The Worst Performance Reviewwith Rachel Ernst and Conor Muirhead
Annual, semi-annual, quarterly, 360…no matter what form they take, performance reviews can be anxiety-inducing workplace rituals. In today’s episode, we talk to the head of HR at an HR software company (meta!) and a Basecamp designer about why helpful feedback is so difficult to give and receive—and what can be done to improve the process.
- Rachel Ernst, VP of employee success at Reflektive - 00:41
- Reflektive's #MyWorstPerformanceReview contest and the winners - 2:12
- Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson's classic screed against fundraising and startup culture - 7:00
- Reflektive's press release on its $60M Series C - 7:32
- Watch a real-life design review with Conor and Basecamp CEO Jason Fried - 13:46
- Hey, did you know we at Basecamp haaaaaaate meetings with the fire of a thousand suns? - 19:24
- Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 3 (Pastoral), 4th Movement - 26:00
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:00:00] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.
Wailin: [00:00:06] And I’m Wailin Wong.
Shaun: [00:00:08] And this week we’re talking about performance reviews.
Wailin: [00:00:11] And I think everyone’s blood pressure just spiked hearing that.
Shaun: [00:00:14] Ugh, I know mine did. We actually do pretty typical performance reviews here at Basecamp. Every six months or so we get a list of open-ended questions to answer about our work and then we sit down with a manager to discuss. I think a lot of companies do formal reviews like that, but we also have other ways of getting and giving feedback. For instance, our designers have pretty regular and informal reviews of what they’re working on. We’ll hear from one of our designers about this process a little later on in the episode.
Wailin: [00:00:39] But first I talked to Rachel Ernst. She heads up HR at a company called Reflektive that makes software for performance reviews and also gathering and sharing other kinds of feedback. Because I think what we’re talking about is the bigger question of how is feedback given in the workplace? A lot of times it’s done poorly. And that’s why there’s so much anxiety around performance reviews. If the culture around feedback is kind of broken at a company, feedback becomes a really stressful thing instead of a helpful thing. We wanted to talk about how to make feedback better. So, here’s my conversation with Rachel.
Rachel: [00:01:17] My name is Rachel Ernst. I’m the VP of employee success and I oversee HR, recruiting and facilities.
Wailin: [00:01:25] Like so many of us, Rachel has her own story about a bad performance review.
Rachel: [00:01:30] I think I had been there for maybe two months and the way that my manager started my conversation was, what did I ask you to do last quarter? That’s a very… right?
Wailin: [00:01:40] Good sign. Good sign.
Rachel: [00:01:42] Right? Immediately you’re on the defensive. Oh, gosh. Now… and like you said, now I’m very nervous. This is my first review. I was in my late twenties. And it feels scary and I wasn’t prepared for it. And then I have to sit and have this conversation with somebody that clearly I had missed the mark. And I could tell that from having that… answering that question.
Wailin: [00:02:11] In September, Reflektive held a contest to find the worst performance review story. It put out a call on its website and via social media and it published the winners on its blog. We got an actress to read the winning entry.
Voice Actor: [00:02:22] So, I went in for my 30-day review, excited about all I’d been able to do in a newly created position. I was told that I hadn’t done anything they had wanted me to do even after he admitted that they hadn’t actually decided what they wanted to measure the position on. They just knew I hadn’t done it. I had been meeting with my supervisor for a one on one every weekend. He had never said anything. I upped my documentation reporting project management, asked for more feedback and clearer expectations, only to sit down at my six-month review and get told a similar story. My work was exemplary, but it wasn’t what they wanted.
[00:02:59] I left that company and the person after me lasted six-months, too.
Wailin: [00:03:04] Can you talk about the scope of the entries you got? Any big surprises in there or did you find that most of them kind of fell along these general themes you identified as being problem areas for performance reviews?
Rachel: [00:03:16] You know, I’d say they generally do. What’s interesting… to start off with what I notice is that some people are talking about a performance review and some people are just talking about some negative feedback they got. And so it’s just interesting that when you even pose this out there, the idea of a bad conversation with your manager is so… it really resonates with people and you get a lot of comments about that.
