In all likelihood, all but the luckiest (or youngest) of us have had an employer before that was most interested in us during the job interview and the relationship steadily petered out from there. A meeting with the boss was an event to be dreaded and feedback was to be had via the salary negotiations alone (if at all). When you finally parted ways with that company, any hard feelings were much more related to the prospect of having to find a new job rather than to the notion that you’d miss your old employer.
amiconsult GmbH is running with a decidedly different approach and makes a point of knowing their employees, knowing each other, and knowing themself. Join me as I take stock of amiconsult’s feedback culture and give an introduction to Peer Feedback!
Why we do it, how we do it
Seeing how a company can get away with virtually zero explicit feedback, how do we handle this at amiconsult and what are the benefits – both for the business and staff?
While most can relate to an employee leading a more satisfied work life when the communication is good, the advantages for the employer may not be as apparent. The company benefits from regular contact points as project hold-ups or problematic shifts in the team’s working atmosphere will surface sooner. A colleague may have developed their skillset and may be more productive and engaged in a different position. Another colleague could be struggling with their current situation, realizing that they had gotten more (or different) tasks than envisioned with their last change of project. If left uncommunicated, what could have become a change for the better may turn into frustration later.
Feedback is an important part of our corporate culture, from the day we interview a potential new colleague until their last day with us.
From the moment a candidate is invited to a work trial after their job interview, we make sure to keep communication open and honest – this way, we can make sure the candidate doesn’t have mismatched expectations towards us and knows exactly what we are looking for professionally and personally. Once a candidate enters their probationary period with us, we schedule three kinds of meetings right off the bat – these will serve as the cornerstones of our bidirectional communication lanes.
All colleagues have weekly one-on-ones with an established peer who will mentor them and discuss both content and general state of mind. In turn, the mentored employees get a chance to clarify questions, provide feedback on the team atmosphere and give input on the company at large. That way, the mentors realize quickly when something is off and can follow-up with course changes and feedback. The mentored colleagues regularly have an established window of time to reflect on their well-being and their work, and the communication never stagnates. This prevents minor discontent building up to major issues that often culminate in good employees leaving frustrated, where an honest conversation in good time could have made everybody happier.
The most formal way of (bidirectional!) feedback the amiconsult employs are the semi-annual Feedback Conversations. Much more institutionalized than e.g. the one-on-ones, this conversation usually has three participants: the employee at the center of the conversation and two senior colleagues.
Before the meeting, your seniors will ask customers, partners and peers for feedback on you to gain the latest information and deliver a well-rounded perspective. Likewise, the colleague receiving the feedback will prepare themself for the conversation by noting pain points, successes and suggestions, as well as generally reflecting on themself, their performance, their relationship to the company, and anything else they wish to officially discuss or mention.
During the meeting, all participants exchange their views and input and discuss open topics. Development goals for the colleague in question to be worked towards during the next half year are formulated together. The Feedback Conversations will be summarized in a report which will be made available to all meeting participants as well as the management.
As mentioned before, the senior colleagues leading the Feedback Conversation rely on receiving quality feedback from people working with their charge, which they gather beforehand. In some cases, however, where a more direct / immediate feedback is desired, the Peer Feedback comes into play.
A particularly useful tool for collecting feedback from the team is the Peer Feedback. As the name implies, it relies on peers to provide feedback based on specific interactions and observations. While this simple statement already covers what is essential to Peer Feedback, the reality may not be just that simple – at least it wasn’t for us.
We started using Peer Feedback to create organized and plannable snapshots of a colleague’s progress and our team’s atmosphere at a given moment. By now, we usually schedule two within the first months of a new team member joining our team. In general, we encourage seasoned colleagues to request a Peer Feedback themselves, e.g. when they wish to evaluate their contribution to the team or what new challenges they may be suited for.
Right when trying to set a date for our very first Peer Feedback, it became apparent that timing is key and the crux is in the detail. Naturally, we wanted every member of our team to partake, as we were all going to be working with the new colleague and hence needed input from each one of us. We also knew we needed a comfortable chunk of time in one piece for this meeting, and from our already full schedules we had to subtract the times where team members were out of office.
