10 tips for making self-evaluations meaningful

Whether you think your company uses the information or not, self-evaluations are a necessary device for professional development. Here’s how to make the most of the dreaded self-evaluation process.

Making Self-Evaluations Meaningful

Whether you're a manager or employee, reviews aren't a particularly popular subject; self-evaluations are particularly despised. It’s hard to know how to highlight your achievements and accomplishments without sounding like a braggart, not to mention that it often seems companies file evaluations away and never use them to improve performance. But there are steps you can take to ensure your self-evaluations help to advance your own career and provide valuable feedback to your organization.

According to John Reed, from Robert Half Technology, companies with effective performance review processes use self-evaluations for two reasons: to ensure that employees set aside time to evaluate their performance; and to help managers get a sense of whether an employee has an accurate understanding of their impact in the workplace.

"The self-assessment is an essential part of performance evaluation because it's an opportunity for you to assess your own achievements. You own the performance appraisal. You should look across the past year and tell your manager what you've done and areas you'd like to focus on," says Michelle Roccia, executive vice president of Employee Engagement at WinterWyman.

[ Find out the 10 things you should do before, during and after a performance review — and how to get more. | Get weekly career tips by signing up for our CIO Leader newsletter. ]

Talk about your career map

The self-evaluation should not be focused solely on your job, according to Ford Myers, author of the book Get The Job You Want, Even When No One's Hiring. It should also be focused on your long-term career plan. "It's an opportunity for you to reflect on how you're doing in your career, not just your job," says Myers. Use it to think about where you are going long term and where you are in your career.

From an employee perspective, if there is not a career plan in place, or if there is one but it’s not consistently followed, then “this is an opportunity to sit down with your manager and say, ‘Hey, this is what's really important in my career. I want to build these additional skills, I want to be certified, I want to be a manager, I want a raise... .’ Then you need to map out a plan together and make sure you’re in agreement. Doing this makes expectations very real and tangible," says Reed.

Keep an open dialogue

Mapping your accomplishments to business value is essential to a more meaningful self-assessment, especially if your company’s performance reviews have a direct effect on wage increases or bonuses.

"Use [the self-assessment] as an opportunity to build your perceived value, distinguish yourself and show how strong your contributions are. This is a time to really leverage your accomplishments," says Myers. In a perfect world, the self-evaluation will open an ongoing dialogue where you can discuss with your supervisor your career path and performance as it relates to the business by asking, for example:

  • What are our biggest priorities right now?
  • Am I on track?
  • Is there anything you'd like me to focus on?
  • Where do you think I need to devote more time and energy?
  • How can I help make your job easier?

Having a dialogue like this makes the annual review and self-evaluation a mere formality. This is how it should be, according to Myers. "It's ideal to have ongoing conversations with your boss throughout the year. Keep the dialogue open; otherwise, you can get lost in the dust," says Myers.

Ask how self-evaluations are used

Approach your supervisor and ask how self-evaluations are used by the company. Are they tied to bonuses, promotions or rewards? Who will they be shared with? Knowing the answers will give you insight into the tone you should take and how much effort is required.

Ask yourself the hard questions

Experts agree that you should use this as an opportunity to do an impartial self-appraisal of your skillset. Start by honestly answering these questions:

  • What could I have done better this year?
  • What are my strengths?
  • What are my weaknesses and how can I improve on them?
  • Where can I take personal initiative and become a stronger employee who contributes more next year?

Stay positive

According to Myers, don’t use your self-evaluation to bash your manager, your company or strategic direction, because this could come back to bite you later on. Employee remarks should be 90 percent positive comments and 10 percent what Myers refers to as "areas for development" comments. Use this 10 percent of the self-evaluation to explain your own plan to grow and develop in specific areas over the next year. Don't bash bosses, co-workers or vendors, instead focus on you, your accomplishments and your professional development, he says.

How to handle your shortcomings

"Try to do a balanced self-assessment," says Reed. We all have areas for improvement and he recommends beating your boss to the punch. "If you give yourself great marks in all areas, that tells me that you're not really thinking about how you can improve," says Reed.

Instead, Reed suggests calling out the areas where you think you fall short and using "developmental language" to explain that you really want to improve in these areas and how you are going to achieve that.

For example, Myers says, you could explain that over the past year you noticed your software skills needed some work in a particular environment, for example, in HTML5. Then, according to Myers, you could say something like, "My goal for this year is to take some advanced courses in HTML5 because we are using it more and more as our site evolves," he says.

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Frame any shortcomings not as problems or things you did wrong, but as areas for development and improvement. "They should always be approached as how you can make a stronger contribution to the company," says Myers. It should appear more like an area where you want to learn more, do better and contribute at a higher level than a negative mark on your report card.

Ask for training

Once you've outlined the areas where you'd like to grow, it's a good idea to demonstrate a plan for how to get there. Use this as an opportunity to ask for whatever type of training could help you contribute more, whether it's attending an SEO conference or taking a course on the newest version of SQL Server. Now is a good time to put in the request.

Document your achievements

Be specific. Cover the achievements you completed and be sure to include how and who it helped, as well as the impact on the business. Whether it's adding numbers to the bottom line or streamlining processes to create a better tech support workflow, using specifics makes sure everyone is on the same page and that you concisely tell the full story including the problem, the fix and the end results, instead of simply describing a deployment. "As long as you can tie it to tangible data points and facts, you can use it to your advantage," says Reed.

"This is really your chance to let your boss know all the good things that you've achieved. You can do that without braggadocio or tooting your own horn too loudly about the things you've done. As long as it’s fact-based, there is nothing wrong with this," says Reed.

Myers agrees. "Be very, very specific," he says, and recommends keeping a ‘success file’ or ‘achievement journal’ throughout the year to write down all your contributions as bullet points throughout the month. At the end of the year, you'll have twelve documents to reference for your self-evaluation.

"I personally like the idea of sending this to your boss at the end of each month," says Myers, as it keeps your performance right in front of your manager or supervisor. He says he has seen people get raises and promotions based on this type of documentation. This way, says Myers, "they are ready to give you a raise or promotion, instead of wondering whether to give you a raise and/or promotion."

Differing points of view

But what happens if your self-assessment differs wildly from your manager’s assessment of your performance? If the performance review and the self-assessment diverge significantly, according to Reed, this likely indicates that you and your manager are not meeting often enough and that a discussion needs to be had in order to sort out expectations from the employee and management positions.

"If I'm doing an annual review and we're off by this much, that tells me that we're not talking and putting in place corrective actions and adjustments throughout the course of the year," says Reed.

Ask for guidance, direction and mentoring

Believe it or not, there are businesses and managers out there who never offer feedback or performance reviews, even as employee satisfaction, engagement and morale become important business metrics and issues that affect the CIO. If your employer refuses to give any kind of feedback, Roccia says, you may want to question if you are in the right environment.

"Employees need feedback and need to know how they are doing. I've heard managers whose style is, 'If you're not hearing anything from me, you're doing a good job,' but I don't subscribe to that management style. In fact, I would send that manager to management training," says Roccia.

That said, you should try opening a dialogue with your boss to set up a schedule for continuous review and assessment. Myers advises that you get your boss on board. "Try talking your boss into having meetings at least every month or so. Ask for guidance, direction and mentoring," says Myers. However, if he/she refuses to budge, the experts agree, it may be time to look for greener pastures.

The same goes when applying for jobs. "If you're applying for a job where the boss says, 'Forget it, that's a waste of time,' I suggest you go find another job. Who wants a boss who refuses to give feedback and guidance throughout the year?" says Myers.

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