by Sarah K. White

How to make your performance review meaningful

Nov 24, 2015
CareersIT Skills

Just because companies like Microsoft or Dell have realized that the traditional performance review is outdated doesn't mean your company is that progressive. If you're up against a ranked performance review, here are some tips on how to make it less stressful and more collaborative.

There’s a prevailing opinion that performance reviews aren’t the best way to evaluate employee performance and that they might do more harm than good. In fact, plenty of high-profile companies have ditched performance reviews all together, including major corporations like Microsoft and Dell. And research supports this move, suggesting that performance reviews can actually hinder or halt progress in the workplace, by demoralizing and discouraging employees.

This negative view of performance reviews is generally directed at rank and stack reviews, which assign employees a number to rank them within the department or company. In fact, some studies suggest this type of review process can be detrimental to an employee’s motivation and overall mental health.

A video from Strategy Business outlines how, according to neuroscience research, ranking employees this way can promote “high levels of frustration, less willingness to take risks and working against each other.” The idea is that it creates a flight or fight response in the area of our brains that used to keep us safe from danger, like being chased by a lion, in our primal days. The video also illustrates how ranking employees numerically can eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy by reinforcing an employee’s belief that they are stuck at that ranking, and leaving them unwilling or unable to break out of that category.

Managers and HR agree

It’s not just employees who feel that performance reviews don’t work. Managers and HR teams also say they are tired of antiquated performance management systems. A 2013 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 95 percent of managers aren’t happy with their company’s performance review process, while 90 percent of HR heads felt these reviews weren’t typically honest or fruitful.

Unfortunately, just because the typical performance review has been shown to be unproductive, it doesn’t mean everyone is lucky enough to avoid this yearly tradition. The same study found that out of 1,350 HR professionals surveyed, 94 percent said that their organization did conduct performance reviews, indicating most companies are still stuck in a performance review rut. But there are ways to prepare for a review so you don’t get bogged down in the numbers and the details, turning it into a more useful endeavor. Remember, your review isn’t just about your manager telling you what you’ve done right and wrong over the past year, it’s also about your overall career and growth within the company.

Be prepared

This might seem obvious, but the first step is to be prepared well before your review. Look over your annual review from the year before and figure out how you have or haven’t met certain goals and expectations. according to Kathy Harris, founder and managing director of Harris Allied, an executive search firm in New York City, you should consider what needs to change for the next year and what goals you want to set aside in favor of new ones. Harris says once you know what you want out of your review, you can tie it back to your qualifications to give concrete examples of how you’ll achieve these goals.

“Prepare by reviewing past performance reviews to gain perspective,” says Harris, “keep in mind that your boss has to work with the tools they’ve been given.” Remember that your manager probably oversees a number of employees, so you can’t expect them to have a file with every single one of your accomplishments from the last year.

Harris suggests that you gather some data to back up your achievements throughout the year. Maybe you keep a folder in your email account where you save accolades from coworkers or notes from clients commending your work. Alternatively, you can keep a running Word document where you can quickly jot down all your successes — and failures — as they happen. Chances are, you’re going to forget these by the time your review comes around, so taking a few minutes to update a document will help alleviate some of the stress of prepping for your review.

Ask questions

When it’s time to head into your performance review, you want to be prepared with questions for your manager, says Harris. That way you can be prepared to ask your manager about your future within the company. Don’t take this one-on-one time with your manager for granted, a performance review isn’t a one-way street, even though it may feel that way.

Your review can be a great time to get insights from your manager into what your potential growth looks like and how your manager thinks you fit in the department, says Harris. It’s a chance to get on the same page in terms of your trajectory, or figure out if you’re not in agreement with your future. Ultimately, you don’t want to be left in the dark if you see yourself climbing the corporate ladder, but your manager doesn’t have the same vision.

Schedule a conversation

If you start the review process, only to find out it’s a quick rundown of where you rank in the company, ask your manager to schedule time to speak with you about your goals. Ultimately, you can head off some of the awkwardness of a ranked performance review by trying to turn it into a conversation. Hopefully your manager agrees and will arrange a time to sit down and talk more in-depth about your overall goals and direction in the company.

“Prepare to discuss your performance as it relates to the department,” says Harris, “the manager has a vested interest in retaining people who support them.” That means your manager should be just as eager as you are to have a more in depth conversation about your career. However, if your manager doesn’t seem interested or becomes hostile when approached about having a deeper discussion, Harris says “you have to decide whether the job is worth it or move on.”

Be ready for the negatives

Ideally, you should have at least a vague idea as to whether or not your performance over the last year has been negative or positive, Harris says you should be ready for both outcomes. You’ll want to make sure you always remain calm and rational, even if you feel your manager’s evaluation isn’t accurate or fair. Instead of making excuses or being overly reactive, says Harris, take your prepared evidence of your successes, and make sure you own up to any failures. Be upfront and honest about your take on the review, but do it in a way that doesn’t come off as aggressive or resentful.

If the outcome is positive, then it’s a great time to talk about your professional development. You can’t expect your manager to have your career path lined up, and you need to voice your expectations for your role within the company. “You should be prepared to have a specific conversation about professional development opportunities. This is your chance to ask for the title or promotion you’re hoping for,” says Harris.

Hopefully more companies catch onto the trend of ditching performance reviews, but until that happens, the only thing you can do is be prepared to gain more from your review than where you rank in the company. If you have to go through a performance review that you find stressful, the best thing you can do is be prepared and try to turn it into a conversation that will be motivating rather than demoralizing.