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Everyone's a Critic

One of the perks of running your own company is being on the giving, rather than receiving, end of the annual performance review. But it's not a bad idea to let your employees do some reviewing for a change.

Why solicit criticism from your workers? Small companies need to constantly enhance the performance of each worker--including the owner, says Chris Musselwhite, CEO of Discovery Learning, a business consultancy in Greensboro, N.C. Trouble is, he notes, "employees are often leery of providing feedback to the person writing the checks."

Enter 360-degree feedback. In this re-view process, each person who works with an employee is given the chance to evaluate that employee's performance. At most small companies, that means everyone reviews everyone else. Many entrepreneurs say 360-degree feedback helps evaluate, reward, and train employees, as well as build their own leadership skills. But be warned: The truth can hurt.

At Trinity Communications Inc., a 65-person marketing firm in Boston, each employee is reviewed by both colleagues and clients. Submitting to an evaluation by employees, for example, helped founding partner Nancy Michalowski grow as a manager: She learned that she could do a better job running meetings if she ceded the floor more often. "It can be scary," she says. "The challenge is to be constructive so that you all can continue to work together."

Not everyone is up to the task. Serge Knystautas, president of Loki Technologies, an 11-employee Web development firm in Bethesda, Md., used them for six years. But last year, he pulled the plug when one employee objected to his colleagues' remarks and began hurling insults at everyone. "We had too much honesty," Knystautas says. So make sure you can take some heat. The last thing you need is 360 degrees of separation between everyone in the company. By Alison Stein Wellner

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