Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Jan 13, 2006

Businesswoman, Appraise Thyself

Instructor, Caroline Bender

It's performance review season -- time for you to do more of your boss's job in order to justify and insure your own.

Performance review trends change slowly, but when they do, they are suddenly treated as universal truths -- true for all employees in all industries, all over the country.

For some time -- perhaps your entire career -- we have been subjected to the self-appraisal, which is the equivalent of writing your own letter of reference and submitting it for signature.

There are plenty of reasons to be in favor of the self-appraisal; after all, Crazy Bosses can put a lot of emphasis on performance reviews, and you can be very vulnerable if your permanent record stands on they say alone. I am not coming out against them... except in principle. In fact, now that the Boss doesn't have to do them at all, she doesn't, and you can paint (nearly) any picture your heart desires.

But don't work too hard. Here's my approach:
Stick to the facts. You may wish you got the kind of appraisal that talked about your whole character, your development as a professional, your strengths and weaknesses. But you don't wish it, don't set that tone. Studies suggest that the higher a performer, the lower (proportionately) she tends to measure herself in terms of success. High achievers always see what they could have done better, while low achievers are generally satisfied with their results and rank their successes high. So, if you are an achiever (and all of our students are) you are in danger of undervaluing yourself where it matters.

Instead, record the things you actually accomplished. You should prepare for this throughout the year by writing them down somewhere. If you haven’t this year, take a review of your planner, your mailbox, and the like. Organize your accomplishments list according to what is meaningful for your job or your company; for example, by month, quarter, area of responsibility, project. Include results in real numbers, such as revenue realized, costs saved, attendance numbers, speed to deliver, number of defects, etc. These kind of accomplishments are objective, factual, and hard to argue. Stats can always be skewed, it's true. But for the most part, they are less squishy than, "improved relations with..."

360 feedback is another recent addition. This refers to additional commentary from your own peer level, your Boss's peer level (or higher), and those you supervise (if any). Here is another opportunity for those you really work with to comment on your value.

Common practice is for you to name these references yourself, so here are a few tips to maximize this requirement.
Make it a real 360. Choose someone higher than your Boss if you can -- someone with whom you have a strong rapport. At your own level, cast beyond your immediate cohort. If you work for a Boss who is working against your success, she may have too much influence on others who work for her. Diversify your reference list, not only by level, but also by their job within the company. This shows the size of your sphere of influence and the range of your talents.

When dot-com culture began to take over the American workplace, we saw a renewal of "corporate values." For those companies who still survive, the company values often serve as a centerpiece to your employment experience. In your self-appraisal, you may be asked to evaluate yourself in the context of those values.

The hypocrisy of your company's values may tempt you to write a long speech about double standards. Write it if it has value for you; just don't include it. Instead, you might format your accomplishments list in this order, rather than worry about finding more to say about how you aren't trying as hard as you could. why repeat yourself?

Finally, we get to the section where you are asked to identify areas of improvement. I generally advise leaving this blank. If you are not confident in doing so, stay factual and objective, like "increase budget by 50%" or "improve time to deliver by 10% fewer days than last year." Keep all items year-over-year measurements, and see if you can leverage them against some goal the company has (or should have).

Remember: measurable and deliverable. This is what your Company does. They don't do to market with "have happier employees," or "make fewer mistakes." Numbers, numbers, numbers.

Through it all, what really matters are these real world facts about the performance review:
1. The review itself can not make your actual performance any better or worse than it was.

2. The review is rarely a true determiner of your raise. Those things tend to be divided on a curve, and the most aggressive manager wins. If the Company has frozen raises, even the best employee doesn't get one. And even the worst salaried employee, if she is not let go, gets a cost of living increase.

3. When you are let go, they always say it was for performance, even if it wasn't. And you'll always say you were a great employee, even if you weren't.

If you have a developmentally-minded supervisor, and this can be a genuine opportunity for you to grow as a professional, then I clap you soundly on the back. take advantage of it, then, and throw yourself in. You may not get that opportunity more than once.

Everyone else... don't stress it. Those of you who need to evaluate staff... read this.

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