What to do During Your Annual Performance Review

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Last week we addressed how to prepare for your annual performance review.  (If you missed it, click here.)  Now, it’s time to think about how to handle the review itself.   No matter how many times you’ve been reviewed, it can be a stressful and unpleasant experience, or it can launch you into success for the next year.   We want to help you make it the latter.     


All of the steps discussed last week – reviewing last year’s review, taking action to address any lingering items, making an accomplishment list, reviewing this year’s form, thinking about goals for next year, and taking action to address potential new items – will put you on the right path to a successful review.


Having prepared in advance, what not to do is obvious: don’t get defensive, don’t get angry, etc.  But what to do and how to avoid pitfalls might be less obvious. 


Some employers have a formal system where reviews are scheduled in advance, while at others, supervisors just announce reviews are happening with very little notice.  We’ll assume you have at least a day’s notice.


First, have your materials ready.  You’ll want to have a notebook and pen so you can take notes.  (This is not the time to take notes on your tablet unless your office culture is such where everyone takes notes on a tablet all the time.  And even then, think about whether the technology will create a barrier between you and your reviewer. )  You’ll also want a folder with the goals you came up with for yourself so you can refer to them and your list of accomplishments.  Take those accomplishments and narrow them down to 5-6 key talking points to go back to, and include that sheet in your folder as well.  (You may not need any of these materials with you, but if your boss asks what you think has been your greatest accomplishment over the last year, it’s better to open your folder and glance down than to stammer on about a minor achievement.)  Side note: don’t be tempted to just take in loose pages.  As a Skadden partner once explained to me, loose pages look like you grabbed something as you sprinted by the printer, while putting the same pages in a manila folder make it look as though you are organized.   


Once your materials are ready, it’s important to prepare yourself.  Even if you work in a laid back office, you should still dress up a notch more than you normally do so you feel confident and send a message that you’re ready for the next step in your career.


The most important preparation, though, is your mindset.  A review is not an inquisition, and it’s not a referendum on your worth as a person or as an employee.   It is not a good use of everyone’s time to just have a conversation about how amazing you are – it would be faster to just give you a smiley face sticker and send you on your way.  And you probably don’t want to work at a job long-term if you’re never learning and growing anyway.


Go into your review assuming it will be a dialog about what you’ve achieved over the last year, where you are going over the next year, and what you need to improve on to get there.  Your goal is to leave the review with both you and your supervisor knowing what you need to do to have a positive review next year, and what you need to do to be ready for the next step in your career. 


The best way to achieve that goal is to take notes of what is said – both the good and the bad.  I once walked out of a review, called my husband, and told him I’d had a terrible review.  He asked what the reviewer said and I read him my notes.  Out of several pages of notes, there was exactly one area to improve on, and the feedback was essentially “all junior associates need to improve their writing.  You’re a junior associate, so you need to improve your writing.”  Having those notes allowed me to read them back to a more neutral party and get a much more accurate read on my review.   Notes are also helpful when you want to go back to them weeks and months later.


It’s also important to not be defensive.  That can be difficult to avoid if you receive negative feedback, so plan how to ask for details without becoming (or sounding) defensive.  One of my favorite pieces of advice for situations like this is to “stay curious to avoid becoming furious.”  In other words, approach the discussion about areas for improvement as an anthropologist would.  Your goal, again, is to gather information. 


For example, if you are told that your writing could use improvement, rather than saying “I had great grades in my English classes, so I’m surprised to hear that,” (an actual reaction I once got when I was reviewing someone), ask a question that helps you achieve your mission of leaving the review with actionable goals.   You’ll get more helpful information if you say, “As I think about how I can improve my writing over the next year, do you have any guidance for specific areas I should focus on or steps I could take?”


When you hear negative feedback, it can be tempting to want to know who gave that specific feedback if your review is encompassing responses from multiple reviewers.  Even then, pause before asking the reviewer who shared a piece of feedback.  If you truly think it is important/relevant to your future growth, it’s very different to say, “I’m confused by that feedback.  Can you tell me what context or project it relates to?” rather than “I don’t understand that feedback and would like to talk with the person who gave it.”  The first version focuses on your work, the actual topic of the review, while the second focuses on the person who gave you negative feedback, a topic that is largely irrelevant.     


No good comes of arguing in your review unless you feel there is something that is just plain wrong.  If that is the case, rather than trying to defend yourself or getting angry, it can be better to say, “I’m surprised by some of the feedback you’ve just shared with me and need time to process it and reflect on it.  May I have a day to digest and think about this and what I can do?”  That will give you time to regroup and can prevent you from reacting out of anger in a way that can set you back far more than the underlying issue.   


It’s also important to accept compliments.  This can be harder for some people than others, and hopefully your accomplishment list and advance preparation will help.  When you receive a compliment, don’t try to talk the reviewer out of the compliment with responses like “well, it was not a big deal,” “I was only one part of the team,” or “I got lucky.”  Instead, unless the reviewer is truly wrong (giving you credit for someone else’s work, for example), say thank you, and then be quiet.    


At the end of the review, the reviewer will likely ask if you have any questions or feedback.  Now is the time to refer to your five or six talking points, and bring up any that haven’t already been addressed.  It is also the time for you to drill down and make sure you understand what success looks like for the next year and what the expectations are that you need to meet (and hopefully exceed).  This is particularly critical if your review has been very positive – it can be tempting to just be happy and relieved and want it to end, but you need that information so next year’s review can be just as positive, so don’t leave without it.    


Finally, thank the reviewer.  Having to share feedback can be difficult, and in many employers, annual reviews come at a time of year that is busy to begin with.  Thank your supervisor for taking the time to prepare and share feedback with you, and let him/her know that you are looking forward to continuing to grow and improve over the next year.  (Even if what you want to say is “by the way, I’m already applying for other jobs,” this isn’t the time.   This is the time for gratitude and professionalism.) 


Next week, we’ll address what to do after your review, and the following week we’ll discuss how to handle reviews for people you manage.  In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments. 


You don’t have to be alone in working on your career.  Coaching with Apochromatik can help with many of the issues you may be struggling with and want to address; we’ve worked with clients on developing confidence in meetings, improving client relationships, developing professional presence, and a host of other areas.  We also work with clients who don’t know if they want to stay in their careers or with their current employer, including coaching them through deciding on the path they want to pursue, on interview coaching, and even resume review. 


Our past clients attest that investing in your career by hiring an Apochromatik coach pays huge dividends.  In addition, many law firms and other employers will hire coaches to work with those who have shown a commitment to improvement and to their career.  Whether you hire us or your employer does, our goal is to help you eliminate distractions and distortions and build the career and life you want, rather than tolerate.