Watch this article as a short video on my YouTube channel. This article is thoughts from the Performance Reviews chapter of The Software Engineer's Guidebook I'm writing - subscribe to get notified when the book is published.
I've done dozens of performance reviews while I was an engineering manager at Uber. One thing I learned early on is just how many unconscious biases I had. This revelation came when I attended my first unconscious bias training at the company. As we went through biases, I caught myself thinking, "wow, I did that. Yep, that as well. Yes, that's me."
It's not just me. Biases - disproportionately favoring people and things we find familiar and the other way around - are ingrained in people from an early age. Just watch this two-minute video about five-year-olds and gender biases that develops thanks to our surrounding environment.
This article summarizes the 8 common biases I've observed in performance reviews and how you - as someone receiving this review - can counter them. Most articles I write are specific to software engineers and engineering managers. However, this topic is probably just as applicable across any company.
If you are a manager, this piece can be a reminder on what biases to watch out for. While it's great for people to have the toolset to spot and "counter" biases, good managers should consciously reduce biases in any performance review. This starts by being aware of these, calibrating reviews, and sharing with peers or your own managers, asking for their feedback if they see you being biased in certain directions.
Disclaimer: use all advice below with good judgment. You'll probably get better advice from asking your mentors and peers on specific situations: nothing beats a good support network.
You're getting your performance review. Your manager is giving you feedback that you might agree, or not agree with. Pay attention to one thing: are you getting generic or specific feedback?
Specific feedback is concrete. It might follow the pattern of OFNR (Observation, Feeling, Need, Request - a great summary of this approach by Charles-Axel Dein here) or a tailored version of the STAR model (Situation, Task, Action, Result: here's the situation you were in, what your task was, what you were expected to do, what you did and the result). The point is your manager talks specifics. They mention a situation or a specific event. They talk about what they saw or heard. They tell you what they suggest you could have done differently or different output you could have achieved.
When you get specific feedback, you can have a proper conversation. Perhaps your manager missed part of the context. Perhaps they misinterpreted something. Or maybe you feel they are right. Either way, you both know what you are talking about: and this makes for generally healthy exchanges.
Generic feedback is the opposite. When your manager says, "your work is often lower quality than what it should be" or "you're overly "cautious, you end up scratching your head. Are they speculating? Based on what are they saying this? This feedback is frustrating to hear because it's so hard to pin down. It's hard to accept it, and it's even harder to challenge it.
When you notice generic feedback, aim to turn it into something specific. Ask for examples where they deducted this from. Use paraphrasing of sharing what you understood from the feedback, and ask for examples. Here's a good read to understand paraphrasing from engineering leader Padmini Pyapali.
For example, to paraphrase the generic feedback "your work is often lower quality than it should be", you could respond by paraphrasing, "So what I understand you're saying is my work frequently results in bugs, correct?" - and this will take the conversation forward. When you confirm what your manager is thinking, ask for specifics: and tell them you need specifics to digest the feedback.
Speculative feedback is when your manager tells you things that you could do or could have done, often without much specifics. "You could have done more coding" or "you could collaborate more with the team" are both this kind of feedback.
Speculative feedback is often a lazy form of feedback. As a manager, I stopped myself from giving this type of feedback without specifics, unless it was for people above expectations, and I was highlighting stretch opportunities. It's lazy because it is usually not specific, and it often doesn't even reflect on what you've been doing. As a manager with many reports, it can also be a real time saver with performance reviews to give similar speculative feedback to people.
When you get speculative feedback, challenge why your manager is saying this. What action or behavior prompts this? What situation would they recommend this in?
Make a note of what type of feedback your manager gives you - and push back on generic and generic+speculative feedback, regardless of any bias you might be suspecting. Quality performance feedback is specific, and it is fair game for you to ask for this from your manager if they haven't prepared the feedback like this. Let's jump into spotting biases and my advice on how to counter them with this out of the way.
The 8 most common biases I've observed in performance reviews