Making the Most of Your Performance Review

Have you ever met anyone who actually enjoys their annual performance review? We didn’t think so. In fact, even HR staffers and managers have detested such reviews for years, probably more than you do. After all, they have to do the paperwork.

Over the last several years, that discontent has begun boiling over. More companies are implementing effective programs to provide feedback that’s actually useful to their employees. “The two biggest problems with annual reviews are that they’re annual and feedback is not ‘fresh,’” observed Jeff Vijungco, vice president of global employee experience, talent and technology for San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe Systems. “Employees deserve ongoing feedback, clarity of expectations and a dialog about development.”

Many employers voice similar sentiments, but Adobe actually did something about it. In 2012, the company eliminated its traditional annual approach to performance reviews and implemented Check-in, which Vijungco described as “an informal, ongoing dialogue between managers and their employees.” The goal, he added, “is to accelerate individuals and in turn, organizational performance quickly.”

Adobe expects managers and employees to agree on priorities and goals, receive feedback at least once a quarter, and regularly discuss development opportunities. Priorities and goals are updated throughout the year—rather than set on an annual basis—and both managers and employees are trained in how to give and receive constructive feedback. Check-in, Vijungco said, “is a two-way street.”

Today, we’re in a period of transition. For every Adobe, there’s still a number of companies that rely on old-fashioned reviews and ranking systems that focus on what you’ve done rather than what you can accomplish going forward. However, professionals who study performance reviews believe that, no matter what format their organization uses, tech pros need to prepare beforehand if they want to get meaningful feedback as well as attain their goals—whether that’s a promotion, a raise, or a move to a new team.

However your company handles reviews, making them productive requires you to do some hard thinking beforehand. As you do, bear these thoughts in mind:

Look in the Mirror

Honest introspection and self-evaluation are key, according to Kim Dawson, director of employee experience at YouEarnedIt, which creates workforce engagement and rewards software in Austin, Texas. “If you’re fully aware of your strengths and challenges, the conversation should present no surprises. When there are no surprises, you’re able to have constructive, unemotional (mostly), and productive conversations,” she said. “Having time to studiously reflect will make the discussion successful.”

Steven Davis, a technology career coach and CEO of Renaissance Solutions in New York City, emphasizes focus when it comes to preparation. Be ready to discuss two or three technology projects you’ve handled recently, and how your work impacted specific IT and business requirements. He suggests using the acronym PAR, for “Problem/Project, Actions and Results.” Put it to use by describing the problem or project you faced, the actions you took, and the results you produced. And always, he stressed, “be concise and fact-focused.”

Have Goals, and Act on Them

It’s always important to have goals in mind, but you should only press for them “when the timing and audiences are appropriate,” Davis said. For example, if your company’s sales have taken a drubbing and management wants to cut costs, it’s probably not the right time to ask for a raise.

“As an employee, bringing proof points of how the work you’re doing is driving business objectives and helping the company achieve its goals will help you set the foundation for a strong review,” Dawson said. “If you know you’re up for a raise or promotion, don’t wait for your manager to give it to you. Rather, show them why you earned it and how you are continuing to add value to the company.”

This is an ongoing process, even at companies with old-fashioned annual reviews. Tech pros benefit most when there is consistent communication about exceeding expectations, because “upward mobility is usually based upon recognition for going above and beyond and stepping out of one’s comfort zone to deliver initiatives,” Davis said.

Get Inside Your Boss’s Head

As Vijungco noted, reviews are a two-way street. So it’s important to be aware of the challenges your manager may be facing; keep in mind comments they’ve made previously, and the results and reactions that stemmed from your efforts after earlier discussions. Or to put it another way: approach your upcoming review in the context of previous reviews.

“This ties back to the concept of continuous feedback and communication between managers and employees throughout the year,” Dawson said. “It should never come as a surprise if you’re being promoted or fired.” If your boss isn’t regularly communicating their priorities and expectations, she added, then open the necessary conversations yourself: “There should really be no surprises to ‘anticipate’ if you’re communicating honestly with your manager and coworkers.”

Be Proactive

Whether your company is clinging to the old-fashioned annual performance review or promoting ongoing communications, don’t underestimate your role in gaining meaningful feedback. Push to have regular discussions with your manager, even if those talks take place outside of the formal review process. Always come to them with your goals, accomplishments and track record in mind, and always be up-to-date on the latest company developments and business outlook, so your discussions are in a realistic context.

Finally, always keep an open mind. Just as you had to be brutally honest with yourself when preparing for the review, don’t allow your knee to jerk when you hear a genuine critique. Instead, use such feedback to learn, improve and advance.

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