Did you feel that shift in the air? That’s right, it’s review season again. Whether your organization’s review process is annual or semiannual, this time is as certain as death and taxes (at least, it should be).

In an ideal world, helpful feedback would be given on a day-to-day basis, and the review would be a time to summarize, reflect on any themes, and create goals for the future. 

In reality, most people hate review season. Managers are overwhelmed with paperwork, HR is stuck herding people to please meet the deadlines, and team members are both on-edge and tasked with additional work. 

So why do them at all? At Bright + Early, we spend a lot of time listening to teams: what’s going well, what’s not going so well, and what they want to see more of in their work experience. While most people say they don’t like performance reviews, the number one thing we hear from team members is that they want clear goals and clear feedback on how they are progressing towards them, ideally on a set and regular basis. Some organizations approach this with alternative structures like formal continuous feedback methodologies, while others stick to classic review processes. Done right, modern reviews can be more about setting and checking in on goals, and less about going through a laundry list of your personal faults.

And even if you’re not a manager, your role in the review process can be crucial. If you’ve been tapped in to write a self review, a 360 review or—gulp—a review of your own manager, you might be feeling anxious about it. But we’re here to help. In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about writing performance reviews as a non-manager.

A caveat: This guide is aimed at folks who are employed within generally healthy organizations, that choose to do performance reviews in the standard way, and within a western business context. If you’re in a toxic work environment, have experienced workplace trauma, or are working with significant cultural differences from western norms (which can show up a lot in how we give and receive feedback), the advice in this guide might not apply. 

How do reviews work? 

First off, a good performance review process starts with clear expectations. Ideally, your employer has provided clear guidance here, whether it be through a well written job description, a system of career paths, or other documentation you can use to know what doing a good job actually looks like.

From there, HR teams typically initiate and orchestrate the performance review process. That doesn’t mean they’re involved in giving feedback or making any direct decisions that come out of these reviews—HR’s main role here is to design and facilitate a fair and smooth process. 

As for the reviews themselves, some are top-down only, meaning the manager reviews their direct reports and leaves it at that. But that’s not what this article is about, so let’s go over the types of non-manager reviews you might be asked to complete:

Self assessments: Some reviews include a section for the employee being reviewed to reflect on their own performance and share any strengths, wins, notable experiences, or areas they want to work on. 

Peer reviews: Other reviews solicit feedback from peers, clients, and other non-managerial folks that interact with them (this is called a 360). In some 360s, the employee can choose which peers evaluate them. In others, the manager chooses. The manager will then gather each peer review, organize them into major feedback themes, and then meet with the direct report to summarize them. 

Manager reviews: The last type of non-manager review is when an employee is asked to reflect on their own manager’s performance. Understandably, having to do one of these reviews can be pretty nerve-wracking—after all, how honest (and anonymous) can you really be in this scenario? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.

What does a well-designed review look like?

No matter what kind of review is taking place, a well-designed one should feel like a check-in about things the person being reviewed already knows. When this happens, the bulk of the discussion is spent on checking in on and setting growth goals. Ideally, this is a mutual activity: the manager is a partner in coming up with a plan of action that includes how they’ll support their direct reports in achieving their goals.

A badly designed review is a different story.To the person on the receiving end,  it can feel like surprise feedback is being dumped on them, leaving them feeling blindsided, confused, and, often, hurt. 

How will my review be used? Who sees what I write?

It depends how it’s designed. At the very least, when you’re asked to write a self or peer review, your manager or your peer’s manager will read it. In the case of upward feedback (AKA you reviewing your manager), it likely goes up to their manager. 

At some organizations, people know who their peer reviewers are, and at others, that information is kept private. Some organizations share direct quotes and examples with the employee being reviewed, while others will broadly summarize or anonymize them. If you’re not sure how your organization handles peer or upward manager review anonymity, reach out to HR and ask. 

Will someone get fired or have their pay determined based on my review? That makes me anxious.

