Performance Management

How to Write a Peer Review: Giving Constructive Feedback

July 22, 2024
July 22, 2024
Catherine Tansey
Lattice Team

Manager feedback is crucial for career progression, but managers aren't always the ones who work most closely with employees. That's where 360-degree reviews come in, providing a comprehensive evaluation of performance by gathering feedback from peers, managers, and the employees themselves. 

Including peers in the review process offers a more accurate picture of performance and can also enhance engagement — HR teams’ top priorities for this year, according to Lattice's 2024 State of People Strategy Report. And, with Gallup’s 2023 US engagement data showing that employee engagement across the country is down, it’s crucial HR teams increase connectedness between employees and their organization.

Leveraging peer reviews to support a culture of continuous feedback motivates employees and can fuel praise and recognition. Below we look more closely at writing peer reviews and provide step-by-step actionable advice to help you write better ones.

How to Write a Peer Review

Writing a peer review can be time-consuming and stressful, especially when giving constructive feedback. Yet with some helpful tips, you can learn to write effective performance evaluations and see the value in the process.

Understanding the Purpose

The peer review process is an effective way for leaders to gain a more holistic impression of an employee’s performance. Plus, consistent feedback from multiple sources proves that the critique or praise is more than one person’s opinion.

Peer reviews serve a dual purpose:

  • To identify areas for improvement. Peer review feedback can illuminate blind spots in employees’ self-assessments or self-understanding and can reinforce manager feedback. 
  • To acknowledge strengths and provide recognition. Peer reviews are an opportunity for employees to receive recognition from a sampling of their professional community, not just direct managers. Recognition supports employee engagement, retention, and workplace satisfaction, among other benefits.

“When feedback is welcomed, expected, and shared, people feel like they have a sense of belonging. It allows employees to gain a greater understanding of their job and how their performance impacts the whole organization,” said Yekaterina Weaklim, director of people operations at Yes Energy, a data company in the energy industry and a Lattice customer. 

Preparing for the Review 

Much like with self-reviews, it helps to take notes throughout the year for peer reviews so you’re not starting from scratch come review cycles. Track feedback in your performance management system or keep a private folder with notes on the projects you worked on with various team members, how you’ve helped one another meet team and personal goals, and any patterns you’ve noticed in team members’ performance. 

Structuring Your Feedback 

Use a downloadable template for writing peer reviews or create your own formalized structure when answering peer review questions to remain consistent when giving feedback. A premade outline also simplifies the processes of ideating and organizing feedback, while making it easier for the recipient to compartmentalize the feedback they’ll receive. 

Aim to provide feedback that touches on the following sections.

  • Strengths: What does this employee do well, and how does that contribute to the success of the team?
  • Areas for improvement: Where could they improve, and what is an example of how that area of improvement created challenges in the past?
  • Opportunities: What are some external factors that could favorably support this employee’s development, be it a strength or an area for improvement? For example, expansion into a new market could give the employee an opportunity to further refine their cross-cultural leadership skills. 

Within your three categories, consider using headings and subheadings to improve readability and help employees better digest peer feedback. Go from broad to specific in your written comments, starting with your general impressions about working with this individual, then follow with detailed feedback and examples to illustrate your feedback. 

A clear, well-formatted peer review makes it easy for colleagues to read, understand, internalize, and ultimately act on feedback. 

Offering Constructive Criticism

Constructive peer review comments can sometimes be challenging to share and difficult to hear, but they offer an invaluable opportunity for improvement. “Giving praise is easy. It’s the ‘areas for improvement’ feedback that is scary or hard for individuals to be comfortable providing,” said Julie Lamothe-Jensen, founder and principal at Moxie HR Strategies, an HR consulting firm.

Valuable constructive criticism focuses on how people can improve specific areas of their performance rather than on personal shortcomings. Personal attacks should be avoided entirely. 

“When that ‘thing’ that didn't go well in the past is positioned as a skill or knowledge that requires focus or action in the coming months, it's often easier for the employee to ‘hear’ the message in a way that elicits change,” said Lamothe-Jensen. 

Just like managers writing evaluations for their direct reports or individuals reflecting on their own performance in self-evaluations, providing specific examples and linking actions to their impact is most effective.


Providing Positive Feedback

Many workplaces are improved by their culture of recognition. Research conducted by Gallup in 2022 found that employees whose recognition needs were fulfilled at work were four times as likely to be engaged and five times as likely to be connected to company culture.

“Well-constructed feedback, positive and negative, promotes accountability and responsibility, builds trust and collaboration, and encourages knowledge sharing and skill development,” Weaklim explained.

Recognition and praise can (and should!) take many forms, whether it’s a thank you email, a shout-out in the Praise Slack channel, or — of course — a recounting of successes in peer review comments. 

Like with constructive feedback, aim to share praise that is specific, concise, and backed up by real-life examples and impact. 


Addressing Ethical Concerns

Most peer reviews are anonymous to encourage candor from the reviewers. Naysayers of this approach feel that behind the shield of anonymity, colleagues can manipulate an individual’s performance review intentionally with negative or unfavorable comments. While there’s little guard against bad actors, we believe most employees are more inclined to support their coworkers by providing recognition or insightful constructive criticism, and experts back this up.

In their Harvard Business Review article on 360-degree reviews, leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman report, “We’re happy to say that after decades of conducting and reviewing thousands of 360-degree feedback reports, we almost never see messages that are intentionally barbed or mean-spirited.”

Superb actionable feedback and ethical peer reviews take the shape of comments focused on professional performance and project outcomes, not personal criticisms or attacks. Using a professional framework, like Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI)™, ensures you can tie feedback to discrete events and describe the impact. 

