Your fingers hover over the keyboard, unsure how to fill in your annual performance review self-evaluation. On the one hand, you know deep down that you didn’t – couldn’t – show up at work as your fully productive self the way you wanted to this year. On the other hand, if they only knew how you pulled off the blend of professional, personal, and in many cases schooling-from-home work you actually were able to accomplish this past year, you’d win the award for High Achievement Under Pressure.
You have those last-year goals staring at you, demanding to be assigned into ACCOMPLISHED or NOT ACCOMPLISHED, along with a narrative. While you may have eked out a few major initiatives on top of everything else, some of those prior year goals are completely irrelevant even now, and others may have been sidetracked by more pressing demands. You worry that if you’re honest about missing the boat on some of them, you may call fresh attention to underperformance, and if you’re not honest, you’re going to get called out on that, too. This affects your performance rating, and likely your raise, so you need to handle it deftly.
So what’s a self-reviewer to do, if you haven’t lived up to their standards, or yours?
Working away from regular face-time with the boss complicates this issue, given that
42% of Americans worked from home in 2020.
If you look back at the past year and see thwarted plans, goals gone astray, and results that fell short of your expectations, you’re not alone. You’ve had to pivot and adapt and postpone under unexpectedly trying circumstances—and if you’re like at least 42 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2020, you had to do it all from home, away from your office and your team.
If working from home is new for you, an underlying problem may be that feeling disconnected from what your boss really thinks of you, so you’re not sure how to calibrate your self-review.
When your performance falls short of your own expectations, it can feel disappointing, even discouraging. This isn’t unusual for high achievers who are used to setting and achieving big goals. You care how you’re seen by your boss, your team, and your company; but it’s likely that your organization cares about you and your well-being more than you think.
In a year where so many things felt out of your control, your self-review is your opportunity to think about what you DID accomplish: the courage you’ve shown to adapt and innovate.
Here are some guidelines as you reflect on the past year:
First, before you plan what to say, consider the “psychological safety” of your team, boss, and company. “Psychological safety” is defined by Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson as “the shared belief among team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Does your workplace make you feel comfortable or uneasy about asking questions, raising concerns, and learning from mistakes? Some organizations allow you to be more candid and admit vulnerability, and some are quite the opposite—if you show weakness, the organization will magnify it a hundredfold. Before you write a word of your review, you’ll need to calibrate your honesty to this factor, or risk putting things in writing that may come back to bite you later.
Do’s and Don’ts For What to Write
If you’ve been tasked with evaluating your own performance after a year like this one, it’s wise to put some thought into what you want to say.
Tempting as it may be to enumerate every obstacle that came between you and your goals, that’s not the most productive approach. Instead, frame your experiences in terms of how and when you DID deliver value to customers and team members. You can support that story of value by speaking about how you built new ways of working efficiently, how you prioritized key projects, and what you hope to do to deliver value going forward into the new year.
Do: Think about the culture of your workplace, and whether performance reviews are truly an open dialogue designed to help you, or an exercise where performance reviews are used against people. Are written reviews almost always positive, and the “real conversation” happens in person? Or have you found that written performance reviews pretend to be coaching cloaked in a gotcha-style list of failings? (If you’re relatively new to the organization and aren’t sure what to expect, ask a trusted teammate what their experience has been.) Deciding what you’ll write for posterity, and what you’re willing to say when you talk to your boss, really means crafting two separate strategies.
Don’t: include negatives about yourself if the company hasn’t traditionally conducted performance reviews that way. Keeping with the idea of psychological safety, it’s up to you to understand the culture and determine how candid it makes sense to be.
Do: thank the Academy. Name the teams and people (including your boss) whose support has helped you stay positive and productive in a globally challenging year. If possible, provide a specific example or two of how the people you mention have helped you do your job well—don’t just give a shout-out for its own sake.
Don’t: attempt to cast others in a bad light. Avoid preemptively attacking your boss or your coworkers with aggressive or passive-aggressive comments such as “with very little support from my team.” This won’t help your case and could backfire, if in fact your boss feels like they’ve been much more supportive than you’re letting on.
Do: talk about the progress you HAVE made against your original goals. Sometimes you may need to speak to goals you set in January 2020, before the pandemic took hold. You may have fallen short on them for many reasons, and worry that you’ll still be held to those unrealistic standards. Talk about what you’ve been able to do, and share that you’re looking forward to continuing growth in those areas.
Do: reflect on how last year’s goals laddered up to your department’s goals, and from there to the company’s overarching goals. You may be able to talk about how you achieved a goal from an unexpected or unplanned angle. For instance, if a company goal was ultimately about efficiency or cost-cutting or improved customer experience, start by mentioning the original plan, and then say how you pivoted to meet the goal in a different way. “We originally planned to do X to drive customer engagement, but when circumstances prevented us from doing so, I was able to set up processes that did Y and Z to improve engagement instead.”
Don’t: simply state “Objective Not Met” with no further elaboration.
Don’t: use the pandemic, or your divorce, or remote-schooling your kids, or any other personal challenge in a way that sounds like an excuse or a cop-out. Your teammates likely have the same types of challenges, and you’re all being measured against the same performance bar. By calling attention to your individual concerns, you’re creating a permanent record of strife rather than positivity and progress, and your boss has likely taken it all into consideration beforehand anyway.
Do: get specific about all the ways you quickly and creatively adapted to COVID. Acknowledge the circumstances, and show the opportunities you found within them. For instance, “In response to rapidly changing conditions, I quickly pivoted to managing projects remotely, adding new twice-weekly check-ins, implementing new metrics and more frequent reporting to allow real-time insight and keep our team moving forward.”
The Good News: Your Employer May be More Sympathetic Than You Realize
Employers are acknowledging that 2020 has been a deviation from the norm. As reported in the Washington Post, an Aon survey of 1,330 human resources officers found that 47 percent—nearly half—were considering or had already implemented changes to employees’ performance goals.
What’s more, many organizations are temporarily or – even better – permanently moving away from the classic once-a-year performance review process. Some are forgoing reviews altogether for the year; others are seizing the moment to pivot to more regular feedback via quarterly reviews or biweekly one-on-ones. These more frequent conversations can lead to boosts in employee engagement as goals and expectations are discussed and refined throughout the year.
Your self-evaluation gives you a platform to talk about your strengths and what you DID accomplish, what you’ve learned, and what you’re excited about taking on in the coming year.
Your goal for this write-up is to balance your dedication and enthusiasm with awareness of the hard work it took to get here—all while avoiding the extremes of bragging and of self-deprecation. Be sure, too, to call out some ways you’d like to improve, so you’re not just putting on a brave face to your employer to say everything’s all right as is. Maybe it’s a skill or an area of responsibility that you’d like to not just manage, but optimize. Or, maybe this past year has highlighted a need for some additional skill set or processes for your work or team that, despite the challenges of 2020, you’d like to take on and improve in the new year.
Whatever you finally decide to fill in for your self-review, make sure that you serve as your own biggest advocate. This review gives you a valuable shot at truly reflecting upon and celebrating the dedication you’ve given your employer during an extraordinarily challenging period of hardship and growth for everyone, including you.
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