Gird Your Loins

….. It’s Time for the Annual Performance Review

Vague statements and labels, one-sided evaluations, surprises, and secondhand complaints are just the sorts of things that can make a person want to run away screaming from an annual performance evaluation–probably not the best career move. Here are some tips for dealing with these situations in a calm and collected manner.

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It’s that time again: the ritual of yearly appraisals and performance reviews. If you’ve followed my writing, you know what I think of yearly appraisals and performance reviews. And, you know that the data is on my side.

Still, the vast majority of companies still mandate some form of annual review with ratings, rankings, and bell curves. Except for people who receive top ratings, these reviews can be discouraging, demotivating, and soul-destroying. But, refusing to participate is a career-limiting move.

Four of the most destructive dynamics in reviews involve vague feedback and labels, one-sided assessments, surprises, and second-hand complaints. I hope that your review doesn’t go down that road. But, in case it does, here are strategies you can use to hold on to your dignity and obtain some useful information.

Vague Statements and Labels

Several years ago at about this time of year, I was talking to a group about feedback. One woman shared that she had just had her annual review and received a below-average rating because, her boss said, she was “too nice.”

I’m sorry, but that isn’t useful feedback; it’s a label. There was no way for the receiver to act on that label, other than to start being mean. If your boss uses a label to summarize some aspect of your performance, ask for examples. But, do so carefully, so that your boss doesn’t infer that you are challenging his assessment.

Start by creating an opening by saying something such as, “I’d really like to learn more about that perception, so that I can decide what changes will be most effective in this area. Can we set up a time to discuss specific examples?”

If your boss says no, you’ve got bigger problems than a useless label. Fortunately, it’s unlikely he will respond that way. It’s more likely that your boss won’t have those examples at his finger tips and may need time to think back over the situations that led to his conclusion. Pressing him during the review may make him feel defensive and lead him to label you as resistant–downward spiral, here we come!

When you do have the opportunity for further exploration, ask for recent examples. You need enough information to allow you to recognize and remember the situation. Once you have data that you both agree on, ask to understand how your boss sees your actions affecting your ability to do your job. For example, the too-nice lady might have asked, “How do you see my style getting in my way?” or “How did my style affect my credibility or ability to do my job in the situation we’re talking about?”

Part of everyone’s job growth is developing a greater repertoire of options for action, so ask for some coaching while acknowledging the data. “Yes, I did do that. At the time, I didn’t pause to consider other options. Will you help me think through some other alternatives that would have been more effective?”

One-sided Evaluations

If your boss makes an assessment that you feel doesn’t cover all the facts of the situation, add more information.

Excuses don’t sway most bosses. But, when there are circumstances beyond your control that affect your ability to finish assignments, your boss should take them into account (and work to correct the situation so you can succeed).

It’s almost never a good strategy to argue with the ref, so start by acknowledging what is accurate in your boss’s assessment. You might say something such as, “I can see how that’s a problem, and I’m not making excuses. I would like to share some more information about how that situation came about.”

Share additional information in as neutral a way as you can, and avoid blaming other people. After you’ve laid out the data, own what you can about the situation. Maybe you didn’t raise the red flag to indicate there was a problem early enough. Maybe you didn’t consider more than one option. Whatever it is, if you can own your part of the situation, your boss will see that you aren’t trying to shift the blame.

Then, move to problem solving by making an opening such as, “I would like to discuss how to handle the situation should it arise again.”

Surprises

One of the worst things a manager can do in an annual review is spring a surprise on you. But, sadly, some managers wait until the end of the year to tell people about a problem that’s festered for months.

If this happens to you, acknowledge your manager’s point of view and the importance he puts on the situation. You won’t be able to bring your best thinking to the situation when you are caught off guard. Ask for a follow-up meeting within the next week, so that it’s clear you aren’t trying to brush off the concern.

Secondhand Complaints

Bearing secondhand feedback is a sure way to erode trust. But, some so-called performance-management systems rely on it, and some managers fall into the trap.

Vague or puzzling secondhand feedback presents a problem similar to vague labels–you don’t have enough information to make a choice about what to change. Use a similar opening: “I’d like to learn more about that perception. Can you arrange for me to have a follow-up conversation with the person who gave that feedback?”

If that fails, ask if your boss shares the assessment from the anonymous source, and seek clarification from him.

If the secondhand feedback is a complaint about the way you do your job, ask your boss to arrange a meeting so that you can repair the working relationship.

Most people are open to feedback when they believe that the source is reliable, the receiver trusts the giver’s intentions, the receiver has a chance to clarify, and the process–both how the feedback is developed and how it’s delivered–is fair.

Too many annual reviews violate some or all of these principles, but if you use the strategies in this column, you can restore some of the balance and gain helpful information.