Peer appraisal in worker co-ops

– or “how do you tell your co-worker their work is crap?” (Hint: You don’t)

Many moons ago, at a worker co-op conference, someone asked me: “how do you tell your co-worker their work is crap?” Good question, I thought, but I hadn’t the slightest idea how to do it. Except I thought then – and still do – that you should never tell your co-op co-worker their work is crap!

Worker co-ops are run for the benefit of the employees – their members – so of course the very last thing you want to do is fire someone. But you do need a way of providing support to your members – and a means of getting everyone on board with quality, timeliness and commitment to your mission and aims.

Appraisals provide members with support as well as providing a structure for holding them accountable. Any kind of business with employees (or volunteers) needs to carry out regular staff appraisals. But it’s how it’s done that interests us here.  In a worker co-op you will find a flatter, more democratic organisation. You may find that all the employees are Directors and you may find a variety of organisational structure – management by General Meeting (GM) or Management Committee, which may have delegated powers, or be representative of different teams or departments. There is also a growing body of worker co-ops adopting Sociocratic tools and structures. So we are not looking for a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

In a private enterprise an employer worth their salt will hold regular employee appraisals so that employees have the confidence that they are doing a good job, and the employer gets to know when people need training, or need new software or equipment, or when she needs to recruit more staff or give more hours to existing staff.

So in a flat, democratically-managed workplace, it’s just as important to have this information, and there are a variety of ways you can do that. You don’t need a hierarchical structure with a line manager responsible for holding appraisal exercises with staff, there are other approaches and this is what this paper aims to explore.

Why do it?

  • it provides security for members – they know that they are doing the right things, in the right place at the right time. They know when they have done a good job. Opportunity for praise.
  • it makes people feel valued
  • you can identify when people are underperforming or struggling
  • the team knows when a member needs training or needs a new app or software
  • the co-op is informed that that there is a need to recruit additional staff or provide existing staff members with additional hours. Or that a job description needs to be altered, or split between two people
  • it allows you to match expectations with reality
  • it provides a career path
  • it provides useful information for individual members – can be the basis for a personal development plan

What happens if you don’t?

  • cost to the business: ‘hiring & hiring’ (copyright B. Cannell); increased staff turnover; increased cost of new member induction
  • cost to member morale: “if they skive off why can’t I?”
  • frustration can build up if people don’t get feedback
  • lack of feedback prevents people growing and developing their skills
  • people bottle things up – leading to formal grievances
  • lack of engagement can cause long term dissatisfaction
  • cost to the co-operative culture: new members will see the contradiction between what you say and what you do; it will undermine the co-op’s mission

Models & examples

Example appraisal models from Co-operantics

Person-centred appraisal

  1. Look at your job description or role. Identify the key elements of it and the skills involved.  Try to distil it down to the essence of what the job really entails.
  2. Carry out a preliminary reflective review on your own using a scoring sheet.
  3. For each aspect of your job or role, score your ‘competency’ or ‘confidence’ using a score of 1-5 or Low/Med/High
  4. Then ask yourself ‘open questions’ such as:

Do you feel underworked/under-utilised or overworked/over-utilised?

Are there bits of the job you find difficult? Why? 

Are there bits of the job you especially enjoy? Why?

What would you like to be doing more/less of?

Can you identify any training needs?

What are your overall happiness levels as a worker member?

  1. Once you have carried out your own review, work through it with a colleague whose purpose is to challenge you and help you to clarify your answers.  This might be the same person for everyone, or a different person for each member. 
  2.  Identify personal improvements, training requirements and targets (could be used to create a personal development plan).
  3. When everyone in the co-op has been through this process you should have a set of score sheets that can inform individual personal development, the co-op’s training plan for the year, changes needed to the way the co-op allocates roles etc. 

Whether this last stage is carried out by one person in an appointed role or a sub-committee will depend on your culture and the way you organise.