Unless everyone’s feedback on one coworker is a chorus of red flags, it’s doubtful. While egregious things like abuse or harassment sometimes come up in review processes, run-of-the-mill feedback is helpful in giving people a chance to correct anything that’s not going well. 

Reviews are a place to hype your colleagues up and share times they’ve elevated everyone’s work or saved you in a pinch. If you have constructive feedback, it’s likely you’re not the only one giving it, and they’ll only be better for hearing it. 

These days, most organizations don’t use reviews as the only factor in pay, determining it more through a combination of performance, market rates and how the employee works towards and achieves any goals they set in the review. 

I don’t work with my teammate or manager on every single project. How can I have the context to review them?

Your feedback is only one piece of the puzzle, and their manager knows that. It’s likely they’re selecting people who work with your teammate in a number of ways and seeing how your teammate shows up in each scenario. Their manager can use that information to paint a wider picture of their impact and how they’re showing up for others. 

How to write reviews as a non-manager

Now that we’ve answered your burning questions (and hopefully quelled your anxieties) about completing reviews as a non-manager, let’s go over some tips for each kind of review you could be asked to participate in.

Tips for writing a self review

Self reviews are a chance for you to give your manager a realistic overview of how you see your own performance and remind them of any big wins or projects you’ve tackled over the last few months (like any human, they’ll forget anything that didn’t happen recently). Here’s how to write a self review that’s comprehensive, relevant, and as objective as possible. 

Tip 1: Collective evidence to stay objective

We know it can be difficult to self-reflect objectively, but coming off as too harsh on yourself (or too soft) isn’t a good look. To stay as objective as possible, gather as much concrete evidence as you can throughout the year:

  • Build a brag list! Collect wins throughout the year by saving any positive feedback you get in one place. You can also keep a running list of accomplishments and important things you’ve shipped.
  • Do the same with any feedback you receive throughout the year. Write it down and take concrete steps towards improving in those areas. When your review rolls around, you’ll have a well-documented log to refer to, rather than having to rely on your memory.

Tip 2: Reflect before you write 

Before you write anything down, review your job description and any career paths or levels the organization has set up for your department. Go through the job description line by line, and reflect: What are some areas you’re amazing at? Are there any you feel unsure about or want to improve in? Do you feel you’re on track to grow into the job one level above yours (if that’s what you want)? If not, what might help you get there?

Tip 3: Get specific about your goals and opportunities

Writing a self review is a great time to ask yourself the all-important question: “What do I want?” Are you hoping to be promoted or to one day manage others? Keep on rocking as an incredible individual contributor, all while growing in your craft? 

If you’re interested in growing into a specific role, see if you can review the job description or career path associated with it. Go through it and highlight areas you’re already great at, as well as areas you haven’t had the chance to work on yet. Don’t be shy to share your goals with your manager. Being clear on what you want makes it easier for your manager to guide and mentor you, and to look for opportunities to fill any gaps in your current experience to get you there.

When thinking about opportunities, reflect on how your manager can help you. What would their support look like? Write it down, along with examples.

Tip 4: Add specific examples of your impact

As much as you can, add specific examples of how you made an impact. Revisit the list of accomplishments and feedback you’ve been gathering throughout the year. Did you create a new process that saved everyone time? Maybe you knocked a project out of the park and received a glowing thank you note from a client. When you can back up each point of your self review with concrete proof, you’ll have a much easier time reminding your boss exactly what makes you such an asset to the team.

Tips for writing peer reviews

Providing peer feedback can feel tricky at best and unnecessary at worst. After all, you’re not your coworker’s boss, so why are you being asked to rate how they’re doing? 

As the name suggests, the purpose of this kind of review is for your colleague’s manager to get a well-rounded view of how other people experience that colleague. In other words, you’re being asked to provide feedback precisely because you’re not their boss. With the right insights, your peer’s manager can have a much more balanced view of how their team member works with others. 

Here are some tips you can lean on to write an effective peer review.

