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When I was a junior developer I got several negative performance reviews. The memory is so vivid that even almost 20 years later I can still remember those reviews. They just ruined my days and made me hate my job.

So when I became a manager and do performance review regularly with my team members I always tried to avoid the mistakes my managers did to me. The first rule is no big surprise, which is I didn't tell my guys that they need to improve for the past 6 months then all of sudden, in the performance meeting I said you did a poor job in the past and I was disappointed. And if I do need to give a bad review I will try to use a concrete example.

The second rule is set up a goal and follow-up.

But of course is always easier said than done, especially in a start-up company. I have worked for big companies and start-up companies and I realize that in start-up companies doing performance review is a tricky issue. To quote from this answer

Purpose of Performance Review

most managers - especially in a small to medium sized business - simply don't have the time. A lot of these companies don't have a good process in place for this sort of thing to take place

...

They are not interested in your advancement

In start-up companies I feel it is especially true that management is not that interested in your advancement. They are more interested in if the company can survive or when can the company get a fund-raise. The employee may not be interested in performance review either, especially for senior developers. They are probably more interested in sharpening their skills to be more competitive in the job market.

So as a middle management I find myself in an awkward position, especially when I need to give a bad review.

How do I deliver a negative performance review in a constructive way, and in particular, do it in a start-up company ?

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  • If your manager doesn't care about performance reviews, why are you doing them in the first place? – nicola Aug 7 '20 at 5:26
  • I don't get it - no one is stopping you from following your good practices, right? You may not get appreciated for what you want to do (i.e., follow a proper process for review), but still you can do it (if you can manage your time and work). What's the question here? – Sourav Ghosh Aug 7 '20 at 5:35
  • @SouravGhosh first, give a bad review is always hard. So my question is how to do it in a constructive way. I have my ways and I would like to heard other suggestion. Second, do it a start-up company is even harder I would like to see if others have any say about this. – Qiulang Aug 7 '20 at 5:52
  • May I ask what specific challenge you face now (startup vs bigcorp)? – Sourav Ghosh Aug 7 '20 at 5:58
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    The most demoralizing thing that ever happened to me at work was when I was told that I was working my hardest on the wrong things all year and my manager shouldn't have to tell me that my priorities were wrong because "if you were working at an acceptable level you would just know what I want from you". I almost quit then and there. – Meg Aug 7 '20 at 19:01
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This is my personal opinion having been on both sides of performance reviews. I don't know your workplace's culture or your employees but this is generally what I find leads to better results. I appreciate it might be difficult in a start-up; there is always the temptation to be ruthless and cull people, but IMO if you do this you'll end up burning through numerous different employees, having no cohesion as a company, and generally losing time due to constantly re-training new hires. Just remember, you want these guys to succeed, not fail. If you make that clear to them they should be motivated and cooperative.

With that in mind:

Emphasise that it's ok to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them.

Everyone makes mistakes, even highly experienced people. It's nothing to be ashamed of; it's how we learn. You can never expect anyone to do everything perfectly all the time - and that's not just a wishy-washy feel-good statement, it's true. Even machines make mistakes. Of course a junior is going to screw up, that doesn't mean they're a bad employee, just that they need to learn.

To give an analogy, you wouldn't expect someone who's had a couple of driving lessons to immediately be able to drive like a pro, because that's insane. Like anything, driving is something you practice and get better at by learning and making mistakes with a supervisor who can assist you. This is so that, eventually, when it matters, you don't make those mistakes anymore.

Don't turn it into a personal attack.

Making mistakes or performing poorly in our jobs doesn't make us idiots. If you humiliate and belittle people, shred them to pieces in front of their team etc., they're quickly going to resent you and want to leave the company, and will be churning out the bare minimum in the meantime. But if you give them support and encouragement, they'll want to stick around and improve themselves.

Be honest, firm and give constructive feedback.

Just be upfront; tell them their performance isn't where you expect it to be - but don't leave it at that and shoo them away leaving them confused and with little confidence. See if you can work through it with them; maybe they'd be better suited to working on different tasks, or maybe there's some other reason they're struggling - it could even be something personal they're bottling up.

"Give constructive feedback" is a bit vague I know, but using examples and suggesting how you might tackle these problems may be a good start.

You do need to make it clear that improvement is needed. But just remember that you're all on the same side - you want them to succeed, so you're doing this for their own benefit.

Highlight any positive areas as well as negative ones.

Ajahn Brahm tells a story of the two bad bricks - basically, try to avoid tunnel vision on negative things, because that can't be all there is to the situation. You don't want to miss the good things that could and should have been nurtured. Surely there must be something your team has done well and could be encouraged for. I'm not saying hand out participation prizes or anything, just to remember to look for good things as well as bad. It reminds your employees that you're not just looking for flaws to criticise them with, but that you're paying attention to all aspects of their performance, good and bad, because you care about their development and you want to see them succeed, even if it means giving negative feedback sometimes.

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In start-up companies I feel it is especially true that management is not that interested in your advancement. They are more interested in if the company can survive or when can the company get a fund-raise.