[00:03:44] The problem wasn’t hearing the constructive feedback. It was, I don’t understand what I should be doing differently. And I don’t know specifically what I did that wasn’t good. So, people actually value and they want to know how they can get better, but it’s the manner in which it’s given to them by their manager. A lot of times, that is the issue. They’ll give generalizations in their feedback, but not give examples to help employees understand what specifically they’re talking about. And that’s where that disparity will happen.
Wailin: [00:04:16] Do you find that a lot of these issues, do they stem from managers not being given enough training? Or is it in the structure of performance reviews?
Rachel: [00:04:29] I think it’s in a few ways. But, I think honestly it’s even broader than that. I would say a lot of these issues is that it’s not really valued in an organization for a manager to be spending time with their employees and helping their employees to grow. I think a lot of times companies will say that they do it, but it’s a little bit more lip service. I think it comes from the highest setting the example. A lot of times if I was coaching a leader and I say you need to be spending time on this, a lot of times they’ll say to me or our customers, well, yeah, that’s fine and good, but my manager doesn’t actually do that for me. So, if they’re not setting the examples, why do I have the motivation to do that for my employees?
Wailin: [00:05:17] Yeah. Do you find also that maybe there’s a mismatch in goals, like if the employee is looking to get out of their job, a sense of satisfaction, a sense of a job well done, a sense of professional development, that they’re building new skills. And, let’s say there’s a manager who is… just has a boss breathing down their neck about numbers or something really kind of soulless and stressful. Does that also create this fundamental tension because they’re actually not working towards the same thing?
Rachel: [00:05:52] I do think that that is definitely an issue because what’s top of mind for CEO obviously is, is the company doing well? What they miss though is the how, of how that’s being done. And that’s where the employee’s needs come in. So we actually—I just came from training our employees on how to write a good self-reflection. One of the things that we have in our reviews that I think everybody should be thinking about is, is this question, what are the responsibilities of this particular employee and how are they doing relative to them?
[00:06:30] Because that will get out some of this divide. I expect my employee to be hitting these particular numbers or hiring this many people, bringing in this many deals and the employee is thinking differently. You know, my goals are to grow myself and learn this new thing. And they need to have that conversation to come together around what are the actual expectations and how are you measuring those things for me?
Wailin: [00:06:52] I think one thing that we talk about a lot at Basecamp is this idea of staying independent because as you take, let’s say, outside investment, that comes with a whole host of external pressures. Kind of one thing that often comes along with raising outside capital is that you now have investors coming in who have growth targets that they need the company to hit. And those growth targets might not always be… they might not always be compatible with maybe like some of the core work that a company wants to be doing. I noticed that Reflektive itself has raised quite a bit of money and I was just curious whether, you, on the management level, kind of on the executive leader level have had to kind of be wary of some of those pressures as well? Kind of within your organization?
Rachel: [00:07:50] You know, there is the focus on growth and that’s why we would raise funding because we want to grow. And I think that the conversation that it tends to be is: how do you want to grow? Where do you want to grow? What are the new products that you, that we should be building in order to get there? And, I would say here what’s great about what I’ve seen from Reflektive is there isn’t this, “We must grow by 800 employees this year.”
[00:08:24] There’s a mindfulness that happens with our growth strategy in partnership with our investors that makes sure that, um, we obviously are growing but we’re growing in the best possible way. So, we don’t hire too many people and then have to let them go. Or, we build too many products but they’re not at highest quality. So there’s a lot of, I guess I would just use the word integrity, kind of feel that within the organization, that we need to grow quickly, but we need to do it in a mindful way. I guess it’s good because their name is Reflektive. We reflect quite a bit on the best way to grow our company.
Wailin: [00:08:59] And how do you do performance reviews at Reflektive? Are you doing quarterly ones?
