By Caroline M. Cole
“Performance Reviews, Part I: How to Write Evaluations that Serve Employees and Organizations Alike” examines strategies for assessing others but, on occasion, we may need to evaluate ourselves. Self-evaluations, for example, are increasingly common in organizations that use 360º reviews or other multi-modal assessment protocols to generate more accurate representations of team member performance and contributions. As such, being able to represent our work and ourselves can offer a perspective that would not otherwise be available. Yet even beyond traditional performance review contexts, the ability to write credible self-evaluations is invaluable, for at their core, self-assessments explain what we have done and the value those efforts have brought to others—information that can be instrumental when we’re asking to be included on a particular project, given additional responsibilities, promoted within an organization, or even considered for a new position.
In brief, self-evaluations are tools that can help us move into and through forums in more strategic ways, if we know what to do. Unfortunately, whether we’re writing self-assessments that will accompany other review materials or providing stand-alone appraisals, the process can be daunting. It’s one thing, after all, to promote others, but it’s something else to promote ourselves, especially considering that there is a thin line between projecting confidence and appearing arrogant. There are, however, ways to write self-evaluations that not only depict our abilities, but generate support and respect from readers. The following strategies explain how to do so.
• Start with a job description. As explained in the previous post, evaluations are most effective when individual contributions are correlated against larger goals and directives. Therefore, the starting point for any self-evaluation should be a record of the responsibilities we were expected to meet, and job descriptions often provide a synopsis of these expectations.
Identifying general responsibilities, as well as those for particular projects and assignments, job descriptions can also call out the knowledge, skills, and training necessary to meet those expectations or otherwise complete tasks to others’ satisfaction. This information, therefore, can help us examine whether we have acquired, maintained, or enhanced our expertise in ways the organization could put to use. Recognizing, however, that job descriptions may evolve as corporate culture, office personnel, team goals, project demands, and so on change, we must also consider any additional or different expectations which may not be not reflected in our current job description. Depending on the context, we also may need to bear in mind earlier discussions or reviews that may have directly or indirectly modified the expectations others have of us.
By recognizing all that we have been asked to do, we can better explain where and how we have contributed to larger endeavors.
• Map experiences and efforts onto others’ expectations. Although identifying what we have been asked to do is the foundation of an evaluation, we must also be mindful of the criteria people will be using to assess our performance given the combinations of our responsibilities in the contexts in which we are being observed. After all, knowing which expectations people will be looking at—as well as the signs or benchmarks they may be using to evaluate whether we have, in fact, met those expectations—can help us emphasize and subordinate elements in our reviews to greatest effect.
Consider, for example, the way Olympic gymnastic performances are evaluated. Using a Code of Points that was overhauled in 2006, judges are now evaluating competitors with a combination of Composition Requirements, Difficulty scores, Difficulty Value, Connection Value, and Execution scores. In this revised system, competitors lose points for errors in execution, but gain points for degrees of difficulty, prompting gymnasts to develop routines with increasingly challenging components. Although some critics argue that this revised system promotes difficulty over form, execution, and consistency, an awareness of what counts most in their performance allows gymnasts to develop routines that can both highlight their strengths and generate more points in various events.
As employees, it’s unlikely that we will receive a Codes of Points to help us develop high-scoring routines for our respective job responsibilities. Even so, we can assume that we will be judged according to the ways we take up, execute, and “stick the landing” on our various responsibilities—especially those that help others and the larger organizations move forward with greater effectiveness and efficiency. Here, then, is where records of our contributions can be of use.
We might, for instance, review calendars, emails, project reports, deal logs, phone records, and the like to recall projects and activities that may have become less familiar in the wake of new responsibilities. Along the way, we should look for quantifiable evidence that can document the impact of our work. For example, are there indications that sales, partnerships, contracts, ventures, referrals, earnings, and so on increased, decreased, or remained static as a result of our efforts? Have we received any oral or written feedback from supervisors, peers, subordinates, or clients?
