Using the performance review as a career booster

Transform the process into a road map for professional improvement.
 Using the performance review as a career booster

Performance reviews are seldom looked upon with enthusiasm. For both the reviewer and the reviewed, they can be an emotionally taxing obligation, but with a bit of preparation, performance reviews can provide the constructive feedback you need to reach the next level in your career.

Here are five tips from two experts on how to prepare for and get the most out of your next performance review:

Consider your triggers and blind spots

It's helpful to understand your own pet peeves or triggers before you walk into a review. Are you someone who gets defensive and is likely to rebut every fact? Can you take a review only from a person you like or respect? Or are you very sensitive, and anything the reviewer says will be painful?

Debbie Goldstein, a principal of Massachusetts-based Triad Consulting Group and a Harvard Law School faculty member, categorises these three types of triggers for her clients. The first is called a truth trigger, meaning everything has to feel exactly true for you to accept it. The second is called a relationship trigger, meaning whom the review is coming from matters a lot. And the third is an identity trigger, meaning feedback is about you, and you are more or less sensitive to it based on your individual hard-wiring and the stories you tell about yourself.

"Doing a little bit of mental preparation on what kinds of things trigger you and throw you off balance, and just being able to identify them, ironically, makes it less likely that they will trip you up in the conversation," she said.

She added that you should walk into the review knowing that you could have blind spots, things about yourself that you're not aware of.

"If something is said in the performance review that's surprising to you or feels untrue, just check yourself and realise, maybe this is a blind spot, and be curious and ask questions about the impact on others," she said. Understanding how others are responding to your actions may offer insight on improving those behaviours.

Do your research

If you're new to a role or organisation, experts recommend asking around to get an idea of what the review will entail and what sorts of information and anecdotes would be helpful to bring up in the meeting.

"You should find out what achievements, skills, and performances are going to be examined," said Charles Cotton, senior reward and performance adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development. "It's also an opportunity to think about what you need to develop in the coming year to improve. If you hope to become a manager, then you might be talking about what people management skills you need to acquire so you can start managing people."

Unpack the generalities

Feedback is often given in generalities and vague terms, such as, "I need you to be more proactive" or "I need you to be more strategic". These buzzwords can seem helpful in the moment, but once you leave the review, you'll realise you have no idea what to do with the feedback you received.

To turn those empty words into actionable items, Goldstein suggested being an active participant in your review and asking two key questions:

The first question is "Where is this feedback coming from?" In a nondefensive way, ask your manager to give you examples in order to paint a clearer picture of when you lacked "sound judgement", for example. Tell them it would be helpful if they could be more specific and give some examples, so you can better understand the point. (See the sidebar, "How Managers Can Improve the Performance Review", for tips on how managers can make the review process more beneficial for both parties.)

The second question to ask is, "Can you paint the picture of where this feedback is going?" Meaning, if you took this feedback, if you acquired more sound judgement, what would it look like? And ask if they can offer you some coaching on how to get there.

"The notion behind those two questions is you're unwrapping or unpacking the label that you're getting," Goldstein said. "And the key is to ask them from a place of curiosity, not defensiveness."

Share your accomplishments

Often people are afraid to share their accomplishments and strengths, fearing that they will come across as boastful or self-important, but Goldstein said it's important to bring up your successes because they are not always as fresh in your manager's mind as they are in yours. Keep notes throughout the year to better track your accomplishments and bolster your case at the review.

"All of your accomplishments are completely technicolour and at-the-ready for you, but because your manager is likely managing multiple people and has other responsibilities, those accomplishments may not be at the front of their mind," she said.

She added that if you're going to talk about your accomplishments, it's useful to also reflect on anything you would have done differently or any coaching and advice you have for yourself.

"I think having a balance demonstrates self-awareness, which we're hearing more and more, especially in the finance world, people are looking for," she said. "And it also demonstrates coachability, which we're definitely hearing more and more as a trait that senior leaders are looking for in high-potential future leaders."

End with a follow-up plan

Goldstein has a client who never ends a meeting or review without saying, "OK, let's recap: Who will do What and When (WWW)?"

"I think that's helpful in meetings, but I also think it's helpful in reviews," she said. "Following up, if you've discussed anything that you're supposed to be doing, is really helpful."

Cotton agreed and added that there is no reason you can't approach your manager more than once a year.

"If you only have a performance review once a year, there's nothing stopping you from talking to your line manager on a more frequent basis," Cotton said. "You can highlight successes and achievements you've had in the last month, which hopefully the line manager will record when they come to review your performance."

How managers can improve the performance review

Employees may be the ones sweating during a performance review, but the manager does most of the legwork. That responsibility comes with the power to make the experience far less awkward and more rewarding for both parties.

Here are a few tips from experts on how managers can improve performance reviews:

1. Have employees send over a 'good stuff' list

People are notoriously bad at evaluating themselves. For that reason, Dick Grote, of Texas-based Grote Consulting, who specialises in performance management, recommends skipping the self-evaluation altogether and instead having each employee send over a "good stuff" list, or a list of the things they've done over the past 12 months that they're proud of.

"The nice thing about this request is people feel good about the fact that their boss is interested in what they've done this year, and it also makes sure the manager will not inadvertently overlook something important," he said.

2. Give employees a copy of the appraisal in advance

Reviews are awkward. To reduce the discomfort of a review, Grote recommends giving each employee a copy of their performance appraisal about an hour before so they can digest the information in private.

"If you give the person the appraisal in advance, they can have that emotional reaction in private, think about what the boss said, and then come in and have a good discussion," Grote said.

3. Consider regular feedback between annual reviews

There's good evidence that performance improves when employees are regularly monitoring their progress towards goals, according to Charles Cotton, senior reward and performance adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development. He recommends implementing more immediate feedback and an ongoing focus on improvement in the workplace as one way of improving the review process.

4. Send one consistent message

Grote points out that most employees are probably doing a good job. For those people, he recommends focusing almost entirely on the positive. And then, with the 10% who aren't doing a great job, talk specifically about the problem areas and how they can improve.

5. Focus on building strengths

A common tendency when considering how we can improve is to focus on our weaknesses, Cotton said.

"However, research suggests that appraisals are more likely to improve performance if they focus on building strengths and replicating successful techniques in other areas of one's work," Cotton said.

6. Say 'thank you'

According to Grote, the single most important phrase that a boss needs to use in conducting a performance appraisal is "thank you".

"The boss ought to be saying that throughout the conversation," Grote said. "They should say, 'I know I don't say it enough, but thank you for the job you've done and the contributions you've made.'"

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at