Performance feedback ecosystems that care about people first.

Employees crave feedback— they want to know how they’re doing at their job and what it will take to progress in their career. But while the field of professional performance management is saturated with research about common frameworks, innovation is sparse. As an agency that aligns with Continuous Performance Management (CPM)— a new trend stating that, “a company has a share in the responsibility of supporting employees’ desire to improve and grow in what they do”, the quality of our internal performance management process is a critical part of how we operate and how we deliver value to our clients. If this piques your interest too, keep reading. I’ve done most of the research for you.

Here’s the TL;DR on performance management systems.

Most are terrible; some are less bad. The research suggests that many companies think of performance management as isolated tools when they need to be considered as part of a constellation of feedback and support mechanisms in order to be effective. Yet the conversation around performance management has stagnated. When the research is near unanimous in its review that the industry standard is at best ineffective and at worst damaging, as an industry, we need to light a fire and create a higher standard.

So at Alley, we’re building something new and, well, better. We’re focusing on people over process and prioritizing equity at every level of the company. We’re reconstructing the best parts of peer-reviewed appraisal systems in an effort to build a bridge between the questions of “How am I doing at my job?”, “How can I grow at the company?” and “Who has my back along the way?”.

Here’s the research.

At their best, powerful feedback systems are thoughtfully designed and executed. They help employees learn and develop their professional capacities in their work. They provide specific and measurable acknowledgment of completed work, focusing on future skill and career development. Focusing on the future reduces stress for supervisors by helping them guide performance rather than react to it, and reduces stress for employees by helping them reflect on how they are currently doing at their job and what they will need to do to reach new roles and levels at the company.  

At their worst, low-quality performance feedback systems reduce commitment to the company, demotivate and decrease retention of employees, and can become a panoptic system for policing work behaviors and outcomes. These poorly-constructed and poorly-implemented systems drive employees to focus on protecting the appearance of performing well versus providing spaces for genuine learning, candid conversations, and growth. Specifically, performance feedback processes incorporating scores and ratings can result in people focusing on questions like “Am I liked, approved, accepted?” or “Am I going to be rated poorly?” instead of focusing on asking, “How can I improve moving forwards?”. These systems fail to encourage a holistic understanding of the strengths and opportunities for growth of the individual.

Additionally, scores and ratings, whether the data is delivered by leadership or crowdsourced from peers, reduce people to numbers and create an inequitable focus on top performers and low performers at the fringes of the bell curve, and ultimately exclude the majority of employees that fall in the center of the curve.  

Inequitable processes that create more obstacles to advancement impact historically marginalized groups most. For example, women are historically not held to the same task and interpersonal behaviors at work as their male peers. On the job, women are expected to express more interpersonal warmth and helping behaviors by engaging in altruistic or prosocial behaviors that demonstrate their teamwork. Without systems in place that actively mitigate harm and bias, this negatively impacts evaluations and creates barriers to advancement that women, Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ people must navigate to reach leadership positions.

At Alley, we’re creating something new. 

Alley’s new system is rooted in decades of performance management research and iterations of our own 11 years of practice. 

Echoing the trends of emerging and non-traditional CPM systems, ours is an ecosystem of differentiated ways we support our people first. It’s agile and evolving with our company. It’s Alley’s:

  • Biannual 360 Performance Review Cycle. This data-driven method offers a holistic understanding of each employee’s strengths and areas for improvement, reflected through both a self-narrative and peer feedback. 
  • Career Progression Framework. This framework outlines every role and level in our organization and describes the skills and expertise required to progress to each level within a role. We are designing our progression based on many open-sourced and public progressions in our field.
  • Tiered Support Structure for escalating performance concerns. This structure of primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention and intervention is designed to respond to an individual’s performance issues early by providing baseline support and frequent monitoring of progress first before any more serious action needs to be taken. 
  • Comprehensive Peer Coaching Program. This program strengthens teams by developing the professional capacities of individuals. Coaches are trained in coaching best practices and competencies to provide a safe and nurturing context, personalized support and challenges, and inspiration for setting goals and pursuing professional development.
  • Agile Scrum teams. This framework provides our teams the autonomy & agency for self-governing how they work and how they manage their performance through daily opportunities for feedback, which is embedded into specific meetings & processes. 

The quality of the system is key. 

Investing time in creating a high-quality process is worth it. Conversely, when employees have low quality performance assessment experiences, the company will likely incur a penalty in terms of lower job satisfaction, lower organizational commitment, and higher intentions to quit. Take the time to research, strategize, and implement performance management systems with care. 

Here’s how to get started:

  • Create a transparent system for rewarding performance. The more an employee is rewarded through an equitable evaluation process, the more likely they are to remain in that same company. Most employees stay in the same institution for a long time because of the economic gains they receive from that institution.
  • Focus on building trust between supervisors and employees. Trust between supervisors and employees strengthens the perception of fairness of the appraisal process. When employees and supervisors are separated, trust disappears. This phenomenon is consistent across historically marginalized groups compared to their white male peers. For example, scheduling consistent 1:1 meetings with supervisees to review goals, progress, and build relationships helps to avoid perception of inequitable access and favoritism.
  • Emphasize future performance rather than diagnosing the past. Systems that emphasize future-focused feedback positively impact people’s acceptance of negative feedback, their intention to act on it, and their likelihood to effect personal change. 
  • Reward exceptional accomplishments to lock in star performers. Identifying and nurturing truly distinctive people should be a key priority, given their disproportionate impact. Create a system of rewards to ‘lock-in’ star performers at junior levels of the company and help retain them as they progress.
  • Educate employees in engaging in proactive feedback conversations. Improving feedback conversation quality at all levels of the company increases leadership effectiveness, creating a culture of feedback that will support individuals and teams. 

At Alley, we’ve reimagined a new standard for performance management that balances the tension between providing feedback to team members on how they’re doing at their job and building an ecosystem of support for individual learning, growth, and career advancement.

We don’t believe we have the perfect solution, but we do believe there are improvements to be made, and it is worth investing the time in our people to do it. We hope you’ll join us in rebuilding and sustaining a new standard for what it looks like to care for people at work.

To learn more about psychological safety, check out our article on 10 Strategies for Increasing Psychological Safety, Improving Equity, and Amplifying Marginalized Voices at Work.