The Mentorist

I Meant What I Said and I Said What I Meant: Decoding Your Performance Review

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Life is what happens when you’re writing performance reviews.

At least that’s the view of most managers I know.  I’ve never met one who enjoyed the process.

Having been on both sides of the manager/managee divide, I get it:  Performance reviews take big chunks of time to write and deliver.  Time that could be spent fighting fires and conquering countries.

Although ‘people development’ (what these reviews are about, after all) should also make the list of time-spending priorities, somehow it loses out.

As a result, managers too often deliver slapdash performance reviews that range in content from a grunted ‘keep-doing-what-you’re-doing’ to a set of stream-of-consciousness impressions that would do James Joyce proud.

Say what?

You, as the managee, deserve better — particularly when your manager gets to that part of your performance review called ‘growth areas’ (or, more harshly, ‘weaknesses’).

You deserve to walk out of your review with a clear understanding of both the reasons your manager selected out those growth areas for you and of his specific recommendations for how to approach ‘growing.’  Armed with that information, you’ve got a much better shot at improving in the year to come.

So, you’re stuck with a manager who keeps performance reviews superficial?  Plan on stepping in and directing the conversation, in order to get the intelligence you need.

Here are the things you deserve to get from your performance review –- and some suggestions for how to get them:

  1. You deserve ‘back-up’ evidence

    Performance reviews are filled with labels –- that is, words that describe how your reviewer and other people in the firm perceive you (‘reliable,’ ‘difficult to work with,’ etc.).

    Let’s say that, during your review, your manager informs you you’re ‘not a team player’ and need to improve in that arena.

    The problem here is that one person’s definition of a ‘non-team player’ can be another’s definition of a person who shows initiative and drive.  If your performance review goes no deeper than the label stage, you’re at risk of misunderstanding what your manager is really saying to you.

    To get on your manager’s wavelength and understand how your behavior fits his label, ask him for examples:  When, exactly, did your manager (or others in the firm) experience you as ‘not playing for the team’?  What did you do or say at the time that created that impression?

    [Skip this step if you can remember biting your co-worker on the neck.]

    Asking for specific examples can give you a clearer sense of the ‘behavior baseline’ from which you need to improve.

    It can also help you ‘big-picture’ gauge whether your future at the firm looks rosy:  So, you’ve just been slapped with a vague label that your manager can’t (or won’t) back up with examples?  (‘You’re not a cultural fit’ is the archetype.)  That may be a sign that you should (discreetly) dust off your resume.

    How to get what you deserve:  When asking your manager for back-up examples, stay upbeat and confident.  (Getting testy will only put him on the defensive.)  The impression you should convey is of someone who genuinely wants to understand how he’s perceived at work and who views growth areas as a challenge to be taken seriously.

    Put your probing in a positive context, by saying something like this:  ‘So that I can better grasp what you mean by [fill-in-the-label] and can work on improving, would you, please, give me a few examples of when you’ve observed that?’

  2. You deserve to live in the present

    Sadly, the adage ‘first impressions are lasting impressions’ holds very true with performance reviews.

    Your manager should be focusing your performance review on what’s happened since the last time you were reviewed.  That way, the two of you can discuss what’s changed:  where you’ve made improvements and where you continue to falter.

    Instead, you may be saddled with a manager who spends all his energy on ‘hitting the numbers’ and pays no attention to your changes.  If so, during your review, he’s going to fall back on his earlier impressions of you –- no matter how old.  That can make it near impossible for you to turn around your image.

    An example:  Year after year, one of my coworkers was told during reviews that he ‘apologized too much’ after making mistakes.  That, indeed, was true –- but three years earlier.  Back then, my colleague took the comment to heart and had barely uttered an ‘I’m sorry’ since.  His reviewer simply hadn’t bothered to notice the change.

    How to get what you deserve:  If you’ve been tagged with an old label that no longer applies, ask your manager for some current examples.

    Don’t be defensive –- or meek –- when asking.  Simply note that you received the same comment in a prior review and, since then, have made concerted efforts to improve.  Then, ask if your manager can provide some examples of when you reverted to your old behavior within the last year.  If he can’t come up with many (or any) examples, he may wake up to the fact that his views are old news.

  3. You deserve attribution

    Although your manager is the one who writes and delivers your performance review, he solicits input from other people in the firm who have worked closely with you.

    Their comments about you usually stay anonymous and get bundled up into a few general labels that go into your review.  Occasionally, your manager will decide to include ‘outlier’ comments from unnamed people whose view of you differs from (and is usually worse than) the general sense of the crowd.

    What’s difficult about this ‘anonymous bundle’ approach is that you’re left wondering which performance issues you need to address with which people.

    How to get what you deserve:  During your sit-down review, ask your manager if he can give you a sense of how consistently you’re viewed by the people who contributed to your review.

    If your manager indicates that people’s opinions of you vary widely –- i.e., that you’ve got both fans and detractors –- ask politely if he would be willing to identify those people who fall into the detractor camp.  Couch your request in terms of your desire to work on your relationships with those people.  Gently remind your manager that — in order to do this — you first need to know who they are.

  4. You deserve actionable suggestions

    In giving performance reviews, some managers will leave a pile of growth areas at your feet and ride out of town.

    And just what are you supposed to do with that pile?  Ultimately, it’s up to you to figure out.  But that doesn’t mean your manager gets to abdicate:  His job is to help guide you through the thicket.  You deserve your manager’s recommendations for concrete actions you can take to improve.

    How to get what you deserve:  Muster up a ‘can-do’ mindset.  Then, tell your manager your goal is to have next year’s review reflect big strides in each of your growth areas.

    Acknowledge that you are ultimately responsible for your own growth, but also say that you would value his input along the way.  Then, ask him something along these lines:  ‘If you were sitting in my chair during this review, what steps would you plan on taking to work on [growth-area-X]?  What would you do first?  How would you follow-on to that?’

  5. You deserve commitment

    A performance review is like a birthday:  It happens once a year, then is usually forgotten about until the next one rolls around.

    This can leave you in a bad place.

    Unless you check in with your manager during the year, he may not notice how you’re evolving.  His lack of attention, in turn, puts you at risk of getting yet another review based on fumes (stale ones, at that).  This fits my definition of Sisyphean Hell….

    How to get what you deserve:  At the end of your review conversation, tell your manager that you’re going to create a personal action plan for working on your growth areas.  Say that you’d appreciate his guidance as you go along your way.

    Ask your manager if he will commit to sitting down with you once a quarter to check-in on the pace of your progress.  Offer to work with his assistant to set up times for these meetings, then follow through.

    When your quarterly checkpoints roll around, take responsibility for the agenda:  Bring along the action plan you’ve developed.  Prepare in advance a ‘lite’ version of a performance self-appraisal, reflecting where you’ve made progress and where you still need to focus.  Bring that along with you too. [See for tips on how to write this self-appraisal.]   Use these two documents as the springboard for your conversation.

Once you’ve shown your manager that you take your performance review seriously, perhaps he’ll start doing the same.  And, yes, I believe that one day pigs will fly….

annual job performance reviews

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

One thought on “I Meant What I Said and I Said What I Meant: Decoding Your Performance Review

  1. Jane,
    Fabulous post (as they all are). I circulated it to the group with whom you met last month. Are we on for lunch sometime soon? Hope so.

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