Profiting From Performance Reviews

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To many, the annual performance review is about as welcome as a colonoscopy. Could any good ever come from a one-on-one where your boss - no matter how much he might respect your work - is required to detail your strengths and (mostly) weaknesses?

Surprising as it may seem, experts answer in the affirmative.

"Performance reviews are one of the few chances for employees to receive honest feedback that determines whether or not they'll get a raise or a promotion," says Vicky Oliver, author of Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots. "As such, they are valuable tools if used correctly."

To make the most of the opportunity, career advisors and hiring managers outline a series of steps that can be summed up in three broad injunctions: Be prepared. Be objective. Be strategic.

Plan Ahead

Like every important business meeting, performance reviews have a planned agenda that requires certain information compiled in advance. Typically, there is a review meeting and a related evaluation (and self-evaluation) form that both supervisor and employee must complete before the sit-down. As an employee, you'll aim to emphasize your strong points, obtain ratings as high as it's realistic to expect, and turn discussion of your weaker areas into a springboard to opportunities like education, training, or involvement in a project that will look good on your resume.

"When the employee understands it properly, they can actually guide their manager," observes career coach Bettina Seidman. Performance appraisals "really should be professional development plans," she says. "You might even get some seminars paid for, or even a graduate degree."

Planning ahead is vital. A favorable review is more attainable, experts say, if you've recorded your own achievements as they occur, have pro-actively managed your relationship with your boss, and are prepared to pitch your own professional development goals for the next year or two.

"Keep track of your successes over the course of the year. Don't try to remember them at the last moment," advises New York career coach Win Sheffield.

Don't Ignore the Easy Stuff

When toting up achievements for your review form, don't confine your list to only major challenges. "A lot of our jobs are spent doing things that are so easy for us - after all, that's why we're hired," Sheffield points out. He says it's important to state how you added value through superior performance in those cut-and-dried, routine aspects of your role. When doing so, take care to note "the subtleties, the things that you add on top, that show you are not just a good analyst but a great analyst, the guy taking initiative."

Sheffield suggests making continuous efforts to air any concerns your boss may have with your performance. If the boss wasn't fully satisfied with something, you're better off knowing right away so you can take steps to address it, rather than let the discontent build up until review time. Since a supervisor often won't voice criticisms without prompting, Sheffield says the subordinate should take the initiative to actively solicit negative feedback. Each time you complete a project, he suggests asking your boss: "What can I do the next time to take it to the next level?"

How to Profit From Criticism

Of course, the review meeting itself is almost certain to bring out some negative feedback. When it does, practice judo - not boxing. "Don't expect to change the boss's mind," counsels an executive who has managed teams within a number of large companies. Instead of challenging or disputing a negative comment, he says, "Continually twist the boss's feedback to your advantage." For instance if told, "I need to see you take on more responsibility," then ask for the big, high-profile project you've set your sights on in anticipation of that moment.

Advised by a boss that he needed to work on his negotiation skills, this executive asked for sponsorship to take a $6,000 negotiating course. Because his supervisor's assessment was written in the review form, the request was ultimately approved.

He offers these additional tips on handling criticism in a performance review:

- "Very calmly and nicely" ask for concrete examples of the failing that was attributed to you. Ask for specifics that can help you recognize the behavior yourself.

- After receiving a bad rating on some dimension of your job, ask the boss for a follow-up meeting to get feedback about your progress on that particular issue. "It makes it much less likely that will be identified as a weakness of yours next time," he says.

Originally published Nov. 12, 2008

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