Rachel: [00:09:04] We are doing quarterly ones. Yeah. it’s funny cause I have a belief that you should have a stance on how you do it and also be open to changing it to make sure that it’s hitting the goal of quality conversation. So, we do do quarterly conversations with our employees and our managers on a fairly regular basis, either weekly or biweekly, people are meeting with their managers and having conversations. We don’t do a companywide program of 360s yet. I do think that that is valuable, but I think that it needs to happen at the right time and right size of an organization. And I think that if you’re working regularly enough with people in a smaller company, you should be able to have those conversations naturally. But, as a company grows, that kind of feedback is important.
[00:10:02] A different program will work well, you know, one year, but then we need to relook at it again the following year. We’ve grown so much that we’re actually revising the way we’re doing it now.
Wailin: [00:10:09] I feel like so much of the conversation around performance reviews, especially bad ones, focuses on the managers like, oh, my manager behaved in this crappy way, or my manager was a real jerk, etc., etc. Which in a lot of ways I think makes sense because that’s kind of the power dynamic you have to be mindful of. But are there things that employees could be doing, like rank and file employees could be doing to make their performance reviews go more smoothly?
Rachel: [00:10:35] I’m so glad you brought that up. Yes, it is on you employees to be preparing for these conversations and your self-assessments matter because you’ve taken the time to prepare for a quality conversation. So I absolutely think that the employees have a voice in this and, and some of the things I saw in this contest that we launched here and the submissions that we got there is a little bit of that I would coach the employee on. Okay, what can you take responsibility for in this complaint that you have? Is there any, you know, even 10% of this that you could own that you could do differently here?
Wailin: [00:11:17] Self-reflection’s always the hardest, right?
Rachel: [00:11:21] It’s hard. It’s hard to look at yourself in the mirror, and really, really look at that. And then a lot of responsibility is placed on the manager and most companies just train the managers. But this is why we do a manager training and an employee training because it’s a two way street and you both should be thinking about this and preparing to have a quality conversation.
[00:11:40] One of the things that that they may do, and again, I see this in here, they’ll say, you know, I asked for feedback. A lot of times that’s how am I doing? And if you want to get specific feedback, you have to ask a specific question because the answer is only as good as the question that you pose. So, it’s important to help employees understand about how to ask for feedback and what good questions are. So we try to coach our employees on that and we have that in our tool, too. What can I do to make something 10% better? What’s one thing I can do to improve my presentation skills? So being very specific in your ask, will give you a specific feedback.
[00:12:21] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:12:24] Like we said at the top of the show, one of the types of feedbacks we give at Basecamp is a design review where Jason or Ryan, our head of product strategy, will go over a new feature or a work in progress with the designer who is in charge of it.
Wailin: [00:12:36] I talked to one of our lead designers about how that process works and how it’s different from other places he’s worked.
Conor: [00:12:47] Yeah, I’m Connor and I’m a designer at Basecamp currently working on our iOS app.
Wailin: [00:12:51] I was wondering if you could just give an overview of how design reviews work here.
Conor: [00:12:55] They’re not very formal, first off. At previous jobs there was a much more involved thing with a bunch of people in a room and it felt intense. At Basecamp it’s… there’s never really scheduled or necessarily expected, even. It’s not a requirement for shipping a feature or product update or anything like that. But how it would usually happen is either Jason will ping me or I’ll ping him and he’ll be either asking me, hey, like how’s that thing you’re working on? Would be cool to take a look at it sometime. Or, I’ll ping him and say, “Hey, I’ve got this thing I’m working on. It’d be good to get some feedback from you.” So that’s kind of how it starts.
[00:13:32] And then we say, okay, yeah, let’s do it in 10 minutes or whatever. So it’s usually off the cuff. There’s no like, presentation or plan for how I’m going to show him the work or anything like that. And then we basically just hop on Skype and I share my screen and then I’ll start clicking through and talking about it and he’ll just kind of offer thoughts that come to his mind as we go. And I usually just have like a notebook or something out and I take down notes about things that come up and sometimes we’ll debate stuff or riff on an idea in more depth.
