In almost every company I've been to, pay is decided by a yearly review using feedback garnered from colleagues.

This has a lot of negatives associated with it. People save feedback until the year end, instead of giving it regularly. They end up only asking friends for feedback to get "good marks". The review itself inevitably ends up focusing on people's weaknesses instead of their strengths. There's a lot of data to show that tying reviews and feedback to pay is a really, really bad idea.

What alternatives exist?

Edit: I'm really looking for alternatives to reviews, not better ways to do performance reviews or better ways to tie pay to it. I pretty much share Esther Derby's feelings about formal review processes, and am looking for different ways to manage pay scales. It's possible to create environments in which feedback is given freely and informally. In that situation, a review process is irrelevant and harmful... except that I don't then know what to do about the pay. This is why I'm asking. I would prefer even to have pay not tied to individual performance at all. What alternatives out there exist? Has anyone tried anything different?

For reference, Joel Spolsky's article, "Incentive Pay considered Harmful", in which he quotes HBR:

... at least two dozen studies over the last three decades have conclusively shown that people who expect to receive a reward for completing a task or for doing that task successfully simply do not perform as well as those who expect no reward at all.

[HBR Sept/Oct 93]

  • It sounds like you are taking the individuality of this out of the equation. Are you sort of looking for a program that adjusts pay, both up and down, for all employees equally? Sort of like what collective bargaining does for a work unit? Jan 24, 2012 at 12:55
  • That would be one alternative, yes. Please tell me more about it! I'm also interested in for instance people who have fixed pay grades and you just get a flat rate for that grade, or who give bonuses for an entire team, etc., and how effective the alternatives are, what problems you encountered.
    – Lunivore
    Jan 24, 2012 at 12:59
  • Sadly, I have never experienced anything but performance based adjustments, so I do not know the pros and cons in doing it differently. While I appreciate the studies and their findings, I am not totally convinced about removing performance based adjustments. I wish I could offer more but perhaps others can chime in with some advice.... Jan 24, 2012 at 13:17
  • 1
    This is a really intriguing question and something that I had not really considered. Having a flat pay increase for specific bands sounds like the way the UK public sector works and that seems to lead to complaints and strikes but I guess it may work. Have you thought about simply linking pay reviews to company performance rather than individual performance? for e.g. company has 10% profit growth so each employee gets x% increase.
    – dlongman
    Jan 24, 2012 at 13:23
  • @dlongman - My company bases pay raises/bonuses on company performance. It only works for units that impact company performance directly, groups like accounting that don't directly impact company performance don't get motivated.
    – Doug B
    Jan 24, 2012 at 13:56

5 Answers 5


I can't give you a solution that eliminates reviews, sorry. What I can offer is something one of my Agile mentors helped a large company put in place.

The problem they had was that the company had chosen to go agile, but this didn't mesh with the review process. At the end of the year, everyone was being called out on what they did individually.

They did two things:

Overhauled the Individual Goals Setting process - They brought the manager, employee relationship back a few decades to a time when managers had a heavy focus on how to improve their directs. Goals are ways for the direct to improve their career path. This made up 50% of an employees review.

Instituted a team level review - This focused on the team and only that team. This wasn't a "team A did 50 more stories than team A, as that doesn't work." They created a value based system using the Agile Values and Principles and entire teams were rated against this. This made up the other 50%.

They are in their first cycle of this new model, and everything is pointing to a very positive change in how things are working. The teams don't have to compete with team mates anymore and the team productivity has shot up.

  • Thanks, Joel, I like the idea of using team values this way. I really appreciate you for speaking from an experiential perspective too! Out of curiosity, are you worried about / have you noticed any higher-level anti-patterns as a result, like teams competing more fiercely for shared resources? Or does the Agile nature of the values they're being measured on prevent that?
    – Lunivore
    Jan 24, 2012 at 20:06
  • Lunivore- In this instance, they are still in their first iteration. I'll to ask my mentor how things go next year. This could be an issue, though I think if you can get the whole company behind it, that will help to counteract the anti-patterns. A team that doesn't play well with other teams will get noticed and not for good. Jan 25, 2012 at 4:25

Creating an environment where

feedback is given freely and informally

does not preclude annual appraisals. In fact they are still a really important mechanism for reviewing the entire year. Continual feedback is great, and I am a proponent of it, but it is very transient. That is, you tend to provide small amounts of feedback on minor points all year around (like the adjustments you make on the steering wheel as you drive down a straight road). Having the annual review is a great way to look back over the entire year and see what it was like as a whole.

You should be careful about not linking pay to performance at all, because that would mean someone who worked above and beyond all year gets no more reward than someone who just turned up. I guess this could work if everyone got a standard % salary increase and the good people got a separate bonus award. But then you are back to the original question - how do you decide who gets a bonus.

Generally, as a manager, you instinctively know who in your team are doing a really good job and who are poor. The challenge is ranking the people in the middle. You could do the pay reviews instinctively but this is very opaque to the team and you run a risk of rating people you like higher than they should be, so you need to be more quantitative about it, or maybe make the whole process overtly random, for e.g. the wheel of fortune pay review process:

Get the entire company in the same place, order pizza, then bring out a wheel of fortune with various % increases on it (make sure there is one big number). Each employee takes turn to spin the wheel and whatever number is lands on is their pay review for the year. This could be quite expensive for the company I guess but if you aren't linking pay reviews to performance at least it makes it clear what the process is and everyone has a laugh.