Later, we also realized that for each of us to be able to fully participate as a peer giving feedback, we all had to be peers to a certain extent. But we weren’t all working with the new colleague all the time -weeks with more focus on one area would alternate with days or weeks spent on another aspect. Therefore, by the time we reached our first Peer Feedback, some colleagues had barely shared daily business for quite some time. When we planned for the second appointment, we knew to make sure that each colleague actually had a chance to gauge the current state, development and areas with room for improvement of our newest team member.
Every team is certain to face their own challenges on their way to a good Peer Feedback, but there are some aspects necessary for all.
What the team needs for a successful Peer Feedback
- A moderator who is not part of the team’s daily business and can therefore fulfill their function with neutrality. This person should be known by the feedbacking team and be well-regarded, so their presence won’t inhibit either the feedbackers or the colleague receiving the feedback.
- Enough time. This is central to foster a tranquil atmosphere, where the feedbackee can relax and open up, and the feedbackers can take their time in formulating their input. When in doubt, schedule a larger chunk of time, rather than risk inviting a feeling of time pressure.
- Clearly communicated expectations, rules, participants and preparation time. Everybody that is going to be present during the Peer Feedback should be aware of the purpose and procedure and should have ample time to collect their thoughts (and examples!) beforehand, so the meeting can progress smoothly and productively.
The art of being honest, but kind
The aim of Peer Feedback is to acquire feedback from persons who know what they are talking about and are able to provide specific examples to illustrate their statements. To provide a person with input on their behavior, their results and their strengths, as well as aspects they could reconsider. This can only be achieved if the atmosphere is friendly and supportive, and all participants are conscious of their joint goal to help somebody develop – professionally and personally. Ideally, everybody present during the conversation should be relaxed and open, without the need to cringe or be defensive.
However, giving constructive criticism is uncomfortable for almost everybody, maybe even more so than receiving it. On the other hand, it is much easier to remember moments to be criticized than moments to be praised, and receiving a whole load of constructive criticism, no matter how well formulated, transparent and tangible for the receiving person, can be daunting. That is why it is important that everybody makes a deliberate effort to keep in mind that all team members are on the same side – it is not a roasting; it is honest support. The moderator is there to keep cool when emotions run hot and to connect the contributions when the silence draws too long.
The holy trinity of feedback
During a Peer Feedback, those giving feedback should formulate their input on three main aspects: first of all the strengths, or what is already going well. Secondly, the areas that still have room for improvement and potential to grow. And finally, the team role: what makes the colleague receiving the feedback a unique asset to the team? What is the flavor they contribute to the team’s style of communication, working atmosphere and general group composition? People are often surprised by how others perceive them – and how often peers see abilities we overlook ourselves.
What I would have liked to know
Hardly any person starts out as the ideal giver of feedback, much less a team comprised of different characters, backgrounds and previous experiences. So don’t be disheartened if your team decides to try a Peer Feedback and it ends up either a chaotic mess or a collection of awkward stretches of time, mostly filled by the moderator trying to coax input from the participants. The longest journey starts with the first step.
So long as the team remains open to the experience, believes in the benefits it can have if executed by a finely tuned team, and is willing to try again, you will get better. Giving “good feedback”, as vague as that expression is, needs practice. Receiving constructive feedback graciously and taking it to heart, really thinking about it to determine your own perspective on the issue, takes effort and a willingness to know yourself. Enable each other to get better at giving and receiving feedback, and your team will be stronger for it. Even if your team members fluctuate, having a core of team members who are already veteran Peer Feedbackers will facilitate the new colleague’s learning experience.
- The colleagues asked to provide Peer Feedback aren’t actually peers in daily business – meaning they don’t interact often enough with the person that is to receive feedback, to be able to rely on first-hand experiences with them and provide specific examples to their constructive criticism
- The expectations for / purpose of the Peer Feedback aren’t made clear beforehand, resulting in lukewarm and unspecific feedback that is not helpful
- The peers are unexperienced in giving productive feedback, and default to generic phrases like “Your work is good.” when put on the spot
Looking back, we didn’t have clear-cut expectations or soaring hopes for this method. Fairly indifferent, we set out to try Peer Feedback out of curiosity and to fill a need. And although we are still on our journey towards becoming perfect feedback givers and receivers, we have come a long way already and developed skills crucial to any team: communicate your feelings, be specific and concise, praise where praise is due and give constructive criticism that will empower the recipient to make meaningful change, rather than bring them down.