Tip 1: Set yourself up for a smooth review

It can be tempting to either rush a peer review or write it off the top of your head, but we really urge you not to (if the roles were reversed, you’d want your reviewer to take their time and be intentional, right?). First off, make sure you understand the time frame being evaluated before you start writing your feedback. If it’s an annual review, don’t include an example from last year. 

Next, review the questions and take some time to consider them before you write your answers. If anything’s unclear, see if your organization has openly shared job descriptions or career levels for your peer’s job. 

Finally, if you’ve been asked to provide feedback for many people, you might want to break it up into smaller tasks so that you don’t get fatigued. Completing peer reviews the right way takes time and reflection, and you don’t want to leave it all to one block of time.

Tip 2: Pre-empt any biases that may pop up

We’re all human, and we’re all prone to biases. But being aware of biases is a great way to combat them. Take a read through the list below and check your opinions against each of them. If you see any of these biases creeping in, correct them before you turn in your review.

  • The halo effect: Giving someone an overall high rating because of one thing they do well. Ex: “Alex always over-delivers on their roadmap.They are exceeding expectations.”
  • The horns effect: Giving someone an overall poor rating because of one thing they don’t do well. Ex. “Alex’s work is poor because their team doesn’t like to work with them.”
  • Recency bias: Basing your review on recent behaviour only. Ex: “Alex is a bad teammate because they missed some deadlines in a few of the recent sprints.”
  • Contrast bias: Comparing a teammate against other team members instead of against the set standard. Ex. “Dana is better at managing timelines than Alex, which means Alex is bad at managing timelines.”
  • Anchor bias: Using a first impression (self review) as a basis for evaluation. Ex. “Alex seemed cold to me from the get-go. I think they should work on being warmer towards their teammates.”
  • Leniency bias: Giving everyone a satisfactory rating. Ex. “Alex doesn’t do anything that bothers me, so I don’t think they need to improve on anything.”
  • Personal bias: Evaluating a person based on who they are instead of on what they have or have not done. Ex. “I know Alex must be great at their job due to their directiveness and assertiveness. These are essential traits in a leader.”

Tip 3: Use a framework to guide your feedback

Just because you’re not a manager doesn’t mean you should shy away from providing constructive feedback. A good manager is looking for any blind spots that will help them guide their direct report, and can usually tell when these peer reviews are feeling phoned in.

If you do have constructive feedback to provide but aren’t sure how to say it (or, let’s face it, you’re worried about coming off as a narc), use a methodology like SBI + A to guide you. SBI + A stands for Situation, Behaviour, Impact, and Action. When using it, you’ll reference specific situations, objectively describe the behaviour you observed, describe the impact this behaviour had on others, and suggest the next step you’d like them to take. 
Here’s an example of positive feedback, broken down into SBI + A components:

Sarah did a great job leading that meeting. She put together an agenda, set objectives, and assigned action items. That kept us on track and all on the same page! It was very organized and made me feel energized and confident about this project. I’d love to see all our meetings like this! I’d love for Sarah to train others on how she preps to lead meetings. 

And an example of constructive feedback, broken down into SBI components:

Our team meetings are a key part of our week. Sarah is often late to team meetings. Because Sarah is a leader on the team, it sends the message that these meetings aren’t important, which leads to lower morale. It also gives us less time to get our work done. I’d love for Sarah to prioritize making it to team meetings on time.

And just for comparison’s sake, here’s an example of what unhelpful peer review feedback can look like (that obviously does not use SBI + A):

Sarah doesn’t care about the project work and always makes up excuses as to why she doesn’t have her part done. She doesn’t seem to care about informing her project team on status updates. I’ve heard similar sentiments from other folks on the team.

As you can see, this feedback isn’t crafted in an objective or helpful way. It also makes assumptions and attacks the person, rather than calling out observable behaviour. Following the right framework can help stay objective, provide relevant examples, and give your peer’s manager the information they need to get a full picture of their team member’s performance. Again, this is designed to help them grow, and let them know about anything that might be holding them back from doing their best as a team and community member. 