I think linking pay reviews to performance is better though :-)

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    I suspect you may be making up the Wheel of Fortune for entertainment. Consider me entertained. If you come across any alternatives that have actually been tried or have heard of anything, please do feel free to answer again.
    – Lunivore
    Jan 24, 2012 at 14:18
  • I think you made a really great point about not linking pay to performance. However, I would be severely insulted if my pay was based on a game. I would have no respect for my employer if they did that as that's not what I paid thousands of dollars to go to college for. Otherwise, your points about continual feedback are also great things for us to not forget. +1
    – jmort253
    Jan 25, 2012 at 3:36
  • Yes, the wheel of fortune suggestion was a little tongue in cheek, although personally I would prefer that if my pay/bonus was determined by something unrelated to my performance or the performance of my team. Having it determined openly through a game of luck rather than hidden behind a facade of being performance related would be better for me. Having said that I can see how it would be a difficult sell for the team :-)
    – dlongman
    Jan 31, 2012 at 16:18

It seems like you are reviewing the wrong things in the wrong way.

Reviews should be about self and manager evaluation and not about popularity.

Reviews should be periodic but should not replace feedback whenever it is relevant.

Reviews should primarily be used for improving the organization's processes and structure and for employee self-improvement and carrier-paths, bonuses and advancement should be a side effect and not the main reason for reviews.

See this answer and comments for more details.

Besides reviews, you should also introduce periodic salary increases to match salaries to market value.

  • Hi Danny, I'm particularly looking for alternatives to reviews. I have used reviews very effectively throughout the year as mechanisms for growth and to ensure that teams have appropriate skills. I am trying to find ways of paying people which aren't linked to those performance reviews. The periodic salary increases is a good start. Do you have any other suggestions?
    – Lunivore
    Jan 24, 2012 at 15:18
  • I don't think that ruling out reviews completely is a good idea. It should be a combination of reviews and employment market. Jan 24, 2012 at 15:31
  • I'm not ruling out reviews. However, a few people such as Esther Derby do. I'm trying to find out what they use as alternatives. I also think that reviews are a really great idea aside from pay.
    – Lunivore
    Jan 24, 2012 at 15:34
  • Ask her - comment on her post :-) Jan 24, 2012 at 15:40
  • I was planning on asking her in person next time we met; I'm sure she can't be the only person though.
    – Lunivore
    Jan 24, 2012 at 15:49

Your draft implies that employees' pay is determined solely based on colleague feedback. But I would guess you meant that is one of several different inputs or information that is used to determine an employee's status. Is that right?

When you say reviews and feedback to pay is a bad idea, are you referencing the notion that pay has been shown NOT to be tied to motivation and performance?

Conduct formal and informal reviews at a greater frequency. We conduct a document review 1) after a phase of a project is complete, 2) at the end of a project or the end of the employee's role on a project, 3) mid-year, and 4) end of year. An employee could receive at least two but up to many of these reviews in a given year. These assessments are completed by the employee's project boss and is delivered to the employee's organization boss and HR file. They are all standard reviews with a five-level, ordinal scale across defined dimensions.

We also conduct formal mid-year and end-of-year face-to-face reviews conducted with the employee's organization boss. These are documented, as well, using the same scale and dimensions.

Although I agree that money does not motivate performance, I think a program tied to the previous year's performance is appropriate. We have two yearly pay increase programs, one tied to the market, the other tied to performance. So the employee's pay is compared to where they fall in the pay range for his rank and where the entire range falls within industry. He would receive a pay adjustment so that he approaches a particular percentile of the range (currently, we push to the median). Then, he would receive some percentage tied to his yearly score based on performance.

Far from perfect and we certainly have our issues, but maybe there's something here you can capture and try.

  • Please see my edit above. I am looking for alternatives to tying pay to individual evaluation. All the available evidence questions whether it really is appropriate and the best thing to do.
    – Lunivore
    Jan 24, 2012 at 12:06
  • Yes, I thought you referencing that. Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators. However, if you deploy those other motivators throughout the year, tying pay increase program to the previous year's performance, I do not think, will diminish performance or motivation. Studies I read showed organizations that primarily relied on money motivators. Jan 24, 2012 at 12:13
  • It's entirely possible, yes. However, I'm still looking for alternatives!
    – Lunivore
    Jan 24, 2012 at 12:48

There are some methods to get the feedback from the people and to pass the feedback to individuals. Try to implement a system to evaluate co-workers. The methods I use:

In those methods, the co-workers evaluate each other, but it is the PM who passes the feedback to everyone individually.

The very important thing is that the team understand the evaluation process the same way and it is fair. Assuming I have the scale: 1 (junior) to 5 (expert), I explained it this way:

"You can all mark your co-workers as experts, so you all get good money, but I will treat you as experts and I will expect you to solve difficult problems. So, if you are not experts, we'll have a problem".

"You can all mark your co-workers as juniors, so I won't have much expectations from you, but your salary will not be as good as you would wanted it to be."

In the 360 degree method, the team focus on both: good and bad marks.

  • I am trying to find alternatives to individual evaluation and tying pay to it.
    – Lunivore
    Jan 24, 2012 at 12:08

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