Get Ahead Instead of Dreading Your Performance Review

by Staff - Original publish date: January 19, 2012

Many employers will be conducting their annual “focal” reviews over the next few months, which in layman’s terms means the time in which you sit down with your boss and go over your achievements against goals. For most people, it is an uncomfortable conversation that produces as much anxiety as going to the dentist or asking for a raise.

For the majority of companies, the annual review is the only formal conversation employees have with their boss about their performance and usually ends with an overview of an employee's new compensation package such as merit increase, bonus payout and stock grants.

Most employees believe the performance review is a one-sided conversation. More than 50% of employees surveyed provided little to no input into their review process and many consider the review to be their bosses’ responsibility. For the majority, the cash at the end of the rainbow is the only incentive for most folks to listen to the review.

How did performance reviews get such a bad rap and what can you do to make your review, an on-going process not a one-time meeting?

1. It's a Two-Way Street---Take the Wheel

The first thing you can do to improve your performance review is shift your mindset and take responsibility for your career. Many employees think the performance review is the responsibility of their boss, and therefore they take a passive approach to their feedback. Your review is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue. In fact, performance conversations are an opportunity to highlight your achievements, communicate progress against goals and discuss the acquisition of new skills and plan a path for advancement.

More than 80% of employers say they incorporate employee feedback into the review, but only half of employees believe their feedback is included. The key is to be proactive throughout the year and not walk into the review conversation cold. Prepare for your review early in the year, set goals, record your accomplishments, provide credible and factual support, listen for feedback and, as a last resort, when your efforts aren't fully appreciated, begin to consider your alternatives.

2. Be Smart About Goals

Often times, employees walk into their review and are "surprised" to learn that they missed a key goal or priority that the boss had in his/her mind. In fact, this is a common challenge. Over 85% of employers reported some method of linking pay to performance and some form of goal setting. However, nearly 40% of the linking pay to performance is done informally and typically at the manager's discretion.

In addition, a third of employers acknowledge that informal goal setting does not link to pay or performance. The bottom-line: Don't leave this to chance. Ask yourself, "Do I have written goals from my manager?"

3. No Goals? No Problem---Help Define Them.

Goal setting should be mutual – an agreement between manager and employee. Look at what your manager is trying to accomplish and ask "How does the work I do contribute?" "What is expected of me?" If you don't have clear goals, set up a meeting with your manager and discuss them. Negotiate on what you think makes sense. Beware of common mistakes with goals such as vague language, not tied to a timeline, not measurable, too many or too complex and lengthy.

Typically, goals are short and to the point (no more than a few sentences long) and address the SMART rule of thumb. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Aligned, Results Oriented and Time bound. Specific describes the behavior. Use active verbs such as direct, organize, plan etc. Make it a numeric goal. If you can't measure it, you can't manage it. Aligning goals with your manager, team or unit objectives will lead to the desired result. Finally, there is clear timeline to attain the goal that is realistic. For example, Launch new advertising campaign in March and increase in-bound leads by 10 percent.

Without common goals, you run the risk of being out-of-step with your manager and how your performance is evaluated, potentially impacting your pay increase.

4. Track Your Contributions

The year gets busy and it can be hard to remember all you've accomplished when doing a review. Develop a method for tracking your progress. Create folders on your desktop and keep emails from co-workers on key projects, successes and business gains. Keep a spreadsheet on completed projects and note if they were on time, under budget or measured by another key business metric.

Try to record key milestones once a month so you have an easy reference list with key metrics at the ready — especially if your company includes a self-review in the process.

5. Give and Get Periodic Reviews Against Goals

Once you and your manager agree on the goals, check in on a regular basis to track progress against these goals. Listen for feedback from your manager. Be aware of how your manager provides feedback. Since 80 percent of companies only do formal reviews once a year, don't expect feedback to come in a direct meeting.

Look for the informal feedback styles of your manager. Do they send congratulation emails after a project? Did you get a golf clap in front of the team? Did you get a "Good Job" or an extra day off after a long day at work?

Sometimes the best strategy is a simple check with your manager phrased as, "Am I giving you what you need on this project? Is there anything I can do to help?" Knowing you are on track will give you both confidence heading into the review.

6. Know Your Key Strengths

Before the review, perform a simple exercise. Identify the 3-5 things you are really good at, things you consider to be your core competencies. Describe the behaviors, skills and proficiencies you have that support why you excel in these areas. Provide credible backup and business results that support your competency claim.

Often times, your manager isn't as close to your projects as you are and this is an opportunity to highlight in detail what you did. General statements can downplay your accomplishments.

7. Plot Your Career Path

Identify the areas you want to develop and why. This will help focus you on what you need to do to advance, what type of projects you think you need to work on to get the skills wanted, plus it's and a good way to walk a mile in your manager's shoes.

A candid self-assessment can help soften the "constructive criticism" that comes in the review. It is part of a Manager's job to present where you need to grow, what skills you need and how the company can help you develop. It can be tough to hear if you're not thinking along same lines. This is a good time to ask your manager for what you need to become more productive and successful along your path. Listen to the suggestions and the rationale behind how it will help you improve your contributions.

The Performance Review Meeting: "The YOU Show"

In the actual meeting, it's time to hear what your manager thinks of your performance — most often captured by a rating such as "meets expectations" and sometimes compensation information. Typically, the manager will go over the key parts of your job responsibilities and how you performed on each part.

Most employees get focused on the rating and compensation and find it hard to retain everything your manager says about specific areas of your performance. It is good to take notes and to ask questions. Use the time to confirm each area and ask for examples from your manager - both positive and negative. These examples will be a good reference point to make sure you clearly understand as well as a way to target areas for improvement and development planning.

9. Good Review, Bad Pay

In some organizations, compensation adjustments are communicated at the same time as the review. This can include merit increases (national average is 3.7 percent), bonus payout and stock grants.

What do you do when the pay doesn't meet your expectations? There are many factors that affect your individual compensation. Managers may have been given a limited budget to allocate, your company may not have hit its overall numbers or the payout is in stock instead of cash. The first thing to do is to clarify how the compensation was determined before expressing disappointment.

In some cases, you may have been given more than your peers or you might be at the top end of your salary band and your next move is a promotion. Once you have gained insight into how it was determined, you can evaluate if there is an opportunity to adjust. Many times, the performance review isn't the right time to negotiate a raise, because compensation is often already determined. However, you can outline with your boss a plan to get to a higher level and use this as time to set your goals and compensation expectations for the next review period.

10. Know When to Exit

Unfortunately, nearly 80% of the time, the review is the only direct conversation employees have with managers about their performance and for some it can be an unpleasant surprise. What do you do when the review isn’t going in your favor?

First, recognize that the review isn’t the time to debate your boss on every point. This can come across as defensive and become counterproductive. Use the meeting to assess if your boss believes you can correct the situation. Ask for specific development plans and if they have confidence you can overcome the issues.

After the meeting, check in with a trusted peer or advisor to get second opinions. Has your boss correctly identified a weak area? Is this a one-time event or an ongoing problem? Are you a good fit for the role or the company? You can set up a second meeting with your manager to then review the issues. If you’re not getting the help or support you need, consider your alternatives, including an internal transfer to a different business unit or even starting a new job search