Happy Dance! It’s Performance Review Time!!

I love performance review time. People assume I’m crazy when I say that. Oftentimes, as an Individual Contributor (IC), it’s the one time each year when there’s a focus on what you’ve accomplished over the past year. As a manager, it’s incredibly satisfying to look back and realize just how much your team has delivered.

I completely understand that reviews can be stressful. Typically, I get that knot in my stomach when I don’t exactly know where I stand in terms of my performance. Some people freak out because they aren’t being objective about a flaw and don’t see it as an opportunity for improvement. The combination of those can lead to people assuming they won’t receive a raise, they’ll be demoted, maybe even lose their job. It’s a dangerous and unproductive way to approach something so potentially charged as a performance review.

There are many different ways to lighten the emotional and intellectual load of reviews. Just search for how to write a performance appraisal online and you’ll get so much information back that it’s overwhelming. I stick to a few simple things that don’t require much effort but allow me to really enjoy this time of year.

Prepare All Year

Ongoing preparation makes filling out a performance review so much simpler and less stressful. Otherwise, it’s like cramming for an exam in school, except the stakes are your career progression.

  • Keep a record of what you’ve accomplished. I use a ‘fuzzy folder’ in email, both for myself and for my directs, containing highlights (delivering a project or taking a leadership role in some way) as well as constructive feedback and instances where I or my directs have had… challenges. It gives me a balanced retrospective of performance and it makes it much easier to identify and write feedback on significant events from the past year.
  • Insist on goals. Ideally, IC goals will be built around the goals and values of the company and the organization. But even if those aren’t available or well-defined, it’s possible to create meaningful S.M.A.R.T. goals around making your environment better, saving the company money, growing your skill sets or many other categories. As a manager, identify these categories for the IC and have them create their goals so they have more ownership in the successful completion of them. As an IC, gain your manager’s support for the goals you’ve created and then revisit them frequently so you can make sure your performance stays on track.
  • Use your 1:1s wisely. Whether you’re a manager or an IC, use regular 1:1s throughout the year to ensure that there are no surprises during the discussion portion of the review. I use a regular 1:1 doc so I have a record of the discussions throughout the year, and so I can remember my deliverables. My directs are responsible for filling them out and sending them to me the day before our meeting so I have time to come prepared to make it as beneficial a discussion as possible. It really does help- especially if your 1:1s are infrequent.

Providing Written Feedback on Yourself

  • Be as objective and balanced as possible. Remember that no one is perfect, and include both strengths and areas for improvement, even if it isn’t requested. Your manager ought to be gathering feedback from your partners, customers and peers, not all of whom will have purely positive things to say. It’s a pretty uncomfortable discussion when an IC’s review is completely glowing; everyone has blind spots or holes they need to fill. Your forward-looking goals and development plan also won’t support and drive your growth as much as it should if your ego gets in the way.
  • Don’t short-change yourself. Providing balanced feedback also means that you should cover the positive aspects of your year. Major deliverables, times when you showed leadership, went above-and-beyond… they should all make it into your review. I strive for a 60/40 split between positive and constructive points, both when I’m reviewing myself and my directs. It’s always nice to look back at your review and read about what you’ve done right every now and again.
  • Be quantitative in support of subjective topics. Any time you address a ‘soft’ skill (communication, organization, etc), make sure you include examples in support of your claims. Metrics are the best (can’t argue with numbers!), but if that’s not possible it’s still better to give slightly anecdotal evidence that can at least be followed up on.
  • Take your time. Provide as much feedback about your performance as you feel necessary. You’re selling yourself through your review, and the amount of time and thought you put into it directly reflects on the ownership you have in your career. Or at least that’s how I feel about it. 🙂 Even with the ongoing preparation above, I typically spend about 6 hours writing my self review- about an hour per page.
  • Stay focused. Agree on the message you would like to convey in each paragraph, section, etc. and then stick to it. It makes it easier to give feedback as a manager, and it helps guide the discussion of the review itself.

Providing Written Feedback on Your Directs

  • Avoid matching length. As a manager, receiving a self review that’s just a few sentences long is depressing. We all want our people to show that they’re invested in their careers, of course. If an IC submits a short review, take the opportunity to set an example by providing more feedback. If you have the opportunity, pass the review back to the person and ask them to put a bit more thought into it and re-submit it.
  • Avoid matching tone. Be objective to ward off being emotional in reviews. Most people invest a lot of themselves into their careers, and people who have had a challenging year can become fairly defensive, or even offensive. Keep the tone of your responses consistent and non-confrontational so you can focus on improvement. Use facts and anonymous quotes from peer and customer feedback to support your message.
  • Minimize the surprises. You should be using regular 1:1s to ensure that there are no surprises come review time. Sometimes, however, you may receive new constructive feedback from someone from out of the blue. If that’s the case, make sure you state that in your write-up so that it’s on record.
  • Be firm and direct. Make decisive statements, and stand behind your them. As a manager, you’re responsible for making decisions every day, and your credibility hinges on not being wishy-washy. Treat performance reviews the same way you treat the rest of your job. If you have the proper supporting feedback, this should be fairly easy. (also, see below, “Avoid mixed messages”)
  • Solicit balanced feedback. Choose peers/partners who will give a well-rounded view of the IC. Managers don’t see everything that goes on day-to-day, and supporting evidence from external parties helps round out feedback. Even short five-minute ‘interviews’ with people around the office are a great way to gather this input. Just be sure to send your write-up to the interviewee for approval prior to using an anonymous version in a review.

Discussing the Review

First off, I hate it when managers approach this as “delivering” a review. It automatically puts the manager in the driver’s seat and doesn’t breed collaboration or offer the IC the opportunity to own their own career. Running through a performance review ought to be a discussion. The points below apply to both ICs and managers and can promote a dialogue, rather than one person’s stream of consciousness.

  • Be open-minded. Be open to admitting you may have missed something and to changing your mind. You should still be prepared to ‘agree to disagree’ on one or two points, but make sure that you’re really listening during the conversation and that you’re being objective about the issue before accepting an impasse.
  • Be rational. Take your time and think before you speak. Don’t let the discussion devolve into an emotional match. Feel free to just say, “I feel like this is getting rather [defensive/heated/etc]. Do you mind if we come back to this part once we’ve both had time to cool down and consider it?” Just make sure that you take the time to revisit the discussion, rather than leaving it unresolved.
  • Discuss the facts. Focus on actual events whenever possible. This goes hand-in-hand with being rational. There are times when this isn’t feasible, such as reviewing 3rd-party constructive feedback or evaluating performance around the softer skills (“plays well with others”). If you can isolate those instances that could be touchy, the chat will be much less stressful. Supporting evidence for those discussions will help attenuate the situation too.
  • Avoid mixed messages. It’s a common management failing to deliver criticism wrapped in happy thoughts. We’ve all done it. As a manager, concentrate on delivering constructive feedback in a straightforward manner so everyone is on the same page. Avoid the ol’ “You’re doing great! You could really improve your communication skills, but you’ve definitely delivered some great stuff.” Either as an IC or a manager, ask clarifying questions if you’re unsure about the message being conveyed so you can reach a common understanding.
  • Allow time to digest the feedback. Just as a manager expects an IC’s review to be submitted well before the 1:1 discussion, an IC should expect to have some time to view and digest their manager’s feedback prior to accepting it. If you run into contentious places during the discussion, it may make sense to schedule another follow-up conversation a day or two later just to ensure that both people are ready to move on and focus on the year ahead. If you’re an IC, you should request this if it’s not volunteered and you feel that it’s warranted.
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