All of us at LiveRamp are interested in self-improvement; we want to become better engineers, salespeople, marketers, managers, etc. One of the most useful tools for improving oneself is external feedback — how do our co-workers perceive our performance — but getting this information isn’t always easy. Even if our colleagues are willing to share their thoughts and feelings, it can be a real challenge simply identifying and communicating them.
I’d like to share a method I experimented with this past year that turned out to be an effective way for me to get useful feedback from my team. I refer to it as the Behind-My-Back Review. I asked my four reports to meet together (without me) for an hour with instructions to speak candidly about how they thought I could improve. Essentially, they were tasked to bitch about me behind my back. One of them was to write up the group’s feedback, without identifying which individual suggested which piece.
Why Was This Effective?
I think there were two fundamental reasons the Behind-My-Back Review was effective in ways that other colleague feedback systems I’ve tried were not. First, it provides a forum for individuals to think, discuss, and brainstorm together. For many people, talking with others can evoke ideas that may not have arisen were we to think in isolation. I know that for me, when I have prepared conventional reviews for co-workers, I have often had the feeling that I simply couldn’t think of half the things I probably would have liked to suggest.
The second reason this methodology may be uniquely effective is that it provides a different degree of anonymity from other colleague review methodologies I have used. Those other systems are either non-anonymous (which is great as long as folks are completely comfortable being candid), theoretically anonymous (the review is non-identified, but may carry telltale signs of authorship), or it may have managed anonymity (e.g. reviews are collected by a manager and used to construct an integrated review without specifically identifying the sources of peer feedback). The Behind-My-Back Review is most similar to the last model, but it’s different in that an individual’s feedback is given verbally, and only committed to writing under auspices of the entire review group.
Will This Work for Everyone?
My four reports are managers themselves, and liked the Behind-My-Back Review enough to do it with their own teams. They also received useful feedback from their reports.
Will this model work for everyone? I can imagine that the BMBR relies on a healthy amount of trust to work well. The individuals within the review group must trust each other if they are to be open during the review session. And, of course, the subject of the review must be comfortable authorizing the group to air grievances about him or her to each other. Undoubtedly not all managers would be willing to encourage this, though I’d suggest to them that their reports are probably going to talk about them behind their back whether they authorize it or not.
Structuring the Discussion
I think it’s useful for the review group to use some sort of structure to organize their discussion and feedback. In my case, my reports used Google’s eight positive behaviors of a manager and evaluated me in each category. If you are going to use the Behind-My-Back Review, I suggest you choose a structure that is most likely to generate useful feedback for you.