Examples of how peer feedback from surveys is misused by managers

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In my previous post, I describe how peer feedback from 360 degree surveys is not really feedback at all.  At best, it can be considered, “general input from peers about an employee.”  Alas, it is called peer feedback, and as such, it risks being misused by managers.  Let’s talk about these misuses:

As a proxy for direct observations: Peer feedback is so seductive because it sounds like something that can replace what a manager is supposed to be doing as a manager.  One job of the manager is to provide feedback on job performance and coach the employee to better performance.  However, with peer feedback from surveys, you get this proxy for that job expectation:  The peers do it via peer feedback.  Even better, it is usually performed by the Human Resources department, which sends out the survey, compiles it, and gives it to the manager.  Now all the manager has to do is provide that feedback to the employee.  See, the manager has given feedback to the employee on job performance.  Done!

Never mind that this feedback doesn’t qualify as performance feedback, may-or-may not be job related, or may-or-may not be accurate.

The incident that sticks and replicates: Let’s say in August an employee, Jacqueline, was out on vacation for three weeks.  During that time, a request from the team Admin came out to provide the asset number of the computer, but Jacqueline didn’t reply to this.  And worse, Jacqueline didn’t reply to it after returning from vacation, figuring that the admin would have followed up on the gaps that remained on the asset list.  Then it comes back a year later on Jacqueline’s peer feedback that the she is unresponsive, difficult to get a hold of and doesn’t follow procedures.  This came from the trusted Admin source!

So now Jacqueline has this listed on her annual review by the manager, “Jacqueline needs to be more responsive to email requests for information, and her slow response has caused problems in the organization.” That last part was the manager’s interpretation of what the peer feedback impact was.

Then, the next year (yes, two years later), the manager remembers Jacqueline’s “weaknesses” and feels the need to list them on the employee’s “area’s of improvement” in addition to Jacqueline’s contributions:  “Jacqueline needs to work on being a proactive, responsive team member, as delays in response hurt the team.”  The manager essentially pulls from the old “needs improvement” file and keeps it going.  If this hasn’t happened to you in some capacity, you’re lucky!

The generalized tag: Peer feedback is great at creating a mythology about an employee.  The problem is that we have to remind ourselves that mythologies are not real.  They are fun stories, to be sure, and they are easier to tell than focusing on facts and observed behaviors.  Here are some examples of mythologies that can be created based on vague peer feedback:

“Always there for you.”

“The greatest.”


“A real pain”

“Brings up too many problems”

“Doesn’t have a good attitude.”

If a peer or set of peers say something, it because a “tag” on the employee, whether earned on or off the job, whether true or not.  Now take this tag, and now replicated it across several reviews.  Now multiply this across many employees, and you can see who many managers are considered poor managers, because it is the manager who chooses to keep the tag on the employee.

The no-path to improvement: Peer feedback is general input about an employee, but it really stops there.  There is rarely something in peer feedback that actually identifies an alternative course of action, or new behaviors that would improve the employee’s performance.  The delayed nature of peer feedback necessarily misses opportunities to correct behaviors.  The lack of specific nature of peer feedback does not identify the correct behaviors.  Sure you get the feedback, but what are you supposed to do differently?  It’s a guess.

Overwhelming influence of one interaction: Peer feedback often asks for how an employee interacts with other employees.  The peers, if they do their job in submitting feedback, think of times when they interacted with the employee, and say whether it was good or bad.  OK, sounds good.  However, this requires the distillation of a year’s worth of interactions into a few key moments, and probably the most intense moments at that.  The employee may interact with the peer thousands of times in a year, but if there was one bad interaction or disagreement, this will likely be cited as emblematic.  So you get a distorted view of the employee’s behaviors.

Loss of anonymity: One supposedly appealing aspect of peer feedback is that it is anonymous, so you can get more information about an employee’s behaviors when the manager is not around.  That is, until the manager uses it to give feedback to an employee based on the incident cited in the peer feedback.  So when it is specific, it actually undermines the ability to get information anonymously.

Used as a weapon: If a manager uses peer feedback as a proxy for manager feedback, then peers and managers can use the peer feedback as a weapon of inordinate power.  A peer can tag an employee, which the manager will then use as a way to identify an employee’s weaknesses.  If you are in a competitive environment, where employee’s abilities are “stack ranked,” then peer feedback is a way to bring down a peer and increase the chances of being “stack ranked” higher.  Similarly, if managers are looking for weaknesses in an employee, or needs to “stack rank” their employees, as they are often asked to do, peer feedback is a good source, with no real obligation to do something about it.  After all, the manager wasn’t there!

As a management design, peer feedback from surveys creates many challenges that, without good design, creates bad management situations.  Is your management design such that peer feedback is used for good, or used for ill?

In my next article, I’ll provide tips for how to use peer feedback for good.

What have been your experiences with peer feedback?

Related articles:

Why peer feedback from surveys doesn’t qualify as feedback

What inputs should a manager provide performance feedback on?

When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: Practice sessions

When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: On the job

Areas of focus in providing performance feedback based on direct observation: Tangible artifacts

What managers can do about “intangible human-based artifacts”

Three reasons why giving performance feedback based on indirect information doesn’t work

Bonus! Six more reasons why giving performance feedback based on indirect information is risky

Tips for how managers should use indirect sources of information about employees

How to use strategy sessions as a way to manage indirect sources of info about your employees (part 1)

How to use strategy sessions as a way to manage indirect sources of info about your employees (part 2)

How to use strategy sessions as a way to manage indirect sources of info about your employees (part 3)

Another example of how to switch from the dreaded strengths and weaknesses discussion to a strategic, productive discussion

Employee strengths and weaknesses discussions should be purely strategic — with examples!

Five reasons why focusing on weaknesses with employees is absurd and damaging

Bonus! Five more reasons why discussing weaknesses with employees is absurd and damaging

Managers are the most high impact trainers in an organization

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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