Tips for reviewing your manager

The final boss (pun intended) of non-manager review is the type where you, the non-manager, review your manager as part of a 360 feedback approach. We get it: this can be scary! But it doesn’t have to be if you’re prepared.

Ideally, upwards feedback will never be used against you (and if it is, your organization has a much bigger problem on its hands). Feedback is necessary to help us all grow and develop, and your manager is not exempt from that. That said, read the room; if your manager has a history of not taking feedback well, and you’re not sure how anonymous the process is, you may want to tread lightly (and look for another job). But if they’re generally in the business of trying to be a good manager, they’ll want to build an ongoing dialogue with you based on mutual growth. Managers like this will proactively seek feedback, thank you for it, and show progress on the things you discussed. If the coast seems clear and you want to give them actual, helpful information, here are some tips to make the process less daunting.

Tip 1: Prepare by reflecting 

Before you begin your review, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What did they accomplish recently?
  • What are their strengths?
  • In what areas could they benefit from support?
  • What skills could they work on?
  • What do they contribute to the team?
  • What do I wish they would do more (or less) often?
  • What do I appreciate about them?
  • When I think about working with my manager, do they:some text
    • Support me in reaching my goals?
    • Remove blockers for me?
    • Stay readily available when I need them?
    • Regularly attend 1:1s/meetings?
    • Give me regular praise and feedback?
    • Get me the information and tools I need to do my job?

Tip 2: Use SBI + A framing

Just like you did for your peer reviews, using SBI + A framing when writing your feedback is a great way to stick to specific examples that reference direct behaviours and their impact. Following this framework can help quell your fears about giving feedback that’s too personal or irrelevant. If it fits the framework, it’s fair game!

Tip 3: Use Stop, Start, Continue framing

Another helpful way to provide feedback to your manager focuses on the things you’d like them to stop, start, or continue doing as your manager. Unless you’ve got a nightmare manager, we’re going to urge you not to shy away from honesty here. (“My manager’s the best, they should stop worrying about what they might be doing wrong!” is not a valid “stop” suggestion.)

Here’s an example of what a helpful Stop, Start, Continue answer could look like:

  • I would like my manager to stop cancelling our 1:1’s with a few minutes’ notice. It interrupts my planned workflow for the day and makes me feel like my time is less important than theirs. If this sounds harsh, you can also flip it to a “start”. As in “I’d like them to start making sure we stick to our scheduled 1:1s”. 
  • I would like my manager to start giving me more constructive criticism. My manager is so good at praising my efforts, but I know there are areas I can improve in and I want my manager to help me see my blind spots so that I’m able to be a well-rounded team member, and eventually, a leader.
  • I would like my manager to continue giving me positive reinforcement in the areas I’m doing well in. It’s really motivating to me when my manager acknowledges what I do well and celebrates the work. It makes me want to continue the behaviour!

One final note on review design 

If you read through this guide and feel the review process at your organization is poorly designed, don’t fret. This is another opportunity to feel empowered to use your voice. Here are some options to consider:

  • If your review is top down only (AKA your manager is reviewing you and that’s that), come to your review prepared with a well thought out self review (you can also proactively seek feedback from your peers and clients and incorporate it into your self review). 
  • If you’re receiving indirect and unhelpful feedback with no follow ups, ask your manager to help you set specific goals, and carry them out. Saying something like, “I’ve been thinking about the feedback you gave me on getting better at sales. I’ve decided to set a goal of doubling my close rate by the end of the year. I’d love your help in getting budget approval for a course that I think will help, and any introductions to any top sales leaders you know so that I can take them for coffee. How about the one at AcmeCo that you mentioned?” can show your manager that you’ve been thinking about their feedback and want to find a solution.

Non-manager reviews don’t have to be scary

Armed with the right tools to help guide you through non-manager reviews, we hope you feel less anxious and more prepared to take anything on this review season. If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, remember: your feedback is just one piece of the puzzle, and if you follow the tips in this guide, you’ll be delivering feedback that’s fair and objective. Take a deep breath. You’ve got this!