6 . Feedback & Annual Review

Improve your Retrospectives, Code Reviews and Performance Reviews

Esther Derby - Banner - Person in the Shadow Aginst a Window

By Esther Derby

The Risks of Anonymous Feedback


In one of the online forums I participate in, someone declared that feedback between peers must be anonymous. His rationale was that people will not be honest without anonymity.

However, I have found that it is possible to be honest and not anonymous. I have also found that anonymous feedback backfires in number of ways.

Unhelpful Judgements

People may veer into judgement when they hide behind anonymity. Judgement is about character, not behavior. It does not provide the information people need to change. An anonymous zinger does not help –only hurts.

Vague Comments

Nor does a value statement such as, “you do not pull your weight” or “you are stingy with information.” Unless feedback is specific, the receiver may not recognize –or even remember– what the feedback giver refers to.

With anonymous feedback, there is no way to follow up and clarify. No way to ask for examples or understand impact. Furthermore, there is no opportunity to negotiate a better way to work together, or make amends, if that is what is called for.

Guessing Games

When faced with anonymous feedback, people guess. This is especially true with critical or judgmental statement. Or when the feedback conflicts with the receiver’s self-perception. Unfortunately, people often guess wrong. That distorts and damages relationships.

Eroding Trust

The practice of anonymous feedback erodes both interpersonal trust and group safety.  A person may wonder, “If he had a problem with me, why did not he tell me…”

Based on guesses, trust goes down. So does safety. People become more cautious. They engage in more protective behavior and hide mistakes or issues. Anonymity may provide safety for the giver but costs the group.

The Exception

As with everything, there is an exception to my advice in favor of direct peer-to-peer feedback. There are people who do not receive feedback well. They may retaliate in subtle and overt ways.

It is also not reasonable to expect employees to handle feedback situations that involve any form of harassment or ethical matters on their own. Such situations require support from management and HR for both safety and legal reasons.

In sum..

Often, people worry direct feedback will damage relationships. In my experience, the opposite is more likely. Honest, congruent person-to-person feedback can actually strengthen relationships.

Done well, it communicates commitment to the relationship. If you did not care, you would not take the risk.

Offering feedback well does require thought and skill. But it is worth the effort to learn how to offer direct feedback. In the long run, a culture of feedback and honesty contributes to a more resilient and humane culture.

Esther Derby - 1 - Person Filling Out a Form

An Alternative to the Annual Review


Well, it is that time again — time for the yearly performance review. The ritual starts with gathering feedback, proceeds to assigning rating/ranking, and drags on through doling out a raise.

Do you enjoy annual review ritual? Thought not.

This year I think we should all skip it.


Here is why.

Individual Performance is Difficult to Assess Reliably…

…and Trying Creates Undesirable Effects

For most teams, each person’s achievement is all intertwined with the other members of the team. Trying to pull out individual performance on project goals is futile. Emphasizing or rating individual performance undermines collaboration.

Individual skills are only part of the performance equation. The quality of management and the environment for success are major factors in individual performance. But most rating and ranking schemes ignore those factors.

Ranking people with different skills sets against each other makes no sense. Yeah, I know lots of companies do it, but the fact that lots of companies do it does not make it a good idea.

Rating on the bell curve is ranking in different dress. The bell curve is not particularly useful in a small population–like the size of a typical workgroup.

Rating and ranking engender competition, not collaboration.

Most Performance Evaluations are Not Actually Objective…

…and Have Undesirable Effects

Although performance reviews claim objectivity, in almost all cases, they are, in fact, subjective.

Most people believe they are above average performers. However, disabusing them of this notion does not improve morale, nor does it spur people on to greater efforts. Quite the opposite.

And if everyone is doing their job reasonably well (and if managers are doing their jobs, they are, or they have moved on…) does it help to tell them they are at the bottom of the heap? I think not.

The Annual Cycle is Way Too Long…


…and Creates Undesirable Effects


Year end is a lousy time to tell people how they are doing. It is too late –why waste weeks (or months) of inadequate performance? The best time to let people know how they are doing is in the present, as close to the event as feasible.

Esther Derby - 2 - Device Asking How Your Day is Going

What is the Alternative?

Here is what to do instead of the annual performance review:

Have a conversation with each person in your group about how the year has gone. Discuss questions such as:

  • What were the major events of the year?
  • What have been the major accomplishments?
  • Which new skills have you acquired?
  • Where have been your struggles?
  • Which contributed to those situations?
  • What insights do you have, looking back on the year?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • How does this inform us going into next year?
  • What do you want to do better?
  • Are there new areas you want to explore?
  • What skills or capabilities will you develop?
  • How can we build developing those capabilities into daily work?
  • How will we tell you’re making progress?

Do not discuss a letter or number rating or ranking. Just talk.

Separate Salary Discussions

Have a separate conversation about salary increases.

Find out what they salary ranges are for the people in your group. Most companies determine salary rates based on the market. They look at how much people in various jobs are paid within their industry and region, then determine where within the range they will aim to pay –say with 20% of the midpoint salary.

Often, they have a progression, usually with smaller percentage raises as the person reaches the top of the range. From this perspective, salary increases are intended to keep salaries pegged to the market and provide reasonable progression as people become more skilled in their jobs.

Use whatever pool you have to keep people aligned with in the market rates. Do not try to use the pool for “pay for performance.” The aim is to pay people fairly, not to entice people with money rewards (which does not usually work anyway).

Talk More Often!

Start the new year by meeting regularly with each person on the team. Depending on context that may mean weekly or monthly. Talk about the person and the work. Coach and provide feedback. Talk about the goals you set in your year-end conversation. And skip the annual performance evaluation.

I am Esther Derby and these are my agile-thoughts

2021 © Duluth, Minnesota, UNITED STATES by Esther Derby

Esther Derby - Headshot - agile-thoughts author

Esther started her career as a programmer, and quickly realized that while her job description referred to computers, her real work involved changing the way people worked, and supporting them though that process.

In 1997, Esther founded esther derby associates, inc., and works with a broad array of clients from Fortune 500 companies to start ups.

She has an extensive background in designing and leading experiential learning. Her workshops support leaders to explore how they can adapt the environment to amplify empowerment, engage in joint problem-solving, and evolve their systems towards better results.

If it inspired you, please share it!

Scroll to Top