[00:14:07] It doesn’t feel like a design review to me. Whereas… like, a design review sounds like a formal thing. It’s much less of a review feeling and it’s—because review kind of has this connotation that you’re being evaluated, or judged, or something like that, which I think is often the case with design reviews and not a good part of them.
[00:14:27] Whereas, when I’m meeting with Jason or Ryan , to look at a feature or something like that, that I’m working on, it feels much more like I’m getting their inside advice. The reaction just to kind of get a sense of whether this is going the right way or not, that kind of thing. And often like, Hey, I’m stuck on this one thing. Like, what do you think about this? I’ll often in that 5, 10 minutes before, I’ll often write down a few questions I might have like, Hey, is it, this feels kind of funky to me. Like what do you think?
[00:14:55] One really important part of them I think is that there’s a clear understanding that this is not… anything that Jason says is not a mandate for what I have to do in response. So, it’s feedback, and I can chuck as much of it as I want or take as much as I want. And it’s usually a mixture of the two.
Wailin: [00:15:16] Was that something that was made explicit to you or was it something that you figured out gradually by absorbing the culture around feedback and design feedback here?
Conor: [00:15:26] Yeah, I mean, both. It was explicit. Jason made it pretty clear when I started like, hey man, I’m the boss and that has some downsides when we’re doing feedback because it can feel like I’m telling you what to do, or what I say might have more weight than it’s meant to have. So Jason told me up front, like if I ever am requiring something or like overriding a decision that you’ve made or things like that, I will be really clear that like, Hey, I’m making the call here and this is the way it’s going to be.
[00:15:56] I’ve yet to have that experience. So, he said that, which is helpful. But I’ve had other people say similar things in previous jobs and it wasn’t actually so much that way. So then what’s been even more useful is over time seeing that when I choose to go a different direction than what Jason might’ve suggested or I try out an idea that he had and decided it didn’t shape up, that there’s no like repercussions or problems or, you know, he doesn’t hound me about it or keep asking why I didn’t do it that way or something like that.
Wailin: [00:16:32] When you were hired, were you given a sense of how the design reviews would go? Did Jason Say, Oh, you know, every once in awhile I’ll just ping you or if you have something you want to show me, feel free to ping me. Or did it happen a little bit more organically?
Conor: [00:16:48] Yeah, probably fairly organically. One thing that’s nice is when I started—Jason likes to, particularly with the designers like work a little more closely in the first few months or six months or whatever. And we were working on the beginning of a new product at the time, Basecamp 3, so it was a really small team and we were really collaborating on it. So, it just kind of was probably every few days we’d look at stuff together and just do that. And part of that was just to kind of mentor me in the Basecamp way of how we design, because it’s different than a lot of other companies do. So having that kind of… the few first few months be a lot of back and forth time was helpful and then over time it’s become less and less.
And it’s kind of our descriptions of the different levels of the designers is the level of a review that’s required, if you will. And at the lower end it’s, you know, it’s required really-ish, like again, it’s not formal, it’s not scheduled, it’s not a checklist that needs to happen, but it will happen more often. And, as you gain experience and learn the ways, if you will, then it’s less and less so. And it’s more just like, hey, I’d like to get your take on this or what your thoughts on this, that kind of thing.
Wailin: [00:18:05] And you had mentioned that sometimes they happen as quickly as in 10 minutes from when that first notification or first message comes in. Is that really different than in previous jobs? In previous jobs, would they be scheduled and on some kind of shared calendar, that kind of thing?
Conor: [00:18:21] Yeah, totally. So, like my last job there was a… I think probably it was every Friday or something like that, there’d be like a design review meeting and it was in a big board room, the really long table and there would be… The CEO of the company would come and product managers would be there and the development team and some other people who were a VP of something in product or VP of that in programming. And the experience was generally like… I mean just a bit anxiety producing because you’re making this… It feels more like you’re making a presentation to a group of people. And then the feedback felt much more like, it often was like… You’d often get stuck going back to like, why are we even doing this? Kind of questions. Would be where you would arrive and then you just felt like every time you had one of these, it would just totally derail the project and set you back like two weeks. And that would just happen like over and over again. So that was challenging.