 Membership competency appraisal
  1. The co-op separates out competency to do the job from competency to be a member.  A standard list of competencies is drawn up that every member needs to be able to fulfil in order to be an active member of the co-op.  (Sometimes called a Member Job Description).
  2. Members and probationary members are assessed either by an appointed individual or sub-committee.  Where competencies cannot be displayed, this should inform training plans for individuals and the co-op, in line with the 5th co-operative principle of training, education and information.

This approach can be used to measure progress through probationary membership.

Note: A membership appraisal should be used in tandem with another appraisal process that addresses job competencies.  Being great democratic members does not make a successful business without the trade skills and attributes.

Buddy system
  1. Each member of the co-op has a ‘buddy’ whose role it is to support them – a bit like a personal HR worker.
  2. Similarly to the person centred approach above, the worker-member carries out a self-assessment review using a form they have been provided with.  The buddy discusses the review.
  3. The buddy presents the review and their recommendations to the co-op or management committee or a sub-committee without the member present.
  4. Action points are developed and agreed by the co-op and the buddy has to monitor progress.

This process puts more of the onus on the co-op deciding improvement actions than the member.

KPIs/personal targets
  1. Each worker-member is allocated Key Performance Indicators that relate to their job role and also any other responsibilities they undertake for the co-op.
  2. Once a quarter (for example) a review meeting is held to assess performance against KPIs and discuss related issues.

KPI based systems work very well in businesses that can predict performance in outcomes or outputs.  There is a danger that KPI based systems can become purely about meeting targets and may not address underlying issues that have an impact on the co-op such as interpersonal communication or lack of skills until they start to impact on the ability to hit targets.  By this time it may be too late to address the damage.

Team reviews

The whole team regularly spends time with flipcharts and other visual aids to identify problems and successes the business has had, encouraging each worker-member to identify their own strengths/weaknesses and how they contributed to the co-op’s performance.

This approach, while apparently democratic and cohesive, actually carries a high risk of missing key issues that individuals want addressing.  There is a risk of developing ‘groupthink’* and relying too much on having the right person in the room to identify that the emperor is in fact wearing no clothes at all.

*Groupthink is what happens when a group of people say what they think is expected of them, or what the majority appears to support – perhaps because they do not want to ‘rock the boat’ or upset people. When it feels more important to agree with your peers than to think for yourself. Groupthink means that individual voices are not heard, problems can remain hidden, critical challenges are lost, decisions may be reduced to the lowest common denominator and the group’s approach or performance may often be mediocre or substandard.

Anonymised approaches identified from work with clients and co-operatives we have spoken to

Personal review (Peer listening) process

WHY?

  • to improve our work
  • to improve our working relationships
  • to practise what we preach
  • to create an open space for political discussions
  • to make a happy environment
  • to learn how to appreciate each other and the collective
  • to make a time for praise and constructive criticism
  • to improve transparency and communications

HOW?

  • Buddy system 
  • Everybody feels safe and supported
  • Open, frank, clear, safe
  • Whole group feedback system
  • Listening exercise
  • Based on job description

WHOLE GROUP REVIEW Annual

  • Company-wide objectives arising from Annual Business Plan to be built into members meeting and revisited on a (brief) monthly and (more in-depth) quarterly basis.
  • Member job description to be agreed and re-visited on an annual basis at Business Plan meeting
  • Individual role job description to be pared down to include in simplest fashion possible the functional tasks involved.
  • Combined ‘member’ (member/owner/director) and ‘role’ (manager/worker/employee) job descriptions constitute a members overall job description.
  • The objective of the below is not to give technocratic feedback about whether a person is ‘achieving’ or ‘failing’ their job description, but to give more holistic feedback regarding their general performance and to the company’s strategic objectives.

