Your Complete Guide to Acing This Year’s Performance Review

Don't be afraid to tell your boss when feedback makes you feel confused or disappointed.

Why is it so hard to have a useful year-end review?

In one survey, more than half of employees said their review was inaccurate or unfair. One in four employees say they dread their reviewmore than anything else in their working lives. Too often, reviews only seem to seem lower morale, increase anxiety, or waste everybody’s time.

The problem is that most people aren’t very good at giving—or receiving—feedback. Supervisors often fail to explain the criteria they’re using or help employees understand what the evaluation means for their futures. Meanwhile, employees are so nervous and emotionally overwhelmed that they tend to forget to ask questions. And most performance reviews are a confusing mixture of straightforward evaluation (which ranks and rates employees) and coaching (offering advice, suggestions, mentoring and support). Since evaluation tends to make people feel judged, feelings of defensiveness or disappointment can easily drown out any coaching that might actually be helpful.

The good news is that no matter how brilliant or dim-witted your supervisor may be, there are a few things you can do to get the most out of your performance review. Here are five steps for getting better feedback:

  1. Share your preferences. Here’s something that should be obvious, but isn’t: you’re allowed to talk to your boss about what helps youreceive feedback well. Would you rather get your rating and comments ahead of time, perhaps by email, so you can digest the information overnight and come to your review prepared with questions? Or would that only increase your angst? Would it help to hear your rating upfront in the conversation, and then discuss the reasoning behind it, or would you rather let the conversation unfold slowly?If you have a preference, share it: “I’d like to make the most of the conversation. Would it be possible for me to get the headlines the day before so I can prepare overnight?” Even if they say “no,” you have demonstrated your commitment to be thoughtful and to learn something.
  2. Don’t decide if the feedback is right or wrong: just work to understand it. The feedback you receive might seem unfair: I’m too quiet in meetings? Seriously? Nobody will let me get a word in edgewise.But before you judge the feedback, work hard to understand what your supervisor is trying to tell you.Whether your rating is disappointing, thrilling, or somewhere in between, be sure you understand what it means, and how it should influence your efforts in the year ahead. Ask the following questions:
    • What criteria were used to give a ranking? How does your supervisor think about the difference between a “3” and a “4” (or a “meets” and “exceeds” expectations)?
    • Are there aspects of my performance or skills that are of concern now or could be in the coming year?
    • Here is what I understood from my review last year, and what I was trying to do this year. Was that on target in your view?
    • How might I learn more about what some of these comments mean?
  3. Name your emotions to avoid being emotional. You will often have emotional reactions to what you hear, and it can actually be helpful to share them. Saying, “I’m surprised” or “I’m pretty disappointed by that” or “I’m confused about what has changed” will name the feelings you are showing in your face and your body language anyway. When they simply leak out in your tone or defensive posture, your questions sound emotional, and may provoke a defensive reaction in your manager. Counter-intuitively, describing your feelings can help you remain calm and professional and ask questions effectively.
  4. Share any missing information. If you think your reviewer is missing key information or data, say so. If they seem to overlook a major accomplishment you had during the year, describe it, and make sure they understand why you see that accomplishment as significant. Don’t share it as an argument for changing the rating, but as information that may be helpful in ensuring your manager has a complete picture.
  5. Have a (temporary) exit line. Leave the door open for further conversation after you’ve had a chance to process the review. Say something like, “Thanks very much for your feedback. I’d like to take some time to think about what we discussed; can I follow up with you if I have more questions or thoughts?”

Chances are, you’ll leave your review with mixed feelings. That’s okay. These conversations shouldn’t be one-shot deals. Instead, they should be part of an ongoing dialogue.

After your review, reach out to a friend to sort through the conversation. They can commiserate with you about feedback that feels “wrong” and remind you that a review is at best a partial picture of one person’s opinion. And when and if you’re ready, they can help you see what might be “right” about any tough feedback you received–which will probably be a lot easier to process outside the office, with the added benefits of a glass of wine with someone you trust.

(Image via Jirsak/Shutterstock.com)