Weaklim also likes to use the strategic planning and competitive analysis framework SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats). “It’s a very strong framework that has many real-life applications. SWOT allows for me and the person on the receiving end to dissect areas for improvement and areas of great success,” she said. 

Finalizing Your Review

Do a final read-through to ensure no revisions are needed and that your comments are clear, concise, and free of personal attacks or bias. 

Peer review templates or checklists are useful to ensure you’ve touched on all the relevant aspects of a peer review, sharing feedback on strengths, opportunities for improvement, and praise. Lattice’s peer performance review template provides an easily readable format that makes it simple to give feedback. 

Examples of Good Peer Reviews

Use the actionable advice and peer review examples provided by Julie Lamothe-Jensen of Moxie HR Strategies and Yes Energy's Yekaterina Weaklim below as inspiration for your own peer review comments. 

1. A good peer review acknowledges and recognizes positive attributes.

“Margaret is a talented engineer with an uncanny ability to project and anticipate issues before they happen. This was evident when she spotted an irregularity in the design of the Acme engine, created a workaround, and saved the company $25M in the process.” — Julie Lamothe-Jensen

2. A good peer review frames “misses” as opportunities.

“When that ‘thing’ that didn't go well in the past is positioned as a skill or knowledge that requires focus or action in the coming months, it's often easier for the employee to ‘hear’ the message in a way that elicits change.

“For example, there have been some missed opportunities in recent months, such as when Mohammad wasn't present for two key strategy meetings to identify top priorities for R&D, and then delayed passing this information down to the team for nearly two months. Going forward, it would help if Mohammad visits each plant at least once every two months to share current wins and discuss issues or concerns that are trending, so that we can proactively deliver new, quality products ahead of business expectations.” — Julie Lamothe-Jensen

3. A good peer review is highly specific. 

“It would be helpful if Roger scheduled monthly one-on-one meetings with each team member to ensure role clarity and lines of accountability throughout the project timeline. Without them, the team frequently and inadvertently steps on each other's toes trying to deliver good work on time. It's frustrating and it also creates unnecessary relational friction for the team.” — Julie Lamothe-Jensen

4. A good peer review is objective. 

“Feedback needs to focus on observable facts rather than personal opinions or impressions. Instead of saying: ‘You need to be a better communicator,’ say ‘I noticed some gaps in the way you communicated idea 1, 2, 3 in our meeting. Here are some of my recommendations on how you can improve x, y, z.’ Lastly, if there are training opportunities, use this opportunity to recommend them as well.” — Yekaterina Weaklim

Why a Peer Review Is Important 

Giving peer feedback isn’t something most employees look forward to. From back-to-back Zoom calls to managing your own workload, carving out time to share feedback on a colleague’s performance often isn’t a top priority. Yet, “Well-constructed peer reviews help reinforce a culture of excellence and continuous improvement,” said Lamothe-Jensen, noting that the foundations for a psychologically safe culture must already be in place for peer reviews to be fruitful. 

Giving and receiving feedback is vulnerable, and many of us are afraid we don’t know how to share feedback without sounding like a jerk. But it’s the free exchange of feedback — positive and constructive — that can push the team culture toward excellence. 

“The real benefit of peer reviews requires everyone to understand the value of feedback and to also have the skills and willingness to provide sometimes difficult feedback,” Lamothe-Jensen added. 

Rather than letting your discomfort rule how you approach the process, use the actionable advice we outline here and remember the value of effective peer feedback. Peer feedback:

  • Provides a well-rounded perspective. In the workplace, peer reviews invite a more holistic evaluation of an individual’s performance. Rather than the manager’s feedback being the only voice in the performance evaluation, 360 reviews invite the perspective of others, including those an employee works most closely with — their team members. 
  • Catalyzes personal and professional change. Effective feedback can catalyze the self-awareness and understanding needed to make professional (and personal!) changes. This is especially true when there’s a common theme in the feedback from several sources. An individual who has repeatedly heard from their spouse that they are disorganized and need better systems may actually internalize that message if a similar critique comes from their peers. 
  • Serves as a tool for continuous improvement. Peer reviews are a strong pillar companies can erect to support a culture of continuous improvement and feedback. The more accustomed employees grow to giving feedback, the more likely they’ll be to keep sharing it. 

Supporting Continuous Improvement With Peer Reviews

When it comes to peer reviews, keep in mind that it’s not only what you say but also how you say it. Thoughtful, well-formatted, and well-constructed peer review feedback will aid your colleagues in better “hearing” feedback, while also promoting a culture of continuous feedback. 

Cultivating the right mindset will similarly aid both the reviewer and the recipient. Approach the process with a mindset focused on positive outcomes to support the betterment of all involved. 

Want to support a culture of excellence and continuous improvement at your organization? Learn how Lattice Performance can help.

🚫 For example, avoid: Ramy is disorganized and always slow to respond to urgent requests.

Instead, offer: Ramy is often delayed in responding to urgent requests from external stakeholders, despite follow-up requests from other team members. For example, when a client requested additional clarification on our proposal, Ramy, the account lead, was delayed in providing them the information they needed by 36 hours. They then sent a deck with several typos. The client requested to no longer work directly with Ramy, which meant other team members were forced to take on additional work. One thing they could do differently is change the notifications on their Slack to ensure the messages in the ‘Urgent Client Requests’ channel are apparent. They can also request a second set of eyes on all future communications. 

🚫 For example, avoid: Jo is a great co-worker and a joy to work with. They are a true team player! 

Instead, opt for: Jo goes out of their way to support fellow team members and consistently brings a positive attitude to work. They regularly mentor more junior developers, which has resulted in promotions for these employees and filled an organizational skill gap