While many manager (even not in startups) may think that not caring about your employee's advancement (i.e. work the employees hard, burn them out, hire new ones and start the cycle again) is the key to the company's survival, this isn't true. In my company, we always say take care of the people and the rest will take care of itself. Happy employees are more productive, stay longer and come up with better ideas for their company. It's really difficult to retain good talent that has experience in the work that you do.

So how do I deliver a negative performance review in a constructive way, and in particular, do it in a start-up company ?

Having worked in both startups and enormous companies as a manager and an individual contributor, I don't really understand the difference you're mentioning between delivering a negative performance review in a startup and a big company. Your management style is your management style, in my opinion, and not something I would easily compromise on. Ultimately, as a manager you have to weigh the needs of the business and the needs of the individual, but they don't have to be competing goals.

The first rule is no big surprise.

I agree with you that your direct reports should know how well (or badly) they are doing at any given time. This means giving both positive and constructive feedback all the way up to the performance review. It should not be a surprise to the senior employee that they are receiving a bad review. You should discuss this negative review and what they need to do to get back on track.

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    I have constantly experienced this "work the employees hard, burn them out, hire new ones and start the cycle again" :( – Qiulang Aug 7 '20 at 6:17
  • Big company does performance review in a more formal way, with more processes and that at least shows to the employee that the company cares about your advance (of course your direct manager may be a different story). I don't know about us but in China, staying in big company also suggests you have a plan to stay with them for a relative long time compared to staying at a start-up, that will also make you taking performance review more seriously. – Qiulang Aug 7 '20 at 6:24
  • I would disagree with Your management style is your management style. As a leader, I am constantly self-evaluating and adjusting my management style to fit the needs of the situation or the individual. I can always improve, and saying to myself "That's just my management style" is never ok to me. It's possible I'm misreading the intention of this sentence because that doesn't fit the tone of most of your answer. – Joel Etherton Aug 7 '20 at 12:49
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    The reality of a startup is that most of them have limited funding (and therefore time) to start making money, else they go out of business and everyone loses their jobs. In a startup, everything has to be laser focused on reaching that point where the company will survive; it literally can't afford to "look after the staff and hope things work out". Anyone working at a startup has to understand that their long-term career goals are secondary to the company surviving past the start-up phase. This is startup culture. The trade-off is, if the company survives, early employees can make big bucks. – BittermanAndy Aug 8 '20 at 17:33
  • @BittermanAndy So? Performance reviews can well be about what you need to do differently to bring the company better forward. So they can be very relevant. Same for looking after people. Most startup phases last longer than a few months, and if you push people too long there is a risk they burn out. If one of your three and only top performers leaves that's a much bigger blow to a startup than to a big company. I'd argue, especially in startups you need to look after people. Many startups are quite like family - hard working family, but still. The methods are different though. – Frank Hopkins Aug 8 '20 at 23:48
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TLDR: I didn't know I was going to need a TLDR when I started. Using coaching early and as often as possible. Use it for praise and correction. Make feedback about problems not people. Set expectations and visit them often. Seek and accept feedback from them just as much. If feedback is regular, then it'll never be a surprise.

Coaching and feedback need to be given regular and often. They come in the forms of corrective suggestions, praise, instructions and thanks. You need to know when to use which, and how you use them will eliminate any potential surprises or offense.

Coaching is for minor things. Most things are minor. Coaching comes generally in the form of questions, and sometimes in the form of a direct statement. When a mistake has happened, ask your direct questions about it. Don't be an interrogator. Do an examination of the process. "We achieved result {X} in this last sprint, and it fell short of our goal {Y}. What do you think led to that?" Don't directly make it about them unless they simply aren't getting to the thought space you need them to be in or refuse to accept responsibility for things.

Coaching is most effective when they arrive at the conclusion on their own. This self-genesis prevents any of it from being offensive because they can only be offended by themselves. Use nudging statements to get to the goal, and as they reach it, reinforce it by affirmatively acknowledging the conclusion and move directly to solutions. Try to keep the whole exercise about process, tools and circumstance. Don't let them (and don't let yourself) make the problem about people. You're dealing with a problem, and that problem shouldn't be about the person or anyone in they interact with. As someone once told me, separate the problem from the people.

Feedback is for the big stuff. Make sure it's actually big stuff. Feedback generally comes in the form of statements and instructions. Personally I like to inform my folks that I have some feedback for them and then ask them if they're in an ok place to receive it. I do this exact same behavior when I have praise to give them so they don't associate this question with "Oh crap, I've screwed up and now I'm in trouble."

I still try to make it about questions and process as much as possible, and sometimes that just isn't going to cut it. Sometimes the feedback really needs to be "You aren't cutting the mustard, and I need you to be better."

The biggest obstacle to directs receiving feedback is blame. There are two ways I get away from this. The first is to accept the blame onto myself. This is especially useful if they're trying to blame a co-worker or someone in another department. You can immediately say "That's feedback I can take, and I'll see what I can do about it." Then switch the focus immediately back to the things that can be changed. Tell them very specifically that those are things that they can't control, so let's focus on the things that can be controlled - their actions, behaviors and responses.

