Waiting for your annual employee performance review can be like waiting for a phone call from a cagey love interest: what does he think of me? He likes me, he likes me not…he likes me, he likes me not. Around APR time we spend a lot of energy wondering does my boss like me (appreciate me, think highly of me, respect me) and very little time wondering do I like how this year went? Of course we want our boss to think highly of us and rate us well, but if that is what we worry about at APR time we miss the best-use of an APR, which is to help us do our jobs better.
When you think of the performance appraisal process as an opportunity for your boss to rate you, and pass judgement on your work, the focus becomes the boss, and the boss’s opinion. You wait anxiously to see what your boss will hand down to you, like some grown-up version of a child’s report card with its numbers and letters and threat of summer school. This is a passive approach to performance evaluation, but it can be very comfortable because the responsibility for analyzing, measuring, and evaluating falls on the supervisor, not the person being evaluated. When the news is good, this sort of APR can be received as a gift, and when the news is bad it can be rejected as untrue.
So what’s the alternative? Treating your APR like you would any other meeting or presentation where you are the subject matter expert. You need to prepare to present at your APR, not just receive. Before your APR, set aside some time, pull out a pad of paper (or however you think best) and write down what worked well and what didn’t this year. This isn’t some argument with proof points about how you are a spectacular employee and deserve a promotion (I’m sure you are, and you do, but save that for just a moment). This is an honest assessment, just for you, about how you’ve done. What are you proud of? What are you ashamed of? What do you want to get better at? What do you want to do more of? What do you want to never have to do again? The goal here is just to understand yourself and your work.
Take these raw notes and sit with them for a bit. What story, what concern, what theme is coming out of your notes? You can have that be the “topic” of your APR. When your boss asks you “So how do you think the year went,” you will have your answer: “This year was really challenging for me with the new project starting up, and all the travel. It stretched me, and that was pretty uncomfortable.” You have made the overarching assessment of your year, and whatever information your boss provides about skills and strengths and weaknesses has a frame to fit into. You have made sense of your own performance, and the data and suggestions your boss is going to give you now have a context you embrace.
It’s true that not every boss is going to ask you to comment on your performance before launching into her own assessment, and it is also true that sometimes your boss’s assessment is going to be so wildly different from your own understanding that you can’t reconcile the two. But going through the process of honestly making sense of your own performance beforehand will at least take the sting out of some of the negative stuff and give you a way to take it in. If you have already heard it from yourself, you will be prepared, and what is more, you might be able to move into problem solving together rather than just trying to hold it together during the meeting. And sometimes bosses are less hard on us than we are on ourselves.
Finally, think about what you want out of your supervisor in the coming year. Sometimes during an APR the supervisor will ask “what can I do to help you,” or “do you have any feedback for me?” This is not the time to say “I can’t think of anything” or “you’re awesome,” but to provide some well-thought out suggestions. Maybe you want a regularly scheduled check-in, or permission to take a course, or more frequent feedback on your performance. Ask for it. And if your boss doesn’t ask for feedback, you can still provide it. You can frame this as the help you need in order to address the performance opportunities and challenges raised in the APR. For example, you could say “It would help me manage my workload and prioritize if you could meet with me for a few minutes at the start of every week to discuss my tasks.”
And about you being a spectacular employee who deserves a promotion? That can certainly be part of the conversation, and fits into a discussion of where you want to go in the coming year, and how to get there (and what help you need from your boss on the way). Just don’t let the box-checking, gold-star-seeking, all-A’s-on-the-report-card side of yourself (the side that is anxious for other’s approval) prevent you from seeking your own appraisal, first.