A few years ago, I started doing something with my performance reviews that might sound unusual: I send each one to all 2,000+ employees at my company, Gusto.
What inspired this decision? Many organizations espouse transparency as a core value, but it typically doesn’t extend to performance reviews. While leaders are often privy to our teams’ reviews, it’s rarely a two-way street. The result is that for many people, it’s uncomfortable to give and receive constructive feedback at work.
I want to dispel that discomfort and show, not just tell, that everyone—up to the highest levels of leadership—can grow. Ultimately, I work for all of our employees. They have the right to hold me accountable for my decisions that impact them and our customers.
Any company can foster a deeper culture of transparency and constructive feedback, and doing so will strengthen trust and respect within the organization. Here are a few ways to begin, and the benefits we’ve seen.
Start small and prioritize privacy
A cultural shift toward transparency is a journey. Not everyone may be ready to press send on an email with their review to the whole company, and that’s okay. Sharing a review widely should never be mandatory; respect any employee’s desire to keep theirs private. If someone does decide to share one, all the feedback in it should be anonymous. Individual reviewers should give permission before their comments are publicized.
With those ground rules in mind, consider small ways to help leaders and employees grow more comfortable with constructive feedback. For example, leaders could share their reviews with their direct reports, teams, or departments. Our head of physical security, Terrell Brown, had never shared a performance review with peers before coming to Gusto. A former police officer, DEA task force agent, and U.S. marshal, Terrell kept critical feedback close to the vest for most of his career. But he saw embracing vulnerability as an opportunity to become a better leader, and now shares his reviews with a handful of teams. Many folks have reached out personally to him saying they’d take his lead and share their own reviews.
Publicizing my review has created important opportunities for my team to hold me accountable. Shortly after I shared my most recent one, someone pointed out that I fell into an old habit of dropping what my team calls a “flee bomb” during a meeting. (I think of flee bombs as big, exciting challenges for my team to rally around; but for them, it can feel like surprise projects dropped in their laps without enough context.) After that meeting, I scheduled a follow-up to share more information and ensure everyone could work on the project autonomously and efficiently. Seeing my review empowered my team to speak up and hold me accountable.
It also inspired them to take bigger swings in their work. One example is creating an isolated, secure vault in which to store the most sensitive personal and financial information that our customers trust us with. This undertaking was only possible because our teams felt comfortable and supported tackling big projects.
Lead by example
Sharing our reviews has helped me and other Gusto leaders practice transparency and accountability—two of the most important skills a leader can have.
Honing those skills is especially important right now as workers call for transparency from their employers. We saw this interest in transparency in action when our CTO, our head of physical security, and our head of product shared their reviews with the company for the first time. When I first shared my review, the Google Doc it was in broke because hundreds of people—nearly 30% of our workforce—tried to read it that same day. Similarly, almost 40% of employees read our cofounder and CTO’s review the day he first shared it.
Our goal is to make these kinds of messages normal, not novel. They reflect broader changes in how we approach performance reviews: For instance, we recently overhauled engineering teams’ reviews to focus on impact instead of output. Sharing our reviews helps us show that we hold ourselves to the same standards as our teams, and that it’s okay to fall short sometimes as long as we commit to growth.
Be constructive and kind
A company’s feedback culture is just as much about how information is shared as what it says. Constructiveness and kindness are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the best feedback has both.
Constructive feedback is an objective analysis and evaluation of an issue—which can be easy to forget when criticism is directed at something as personal as our work. Useful constructive feedback is also kind, meaning the person giving feedback cares enough about the recipient to help them improve. In contrast, “nice” feedback sugarcoats criticism to avoid discomfort, stifling the recipient’s growth and setting them on a path toward mediocrity. Research shows that employees seek out honest, clear information—or kind feedback—to help them grow.
Here’s an example: My last performance review urged me to “save space for others when speaking and enable my leads to own more and execute more independently.” Instead of just saying, “Don’t talk so much,” this guidance is specific, actionable, and helps both my team and me grow. Now, when I feel inclined to speak up about something, I consider whether someone else is a better fit to do so. I might reach out to them on Slack before a meeting to offer context and my perspective, then let them take the reins. My goal is to foster trust through communication while creating space for others to share their ideas.
Evolving your feedback culture requires patience and vulnerability, which means it can be scary. But it’s worth it: Transparency, kindness, and honesty foster trust within an organization and have never been more important to employees. Building an open, constructive feedback culture is a worthy investment in your business’ most valuable asset: your people.
Fredrick “Flee” Lee is chief security officer at Gusto, a provider of payroll, benefits, compliance, and HR services to more than 200,000 small businesses.