Wailin: [00:19:19] When you’re the one that’s initiating the meeting, oh, I probably shouldn’t say meeting because meetings are anathema here… But, when you’re the one initiating the conversation saying, “Oh, I’d love an extra set of eyes on this,” when do you gauge, okay, this is the moment in time where I ask for that help. And does that take a little bit of kind of trial and error or?
Conor: [00:19:39] Yeah. I’m kind of bad at this actually, so I wish I was better. I have this kind of complex, I think where I think if I’m like… I should be self-sufficient and I shouldn’t need to like ask for help or feedback. I don’t know. It’s weird. So, I—
Wailin: [00:19:56] I don’t think it’s weird. I think it’s really normal.
Conor: [00:19:57] Okay. Maybe it’s not weird. So, I kind of like try to—for some reason I avoid them a lot of the time, more than, or drag it out longer than I should before asking. Or, like anytime I get a ping from Jason being like, “Hey, like I love to see what you’re working on.” Then I’m like, oh, like I really should have, I should have been the one doing this like three days ago probably. That’s usually a sign me, like, oh, I’ve waited too long to get feedback. So, when I am smart enough to do that in advance, it’s… that’s a good question. Usually it’s just that I had that nagging feeling like, oh, I should probably get someone’s eyes on this before it gets too far down the line or something like that.
Wailin: [00:20:38] I do think it’s really tricky though, especially at Basecamp where there is such a premium placed on being a manager of one as Jason and David are fond of saying. And I think especially for newer people—and you’re not new anymore and neither am I so much, but, there can be a sense of, oh, well if I ask for help it means I’m not—
Conor: [00:20:55] Totally.
Wailin: [00:20:55] —managing my self.
Conor: [00:20:57] Yes.
Wailin: [00:20:57] As I should be.
Conor: [00:20:59] Totally.
Wailin: [00:21:00] But you also don’t want to get dinged for like, well, I dug myself into this huge hole and waited too long.
Conor: [00:21:04] Right. If I would have asked two weeks ago we could’ve avoided this whole thing, you know? Yeah, totally. It’s a weird, it’s a weird balance that I don’t feel like I’ve totally gotten yet. But hopefully with time… It’s like, yeah, I have to remind myself that these are always positive and it’s always helpful. I’ve never had one of these sessions and felt like, oh, Jason’s like annoyed that I’m asking him. Or, Ryan doesn’t really want to help me. Like, I always come away feeling like, oh, this was great. I’m glad that I asked. So yeah, it’s just—I need to have myself… I’ve thought before, oh, I should just, every week ask myself on a given day… I should go and see, is there something I could get feedback on with this? And then just spend 5, 10 minutes, whatever, doesn’t need to be a long… Usually these calls aren’t long, either. They’re pretty short, so it’s not arduous to fit into my schedule or something.
Wailin: [00:21:53] Have you kind of like learned some things about how to give feedback via being the person receiving feedback.
Conor: [00:22:01] Ryan, I think, is actually kind of a master of these sessions. He’s just really good at asking questions that… He’s very inquisitive. And Ryan just generally really likes to understand things and ask questions to get understanding and that usually ends up unlocking some valuable insights about like, oh yeah, I’m doing this, but what I’m actually trying to do, is that. Cutting to the heart of what you’re actually trying to do and skipping some fluff that you’ve been working—wasting time on, you know?
Wailin: [00:22:34] It sounds like the inverse of this scenario you described earlier where at your old job you get into these kind of quasi-philosophical conversations of like, why are we doing this? And you would feel like everything was a big waste of time, but then when those conversations are done properly, then you feel like you’re actually getting to the root of something important.