Expectations are hard because you don't really expect what you say you expect. I know. That sounds absurd, and it really is how things operate. Often we'll tell a direct something like "I expect you to have those reports done by 4pm." The expectation we're actually communicating to them is that we expect their reports to be late. Only someone who is late with their reports needs to be told to have them by 4pm. If instead we were to say "When you finish your reports at 4, please send me a notification that you're done", we send a different message because there isn't a world where their reports aren't done by 4. So be very careful in how you frame your expectations. What expectations are you actually communicating? People will rise to the level of your expectations generally so make them high and communicate them effectively.

Feedback needs to be very regular, and it needs to go both ways. I like to make my one-on-one sessions with my directs weekly. Not a lot of managers have the freedom to do this. Make them as often as you can without disrupting the work or the goals. Make this sessions their time as much as you possibly can. If they want to talk about the skiing coming up this weekend, so be it. Make their time a "safe space". That means (to me) they can say to you whatever is on their mind in any frame or context that they want. I even initiate all my new directs with this phrase: "This time is your time, and I need your complete unbridled honesty. If you're mad at me and need to tell me I'm being a douchebag, then say that exact thing to me." Don't restrict their speech or their feelings in these sessions. If you have feedback to give, make it plain. If they have feedback to give to you, accept it without rebuttal. Remember, their feedback will largely come from an emotional space so if you want them to accept your feedback you need to accept theirs (right or wrong). If the feedback you have has the potential to be especially harsh, say it. If you allow them to be completely honest, they will accept the same exact thing from you.

If someone says don't make it personal, they're a fool. It's always personal. To you it's business, to them you're telling them how much they suck. Try to make it about results. Try to make it about improvement of processes, techniques and behaviors. Don't make it about the past, make it about the growth moving forward. Make it a team effort between the two of you. "How can I help you achieve that?", "What things can I get out of your way?". Focus on "we" not "you". Their failures are your failures, so own every inch of them with them.

How can they be better if you aren't better? Always finish your sessions with some version of "How can I be better for you?" If you set the example of always self-improving through feedback, they will be more likely to give you constructive feedback. They will also be more willing to accept your feedback. "My boss knows she's not perfect, so it's ok that I'm not. She's trying to get better at what she does, so I should too." These sound like absurd statements to make out loud, and they still pass through our brains at light speed. We emulate the behavior we see in our managers most of the time. So if you want them to parse and accept feedback, seek it out for yourself. Most of the time they won't have anything, and when they do have something take it. Make it your own. Show progress on it, and report back to them with it. Be the example of what you want them to be.

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  • It is indeed a long answer! Thanks!! Something I will add is that you probably can never become friend with your direct because you are the boss. Just like Ernest Shackleton (my role model). He was the BOSS maybe only be friend with frank wild. But he saved the team so his guys respected him. – Qiulang Aug 8 '20 at 15:44
  • @qiulang: it's not impossible to be friends with directs. It is dangerous though. You need to keep boundaries firmly established. You need to decide up front which is more important to you: the job or the friendship. That needs to be fully understood going in. I still agree with you it's genealogy best to keep the relationship professional. – Joel Etherton Aug 8 '20 at 16:31
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The memory is so vivid that even after almost 20 years later I can still remember those reviews. They just ruined my days and made me hate my job.

Same thing happened to me but a lot lesser time. Aside from the whole surprise factor of being told you're mediocre even though they used you and made you get involved with their product, I feel the one that really got me were the one liners to describe my job with no clear objective past that. Even more humiliating is they tell you to write your own review, then they look down the list and tell you that's incorrect or how they don't want it included. It really made me dislike my job.

My boss told me something to the effect that I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. When asked to explain, he gave no real answer other than even more vague reference to something seemingly minor at the time.

My thought is you should tell your employee exactly what it is you expect and what it is they don't do. However, aside from that I feel like you should tell them what they did do good and what you liked rather than being a totally negative review.

Personally I think grading or just general scoring can be upsetting. I say try to avoid one liners or using vague description. If you can't explain it in a way to improve them, then don't use it.

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As an employee in a start-up company, I have received a couple of negative feedback. I feel the middle management is not experienced, and supervisors are learning on the job and make many mistakes. Personally, the issue I found is not the negative feedback in itself, but the lack of focus on the positive completely. For example, if I do a task well in the most part, and did few mistakes, I receive a feedback only on the mistakes I made, and nothing said about the things I did right and even very well. This makes me feel not appreciated and valued. Of course I make mistakes. Who doesn't? Everyone knows they make mistakes. Also the language used to deliver the message is very important when stating the negative in a positive context. For example, "you did great, but found some mistakes that need to be addressed" vs "I found some mistakes in your work, and you need to go back and fix them right now"!

EDIT: I am realizing this may not include mush positive to talk about. In this case, try to present mistakes and whatever negatives as learning opportunities to grow and improve and you are pointing them out to them only to bring their attention to and avoid them in the future, and there is always room for improvement, instead of threading them and focus on the message they are bad performers, and others are better than them as some managers do.

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