WHOLE GROUP LISTENING    Monthly half-day

  • Sessions to be termed ‘group listening’ rather than ‘feedback sessions’, with the objective being that both those subject to comments and the rest of the collective are focused on listening to what is being said, rather than discussing or agreeing/disagreeing with it.
  • Two people will be recipients of group feedback per afternoon session. The schedule of who is to be recipients of feedback will be drawn up in advance and cover a six-month period, to include all members of the collective. The schedule will then continue in a rolling manner (i.e. each member of the collective can expect to receive feedback every six months), with adjustments made for holidays, absences, new members of staff etc. Each member of the collective to use ‘Stop – Start – Continue’ in offering constructive comment.
  • Everyone, including recipient of comments, to listen attentively and without interruption to comments being given, whilst acknowledging that listening respectfully to each person’s feedback is not tacit acceptance or agreement with the feedback.
  • The recipients of group feedback have the option of offering a response at the end of the session.
  • Furthermore, recipients of group feedback have the option of offering a (further) response at the beginning of the following month’s session.

BUDDY SYSTEM          Monthly 1 hour

  • Each person to be given by randomized selection a ‘buddy’, and will remain as partners for 6 months.
  • Each buddy pairing to meet up for approx. 1 hr every month.
  • Each buddy to take it in turn to talk. Focus to be on:
  • The previous group listening session, irrespective of whether either of the buddies was the recipient of comments.  Discussion to focus on any lessons learnt/thoughts/reflections on how comments might impact personal working practices etc.  Focus of buddy discussion should not include any commentary on whether any feedback was perceived to be ‘fair’/’unfair’.
  • General concerns/comments worries of the buddy.
  • In both cases, the listening buddy should not offer advice on how to deal with a situation unless such advice is solicited, nor contradict the feelings of the speaking buddy (e.g. ‘you shouldn’t stress about it’).  Rather, the focus should be on listening, and offering responsive questions or comments (e.g. ‘so what is it exactly that upsets you about it?’; ‘what might be a constructive way for you to deal with it / help to resolve it / seek collective support?’) and perspective on the collective process. 
Personnel Review Process (based on a Buddy system)

Guidance for Appraisee

  • When completing this self-review form think about your job role and task list, and what you have achieved over the last year.
  • If you feel your task list needs amending, please use this self-review process to propose suggested amendments –prior to your initial meeting with your buddy.
  • For each of the ten categories below comment on how well you think you are doing and try to explain your answer with examples from the last year.
  • After discussing your thoughts with your buddy, this review form will be shared with the rest of the coop for further comments. Your buddy will feed comments back to you.
  • After discussing feedback from the rest of the coop with your buddy, summarise the main points of your discussion and list any key action points that  you agree.
  • Progress against these action points should be reviewed with your buddy on a quarterly basis.

Guidance for buddies

  • The role of the buddy is to listen, question and clarify, in order to feedback to the coop and the appraisee.
  • Go through self-review form with appraisee, making sure you understand all comments. Clarify vague comments and try and draw out key actions where relevant. (Buddies have to feedback to the coop so make sure you understand what you are feeding back!)
  • Go through appraisee’s most recent task list and discuss potential changes/ updates. These will be reviewed and approved when feeding back to the coop.
  • Once you have completed the self-review, completed review forms should be checked and approved by the appraisee and should be emailed to all coop members.

Headings

  1. Skills and areas of work         
  2. Future actions as decided by worker
  3. Coop member’s views as to how they are doing
  4. Feedback from rest of coop (agree/ disagree and comments)
  5. Future actions as decided by worker and their buddy

Categories

  1. Ability to work cooperatively (including willingness to help with day-to-day running tasks and other people’s tasks)
  2. Actively contributes to meetings and group discussions (including  sub-groups)
  3. Ability to communicate effectively (including giving and receiving feedback)
  4. Ability to manage workload and meet deadlines
  5. Quality of work
  6. Ability to perform job role to best of ability  (review task list)
  7. Seeks and accepts responsibility
  8. Seeks/ undertakes training and personal development and learns from mistakes
  9. Future aspirations for self within the co-op
  10. Training needs
  11. Future aspirations for the co-operative (e.g. additional products or services, campaigns, activities, research)?
  12. Any other comments?