Conor: [00:22:51] Yeah, because both Ryan and these like big boardroom meetings end up asking this question of like, what are we trying to do here? Kind of thing. But one kind of felt like, why are we even working on this? Which is like, what’s the point of this again? Is this really worth it? Those kinds of questions. And the other is just trying to understand what we’re doing so that we can do the best version of that or so we can cut to the heart of it, you know, that kind of thing. To have a standard to evaluate it by. It’s when it becomes like, why are we even? Is this worth it? Those kinds of questions. Then, you’re like, you asked me to work on this a month ago. Why are we questioning this four weeks in? That’s demoralizing.
Wailin: [00:23:31] At your old jobs where you ever in the position of giving feedback or being the reviewer? Do you have any tips about being in a position of the being the reviewer?
Conor: [00:23:41] It can be tempting to display your knowledge or design prowess or critical thinking skills. And I think, I just find it useful to stop and ask myself like, am I sharing this to look smart or am I questioning this to show that I’ve thought about this more than the other person or something like that. Or is this something that I’m genuinely curious about as a question or am I just asking to poke a hole? I think that’s kind of the intentions behind questions or feedback is probably the biggest thing. I think most of us are not very good at actually hiding our intentions. And so usually those things come across that you’re just being a jerk if you ask a question just to like poke a hole without actually saying, I don’t think this is good because whatever you’re just like, but really, whatever. It’s like, yeah.
[00:24:30] So that’s my only… Having good intentions I think is a pretty key part of feedback. So, yeah, avoiding competition, stuff like that.
Wailin: [00:24:41] Yeah I think that’s good advice.
Conor: [00:24:42] Which can be hard when you’re working with a peer and… especially if you’re in front of a boss or something and you’re like, you know, which one of us is top dog or whatever else. That can be a tempting thing to get in and sometimes other people are doing it. So, you want to join in and get yourself in the ranking, if you will. So, I think that can be a challenging thing but ultimately the poor intentioned questions and comments, usually are not going to help anything and they’re just going to make someone feel bad.
[00:25:12] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:25:13] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner, and me, Wailin Wong. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art. Special thanks to Shaina Schrooten and Dani Fankhauser.
Shaun: [00:25:25] You can find show notes for this and every episode of Rework on our website, rework.fm. You can also find us on Twitter @reworkpodcast. And, if you want to get in touch with us the old fashioned way, you can leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850.
Shaun and Wailin: [00:25:53] [Singing] Rework!
Wailin: [00:25:56] At our symphony concert on Sunday, we played this Vaughan Williams piece that, the very end of it, well the last movement has a soprano who sings, but offstage. Like, there’s stage directions that’s like, she’s not meant to be visible to the audience. It’s supposed to be this far away kind of mournful singing and like you’re not supposed to really understand what’s happening. It’s supposed to be like a little surprise, right? Like a sad surprise, I guess, to the audience. And so we had the soprano come in for the dress rehearsal and our conductor is like, oh, okay, go stand over there. And so, she’s just like edging her way like, behind…
Shaun: [00:26:33] That sounds like such a great dime store mystery novel. Something, Something, and the Unseen Soprano.
Wailin: [00:26:37] And the Unseen Soprano. And then we would like rehearse it and then our conductor would be like, you know, it doesn’t sound mysterious enough. He was like, uh, go back. And so she kept scooting back. And then he was like, can you get behind the curtains? And so she kept scooting back until she was like in the corner of the stage behind these really heavy curtains. She’s like, you hear her muffled voice, like, is this okay? And then our conductor would be like—
Shaun: [00:27:04] [Mimics a heavily muffled voice.]
Wailin: [00:27:04] And then our conductor would be like, okay, let’s try and be like, ah, I don’t know. Like just, just go back behind those curtains. And then the orchestra started laughing and then he got really mad. He was like, it’s not funny!
[00:27:19] Anyway, where were we? The outro.
Shaun: [00:27:22] Something is produced by a couple folks.
Wailin: [00:27:26] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong…