Simple, Direct, Honest, Personal, And Blunt: How The 5-Word Performance Review Works Wonders

Paul English, cofounder of Kayak, hated some of the performance reviews he was given as an employee. So when he became a boss, he decided to do something about it.

The dreaded performance review—unless it’s "You’re fired!"—is often an unfocused, indirect thicket of bureaucratic language that is not helpful for either boss or employee. It can be an exercise that sheds little light but creates a lot of anxiety and resentment for everyone involved. When we caught up with Paul English, cofounder of Kayak.com, the travel search engine, to ask him about his five-word reviews we found out that there was a whole lot more to his philosophy of feedback.

So how did you get this idea of five-word performance reviews?

There was a guy who worked for me back at InterLeaf (a Massachussetts-based software company). He was given feedback weekly, but nothing changed. So I wanted to be really clear with him to make sure that he understood the feedback. I didn't want to give him a long list of details. Five words was a trick I came up with to make myself be blunt. I literally wrote it on a crinkled phone bill and said, "I want to be really clear that these are the things that we love about you and these are the things that suck."

But how can you reduce someone’s work life to five words?

If you know someone really well, you can pretty quickly distill their issues. I want to combine what’s good about someone with what’s not working, so I always do two or three positives and two or three negatives. It doesn’t take me long to write. I find a crinkled piece of coffee stained paper on my desk and then I write down the five words.

And then what do you do with the crinkled paper?

It’s important to see people outside the office in a comfortable nonwork space. So we go out to lunch. I’ll hand the piece of paper to them at the table and get that instant feedback. We’ll spend an hour talking about it. I’ll give examples and we’ll see if we’re each interpreting them in the same way.

Sounds intense. How does it usually go?

Even though I might be their boss, I’m just one person, so I’m going to say "Here is my honest feedback and then you decide what to do with it." Each person is in charge of his or her own career. They can decide for themselves whether they agree with me. Whether they want to act on it, that’s up to them.

What’s the usual reaction? Do you ever get blowback? Tears? Plates thrown?

No one’s ever thrown anything at me. It’s not a typical managerial technique, so some people are taken aback by it at first. They’re like, "What the fuck is this?" But by the end of the lunch, most can see that this isn’t about me or HR. I’m doing this because I’m trying to help them. After we’ve met, they go back to work and they have the piece of paper. They can decide to ignore it or not. I don’t have the paper or even a record of our conversation so I’m not coming back and saying, "Remember when we talked about how you’re untrusting. . . ."

So most people take the feedback in the spirit it is given?

The feedback I get on my feedback is often, "Wow, no one ever told me that before; that’s so valuable. I get it." Many times people have told me that this really informal off-cycle review has been the best review they’ve gotten. There’s one guy I gave this kind of feedback to maybe 15 years ago and recently he told me that he still carries the list around.

What’s your ultimate goal?

I’m giving them advice that helps them at Kayak, and it might also help them outside, too. I want to improve Kayak, but my primary goal is to help people with their career.

What’s the worst kind of feedback that managers give to employees?

I hate when a weak or lazy manager says, "Well, I talked to five of your peers and they said that you’re irritable." That makes me crazy. A manager has to interpret. If they’re going to give a performance review, I want their opinion instead of them saying, "Well I haven’t seen enough of this, Paul, but everyone else has."

Any other pitfalls?

When a manager tells you too much because then you don’t know what to focus on. Or when they couch stuff. When they’re afraid to be direct.

Can you give us an example of a five-word performance review?

A month ago I gave one. I said, "1. FAST. 2. ATTENTIVE—People feel you listen to them, you’re someone people like talking to because you completely focus on them. 3. UNTRUSTING—Although you try hard to understand people in your group, you don’t completely trust people outside of your organization that you can’t control. And it creates a really bad dynamic when a manager likes people who work for him but doesn’t trust people outside his group. 3. TOO CAUTIOUS [Ed. note: That’s two words!]—I said you’re too cautious, and it sets the wrong vibe because our vibe is very much about forgiveness not permission. We want people to just ask. And if somebody feels like you’re judging, it gives them pause. And 5. TECHNICAL—Because you are in a very strong tech team and you are extremely technical.

Your feedback is so personal, almost psychological. What’s the advantage of that?

If you ask other executives why they fired the last person they fired, I predict that 10% of the time they’ll say 'because of incompetence,' and 90% of the time it’ll be because they’re annoying. There’s a style clash. So I try to prevent the style clash. And when I see it, I want to fix it. But if I can’t fix it, I separate. Kayak is known as a super efficient company. And one of the reasons we’re so efficient is that when we split people into teams, we make sure that the people in those teams are fun. Because if someone around you is annoying or even neutral it’s going to decrease everyone’s motivation to perform.

What traits would you like to draw out based on your feedback?

I met a woman in New York last week. She’s got to be like 5 foot 2, and she told me she was a collegiate rower and not a coxswain. And I’m looking at her going, "Really?" She was tiny. And she said, "Yeah, well we had a good team. It was an eight-person boat. I know I don’t look like a rower, but I’m really good at reading the other rowers and that contributed to how we work together." I like that analogy about rowing. That’s what leadership is about. Reading each other helps people work together. One of the things I do at Kayak is to study dynamics between people in meetings. It’s also a curse because I can be in a meeting about a really exciting design for a new product that I’m passionate about, but I can’t help being aware of interactions, body language, and what makes people uncomfortable. If I see something, I’ll pull someone aside and give them feedback.

How does someone like you who gives performance reviews, define the word performance?

The most important quality is how someone performs on a team. Do they limit the people they work with or help them? Are they decisive? Are they transparent? Are they efficient?

Do you ever learn anything yourself from giving feedback to others?

There are times when I’ve just told someone, "This is my evaluation," and they call bullshit on me. They’ll say, "No, that’s actually not what happened." I might end up saying, "Oh I misread that." And then I ask myself, "Why did I misread it?"

When you were young, were you given feedback that influenced you?

The bluntest feedback I ever got was painful to hear. But it was transformational. About 10 years ago I was at Intuit in a meeting with Larry Ellison of Oracle who wanted Intuit to buy some stupid startup that he had invested in. The chairman of Intuit, Bill Campbell, asked me to lead the negotiation, which was kind of funny because I was a new person. There were probably 10 of us in the room. We talked for an hour, and the meeting was over. Afterwards my boss, Craig Carlson, who is an amazing guy and the coinventor of QuickBooks [now at Tesla], pulled me aside and said, "Paul, do you have a minute?" And I said, "Sure." And he said, "I want to give you some feedback." And I said, "Okay." And he said, "Remember in the meeting when Ellison asked you how long you and Intuit were working on web accounting, and you said, ‘Let’s just say 10 person years’? Well, I can see how what you said is kind of correct. But I think you said it with an intent to mislead. And we don’t do that at Intuit. We just tell people exactly what they’re looking for. And if we misled him just to get the deal, then we shouldn’t get the deal." There were two things I learned from that feedback. The first: Even though Craig was my boss, it took balls to call someone on something with real-time feedback. It takes confidence to pull someone aside and say, "Dude, that made me uncomfortable when you did that." And the second is that he sharpened my negotiation skills by telling me that you don’t have to mislead to negotiate.

What prepared you to give other people feedback?

I used to be an athlete and I love teams that stick together and work well together. I also think growing up in a dysfunctional family helped. I’m kidding. But I’m one of seven kids and like a lot of kids in big, tight families I made a lot of observations about interactions within the family.

You almost sound like a psychologist. Was observation a familial trait?

Two of my siblings are therapists. Yeah there’s something about my family. We’re introspective. At least some of us.

What’s it like being the guy who gives feedback to others?

Sometimes I say to myself, "Who do I think I am that I can give someone feedback?" So it’s a little bit stressful. And then I realize that even though they report to me, maybe in a couple years I’ll be working for them at some other company. So I do have a little bit of humility about the whole boss thing. But if you connect with the person, you can have fun with it.

Any other words of wisdom for managers struggling to become better at performance reviews?

If you’re a good manager, you never want to put something in writing that’s not been communicated verbally.

So nothing is in writing?

Ask yourself, "Why am I writing it down? Am I documenting them to HR in case I want to fire them?" That’s weird. Then HR is involved. And then HR will interpret it their own way. So I’m like, get rid of all that crap and just tell the person what you actually think.

Can you give Paul English a five-word performance review?

1. Prolific. 2. Thoughtful. 3. Forgetful. 4. Disorganized. 5. Creative.

What's the future of Paul English feedback? Haikus? Tattoos?

As a designer, I’m really into alliteration. I’ve made lists before with alliteration. But I love your haiku comment. That’s pretty funny. I think I’m going to make the next one a haiku.

[Image: Flickr user Brooke]

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5 Comments

  • veena_srinath

    I totally agree, most of the times I have left a job is because of "style clash" and it's really big...
    Being diplomatic is overrated...

  • rachael hammer

    Great ideas shared here; valuable content in my book! I heard something about feedback that changed my view of it a few weeks ago. That is: view feedback as a compliment; a high form of a compliment. This is especially helpful when giving or receiving tough feedback. Communicating with courage and candor, keeping it short and telling people the truth takes practice and guts (instead of balls, maybe I'll say ovaries!), but is well worth the effort. Thanks for the unique perspective and story.

  • Robert Lawson

    People are going to work expecting clear obtainable goal setting, and regular feedback, and recognition for their efforts, but what they are getting is goal's that are set during meetings, and not connected to anything else, yearly performance reviews with minimal follow-up and maximum paperwork, and irrelevant rewards, and methods of recognition that are way outdated. If you are not aware yet HighGround has a powerful performance piece behind it that will streamline the challenge of the employee review process, and make it clear to identify your real top performers.