are not your code" High stakes: career progress or negative consequences
Formality Informal and usually verbal More formal and usually documented in writing
Consistency Individual feedback for each team member Fairness requires consistent success criteria for all team members
Preparation Little or no preparation necessary: a casual discussion Fair evaluation requires research and preparation

It's easy to slip a performance remark into a feedback discussion, but it's a mistake. The employee will focus on the performance aspect and not on learning.

Off-hand, negative performance evaluations are especially damaging. They encourage a defensive, argumentative mindset which precludes learning. They also risk escalating into a larger performance discussion you're not prepared for.

Here are some examples of what to avoid:

  • BAD: Your code is missing error handling. You seem distracted recently.
  • BAD: Your presentation was hard to follow. This way you'll never reach your sales quota.
  • BAD: Your customer email sounded rude. I'm fairly unhappy with your work at the moment.

If general performance concerns arise during a feedback session, wrap up as usual, schedule a separate performance talk, and prepare accordingly.

An example of a better approach:

  • GOOD:
    • Feedback session: Here are some points you could improve in your project proposal: «detailed explanation».
    • Performance discussion a day later in private: I had the impression that your recent work is less polished then it used to be. Is everything alright?

Decide up-front which discussion you will have: feedback to help your reports grow or performance evaluation. Avoid mixing the two and pick the right approach and setting for each.