Between the crush of the holidays and the start of the new year, many American workers have to carve out time for a less cheery annual event: the yearly performance review.
The review and all it may entail — boastful self-evaluations, mounting anxiety about critical feedback — can be a source of dread, especially during another pandemic year, which saw many people continuing to do their jobs remotely, switching careers or juggling additional caregiving responsibilities.
When it’s hard to recall what you did last week, assessing your job performance from the last year can seem more than a little overwhelming. We asked experts for their advice on how to prep for your evaluations — and set yourself up for success the rest of the year.
What the performance review should look like
Sarah Kim, an executive at Antenna, a data analyst start-up, recently helped set up her company’s review process. In an ideal world, she says, managers and workers would be in conversation all year about performance, shared goals and needs.
“The review cycle should be a formality, a decision-making point or milestone,” she says. “When people are ready for public changes to a role, it would feel very obvious because there’s this organic culture of talking about performance and giving feedback.”
“The purpose of the performance review is really to be a playback,” says Kym Harris-Lee, founder and president of YourSweetSpot, a coaching and consulting firm in Atlanta. Ideally, there should be no surprises, she adds.
“People shouldn’t be hearing anything they have not heard before. There should be no blindsiding,” she says.
Common concerns — and missteps
Cynthia Pong, the founder of Embrace Change, a career and leadership coaching organization that focuses on helping women of color, says her clients are typically concerned about how they will be treated. Will they be judged fairly? Will they face microaggressions? Some also say they are unsure what to ask for and don’t know how to effectively advocate for themselves.
The pandemic has added anxieties, too, Pong says. Some people didn’t have their best performances because of the stress of the last year, which could include increased caregiving responsibilities, she says.
Laura McFadden, an executive leadership coach, says that for many of her women clients, the stakes feel particularly high: “They see this evaluation process as, ‘This could be it.’ They are always expecting the shoe to drop, because they want to be perfect.”
And during the pandemic, workers across the board are worried about losing the ability to have “on-the-fly” communication with their leaders, including casual conversation and feedback given in the moment.
But entering on the defensive is counterproductive, says Harris-Lee. She likes to help her clients reframe how they look at the review: You’re not going in to hear how you’ve done, but to help shape the narrative. You are there to ensure the story of your year is an accurate one.
As Harris-Lee puts it: “You need to come prepared to tell that story.”
How to prepare if you’re short on time
First, you want to know how your company structures its reviews, says Pong. Different companies have different review processes, and you want to be clear when salary and promotion decisions are being made in relation to them.
Generally, reviews are not decision-making conversations, says Harris-Lee, who also advised against bringing up anything in the review that you haven’t already discussed with your manager.
“If you’re having a rich conversation, [salary] is likely to come up,” she says. But she recommends raising it with your manager beforehand, so they expect to talk about it, or afterward, when you are planning goals and objectives for the year.
If, when filling out your self-evaluation, you have trouble recalling everything you’ve done in the last year, she suggests looking at your calendar.
“If you can’t remember what you did, can you remember who you worked with? What meetings did you have? What was your purpose in those meetings? Ask people you work with what your contributions have been,” says Harris-Lee.
And don’t just focus on what you’ve achieved, but also the value of what you’ve achieved, she adds. Focus on what is unique about your approach and how you engage with others. Consider the long-term impacts of what you’ve done: What have you put in place that only you can do?
How to prepare if you have more time
Experts agree that, ideally, you want to keep track of your achievements throughout the year so that it’s easy to talk about them during review cycles.
One of the ways to do this is to keep a running list of highlights, or a “professional brag book,” as McFadden calls it.
There are the obvious things to include — compliments people gave your work, awards or recognition you’ve won, projects you’ve initiated or participated in and deadlines you’ve hit.
But don’t forget the smaller, more granular things: Did you step in for a co-worker? Resolve a conflict? How many reports did you write and how many relationships did you build?
“We’re all centered on ourselves,” says Pong. “You can’t rely on your supervisor remembering all the wins you’ve had.”
This is especially true for women of color in the workplace, who, because of explicit and implicit bias, often need to actively manage those perceptions, Pong adds.
“It’s almost like running your own internal PR campaign for your work, 24/7, 365,” she says.
Harris-Lee says that a regular “brain dump” can also be helpful not just for tracking your performance, but as a regular reminder of what happened, what went well and what you might do differently.
How to spot — and manage — red flags
Managers can give vague or generalized feedback that is confusing or hard to act on. Or you might hear criticism you haven’t heard before.
According to McFadden, this often happens when managers aren’t comfortable giving critical feedback. “They haven’t addressed it because they don’t want to face the conflict,” she says.
If that happens, you should ask clarifying questions, but try not to get defensive, McFadden advises.
“You get to choose if you agree with it, or if you’re going to use the feedback given to you,” she says. Asking for specifics doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with your manager. “You’re getting more data so that you can make a full decision on how or if you want to implement something to make future changes.”
You also don’t need to respond in the moment in cases where you feel the goal posts have shifted or you’ve heard surprising feedback, says Pong. Thank your manager for their feedback, then say you’d like to take some time to process it.
When you’re ready to revisit the conversation, make sure you get specifics. What are your targets? What’s the next milestone? Pong advises workers to send follow-up communication recapping their understanding of the conversation, just in case they need a paper trail.
What to do after the review
Set aside some time to reflect on the conversation and debrief, then set up any follow-up meetings you need to, advises Harris-Lee. If you have a promotion or salary discussion coming up afterward, you can use a good review to support your case.
Think about what changes you’d like to make, or in which areas you’d like to improve. And keep up the communication loop — with your manager and others you work with — especially if your aim is to progress in your field.
“We have to cultivate the ground, create the environment that makes it easy for people to give us constructive feedback,” says Harris-Lee. These conversations could not only help you, but your entire team.
They don’t all have to be work- or project-centric either, she points out. Even if you’re continuing to work remotely, monthly virtual coffees or lunches can be a way to touch base, as well as maintain and grow relationships.
“Don’t allow distance to prevent you from connecting,” Harris-Lee says. “These are the kinds of conversations that people don’t often have, so when you have them, it’s a differentiator.”
Most importantly, if you aren’t already having regular conversations with your manager, set those up. “Preferably every other week,” says Pong. Create a regular check-in with your supervisor to solicit feedback, share information and progress and discuss challenges. Make sure you get on the same page with them about how you like to communicate and receive information.
“It can be a 15-to-20-minute thing,” Pong says. By getting feedback regularly, “you’re going to set yourself up for success in the long run.”