How to use peer feedback from surveys for good (it’s not easy) – Part 1

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I’ve been writing a lot about peer feedback lately.  What’s interesting is that peer feedback is often about the subtext of what happened between the peer and the employee.   The manager looks deeply into the peer feedback to identify the hidden meaning of what the peer was getting at.  But what about the thing above the subtext, the thing right there on the surface?  What’s that called?

The text.

(Thanks to Whit Stillman’s Barcelona for help writing the opening of this article)

In this case, the text is the actual employee behavior, and this provides a clue for how managers should use peer feedback.

1. Treat peer feedback as clues, hidden meanings and shadowy innuendo

If you get a peer feedback report (often the result of some sort of “360 degree survey” conducted by the HR department), understand that this is a series of random snapshots into an employee’s behavior.  Treat it as such.  When the peer feedback says, “Jeremy is the greatest!” that means something good, but we’re not really sure.  When the peer feedback says, “Jenny does so much to make this a strong team.”  There’s something there about teamwork.  It’s interesting, but we don’t really know what that means.  When the peer feedback says, “Anthony never does any work.”  This means that someone somewhere objects to Anthony’s performance.  We’re not sure to what exactly this is referring, but there is something there, we think.

In other words, it is all unverified information, but it might give you some clues to something, or maybe not.

2. Stick with observed behaviors

As the manager, you are the responsible for observing the behavior of your employees and helping improve them.  In this blog, I advocate for keeping a performance log and focusing on direct sources of information.  This is when you can track actual observed behaviors, what the impact is, and when and what feedback you provided on the performance.  The performance log also keeps the manager in line with sticking to observed behaviors.  If the behaviors you directly observe and provide feedback on corresponds to the peer feedback you received, then great, you can stick to your observations.

3. Attempt to obtain outside the survey observed behaviors from the employee’s peers

Now, if you have an employee who is skilled at behaving one way around the boss (that’s you), and behaving a different way around the peers (as the 360-degree survey may indicate), you have a trickier situation, but not an impossible situation.  Peer feedback from surveys usually refers to a once-a-year process in which a survey comes out and peers enter their impressions on their peers.

However, peers can also provide specific and immediate behavior-based information to you (and not on a survey) about what an employee has done recently.  The trick is to attempt to ask your employee’s peers for the specific information that would generate behavior-based language about the employee, by focusing on what people said or did (as opposed to “How did it go? or “Tell me how they did.”):

“I want to get a sense for how those on the team performed at the [place where I did not observe directly].  Can you describe what did Jeremy do during the [event X]?”

This question can be answered either positively (“Jonathan offered several solutions to the problems”) or negatively, (“Jonathan called us all toads for taking so long.”)

If the peer uses generalities, “Jonathan’s great” or “Jonathan was no help,” try to ask the question again to get at least one level deeper on the behaviors associated with an event, “When you say, Jonathan is great, what did he do to earn such high praise?”

Please note that, whether positive or negative, the peer feedback obtained this way is more specific and immediate.  If the feedback was negative, you can even engage in a discussion with the peer asking for sample actions that Jonathan could have done differently:  “When you said that Jonathan disrupted the meeting, what kinds of things could he have done differently?”  Many times employees will not want to call out negative behaviors of their peers to the boss, but it is more likely that they will feel comfortable reporting the specific behaviors observed.   Don’t press the employee if they don’t provide anything of note, however.  Remember, the title of this sections starts with “attempt”, not “try until your succeed.”

Whatever the employee reports, note that this is still indirect information, but it is at least more specific, more immediate, and more action-oriented than a once a year survey.  It should, however, still be treated as indirect information.  (See here for recommendations for how better to handle indirect info.) Remember, don’t expect that employees will always be forthcoming and/or behavior-based on their descriptions.

In my next article, I’ll continue how a manager can improve how to use 360 degree survey info.

Related articles:

How to use peer feedback from surveys for good (it’s not easy) – Part 2

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”

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

What to do when you receive a customer complaint about your employee’s performance

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)

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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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