David Heinemeier Hansson

May 30, 2023

360 degrees of phony back-patting

In all the years we ran 360 performance reviews – the employee assessment process where you solicit feedback from peers, reports, and manager – I can think of only once when it lead to a meaningful follow-up. The rest of the time, across hundreds of reviews, it was an arduous, awkward affair of forcing people to come up with novel ways to congratulate each other on command. Dropping these 360s was perhaps one of the most popular acts of minimizing management we've ever done at 37signals.

It should have been obvious that the 360 process wasn't valuable because almost nobody wanted to do it. Getting folks to fill out their reviews required constant nagging, resulting in weeks-long procrastination. That is not the hallmark of a happy process that serves the interests of the people involved.

I think the key reason here is that there is very little upside to rating peers in the totally honest way that might actually be useful as part of a performance review. Even if someone acts in ways you think could be improved, are you really going to complain about it to management? Probably not, unless it's truly egregious, and if so, why wait for the 360?

So most people would just keep their minor grievances to themselves, and that's probably for the best! More than once did we deal with unnecessary drama and friction because someone actually did put down some mild feedback, which, as humans are prone to do, was then perceived as a stinging slight. You couldn't design a better process for planting seeds of social dysfunction than to explicitly ask peers to share their minor annoyances with each other through the conduit of management.

But so what if 360s are mostly just a compilation of nice things others were forced to say about you on a regular schedule? What's actually wrong with a regular ritual of congratulations? That it's fake, that's what. Humans can smell inauthenticity a mile away. And if 360s are anything, it's inauthentic.

A better way of celebrating each other, which is something every company should absolutely seek to do, is to invite the voluntary sharing of authentic admiration in an in-person session dedicated to the point. Without the pretext that it'll come as a sweet'n'sour mix. Just commit to the sweet, and save the sour for a direct managerial conversation in private, if need be.

We do this at 37signals during our biyearly meet-ups. We call it peer appreciation, and it's perhaps my favorite part of our meet-ups altogether. A handful of people put their name down to stand up in front of the whole company to appreciate a peer in public. It's genuinely moving, and everyone loves it. The polar opposite of the 360 charade.

The contrast between 360s and peer appreciation is clear. Processes that require honest participation need to be seen by the participants as intrinsically valuable. You can't force someone to be honest or authentic, if they don't see a personal upside. And it's an obvious red flag that they don't when nagging is required to get compliance.

Let peers celebrate each other in public, let managers deal with redirection directly and in private.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.