This co-operative recently carried out a review of their Personnel Review Process. A large majority of members thought that the Review Process functioned effectively with regard to member self-appraisal, discussion with the buddy and feedback from the rest of the co-operative. However there was less agreement on whether the process functions effectively with regard to future actions as decided by Member & Buddy.

Member reviews (with Personnel team support & analysis)

Member reviews to be done every 18 months. All feedback for reviews, both Member and Probationer, is named and it is mandatory that Members return and complete at least 75% of all reviews unless there is a valid reason for not doing so. Repeated failure to return reviews will be reported through the Personnel Team to Forum.

Review Form

Do you think X meets the job description:

  • Satisfactorily
  • Unsatisfactorily
  • I do not work with X

Please read the job description carefully and comment on the points the reviewee does particularly well and why

  • Do you think the reviewee could benefit from any particular training or development?
  • If you work with X in a team, could you please specifically comment on their work (speed, effectiveness, team responsibilities, areas of improvements)
  • Any other comments (please highlight if they are for Personnel only)

People are sent the anonymous feedback in advance and are asked to do a self-assessment before a member of HR and a member of the training team meet with them based on the questions below:

  • Teams: what is your role, how do you contribute to the teams?
  • Do you feel that you need more/less work?
    • Is there anything you particularly enjoyed doing?
    • Is there anything you particularly didn’t enjoy doing?
  • Any skills you have we should be using?
  • Any training you think you could benefit from?
  • Questions from the training team
    • Training you received
    • Training you need
    • Visits
    • Skills share
    • Individual training budget

This co-op is about to review the process. HR team are designing a questionnaire to see what people hope to get out of a review system

SOME CONCLUSIONS & WHERE NEXT?

So, how do you tell your co-worker their work is crap? Well, clearly, you don’t. But worker co-ops do need a procedure for measuring achievement of aims and targets. Not for sanctions if targets are not met, but rather for identifying whether or not agreed targets or standards are being met, so that you can assess if:

  • targets/standards are achievable
  • job descriptions needs to be re-designed
  • you need more workers
  • members need training or re-training
  • you need additional operational, marketing or financial control software
  • you need to run induction training
  • you need to review business plans or even your mission

Hopefully this review has given you some ideas about the different approaches taken in different co-ops, and that there is no one-size fits all method. The way you approach designing your appraisal process will depend upon the culture of your co-op, the sector, the organisational structure, its age and its size.

Whatever way you do approach it, bear in mind that this is not a policing exercise. It’s a way of providing members with feedback on their performance – praise for a job well done or support for a member who is over or underworked, or who needs training or additional resources. It’s a way of helping the co-op to move forwards, responding to new challenges and accomplishing its mission.

Also no matter what systems, procedures, processes, rules or regulations you have in effect, without a strong co-operative culture and a shared agenda they won’t help. As Siôn Whellens famously said: Culture eats governance for breakfast

So, what next? Some last thoughts:

Before implementing a peer appraisal process,

  • work out what’s right for your co-op, identify where any crunch points are, be clear about why you’re doing it, what are the problems you’re trying to solve and how will you measure success?
  • start small, is there a team that would be prepared to pilot the chosen approach?
  • trial it then have a retrospective look at what happened:  What worked? What didn’t? Can we do better next time? Keep on tweaking and adjusting till you’ve got it right.
  • then the next question is how will you scale it to the whole co-op? Can you use the early adopters as champions of the pilot procedures?

We hope to be able to add to this paper with other approaches that worker co-ops have tried, so we’d love to hear from you if you have additional approaches or comments to add.

Kate Whittle, with input from Nathan Brown and Britta Werner (Unicorn Co-operative Grocery) April 2019