By understanding where and how our performance in different arenas have helped (or hindered) others, we can position ourselves to write self-evaluations that others judging our performance could support.
• Include the evaluative element. Most people who write self-evaluations simply report job responsibilities or tasks they have performed, assuming readers can or will infer the significance of those efforts. Unfortunately, as explained in “Performance Reviews, Part I…,” performance reviews and evaluations must do more than list or summarize what we have done; they must explain the value we have provided or created by fulfilling our responsibilities in the contexts and in the ways we did.
Again, evidence that documents an increase in sales, contracts, earnings, and so on—as well as any oral and written feedback from others about our work—can help us discuss the contributions we have made to the team, division, or larger company in concrete terms. But gathering this information is just the start. Ultimately, we must help others recognize our value, and the next strategy explains how to do so without contributing to the vain, hollow evaluations that dominate the workplace.
• Resist hyperbole, adjectives, and other relative terms. “Show, not tell” is a motto for performance reviews in general, but even more so in self-evaluations. After all, peppering our reviews with pronouncements of how amazing, wonderful, talented, exceptional, energetic… we may have been fails to elucidate the value we have provided, much less the value we could offer in other contexts. Equally problematic is that we appear overly boastful in ways that work against our case. Therefore, to demonstrate value in ways that generate consensus and respect, we must explain what we have done in ways that the people reading our self-evaluation could both recognize and support. Resisting hyperbole, adjectives, and other relative terms can help in this effort.
As explained in “Performance Reviews, Part I,” relative terms are words—typically adjectives, but also concepts—that assume identical points of reference for defining, gauging, and understanding competent, effective, proficient, fast, and other terms that people use to describe their skills in favorable ways. Hyperboles are the superlative versions of these terms (for example, excellent, extraordinary, superb, outstanding, exceptional), suggesting there is no better.
Although such words can add linguistic flair, they become problematic for those who may neither know nor have not observed what, exactly, we have done. After all, we know what we mean when we use these words, and those reading our evaluations know what they mean when they read these words, but whether we mean exactly the same thing as those reading our performance reviews is unclear, and unlikely, making it easier to understand why self-evaluations that contain references like the following raise concerns:
I am highly skilled in a range of office protocols.
Eager to provide the best experience for customers, I offer exceptional customer service.
Well-versed in all of our products, I am always prepared to meet increasing customer demand with the greatest efficiency.
I am fast learner, able to master complex information with minimal effort.
Having out-ranked most people in my division for several years, I continue to excel in various forums.
I can handle multiple projects simultaneously with ease.
Applying the “X was so Y” trope comedians would use to encourage audiences to respond, “How Y is/was it?” can help us identify ways to explain our contributions in ways others could understand, even if they have not witnessed our efforts personally. Consider, for example, the following excepts from self-assessments:
“In September, I attended the Drug Development Boot Camp at Harvard University, where I learned about the patenting, licensing, and registration of drugs. Using this information, I have been able to identify hospitals and biotechnology companies involved in pediatric research and drug development at all stages of the drug development process, doubling the number of organizations we are working with to bring our product to hospitals and private care providers by the end of next year.”
* * *
“In June, I co-facilitated the laboratory orientation for graduate student interns. After soliciting senior researchers, lab technicians, and administrators for topics to guide this 6-hour program, I helped design an itinerary that not only gave students hands-on experience with the equipment in the Zeller, Emerson, and Giggo laboratories, but that introduced students to the policies and protocols governing each lab. To supplement this training, Jeanne Lawrence and I created an orientation manual to guide discussions and to serve as a reference after the program. In the months that followed, we continued to update the manual using feedback from the interns, as well as from the senior researchers and technicians who have also consulted these materials.”
Such matter-of-fact descriptions can help others understand the contributions we make without the arrogance or self-deprecation inherent in most self-evaluation adjectives. As importantly, by giving concrete, verifiable descriptions of our work, we encourage others to become our allies and even our cheerleaders, for instead of offering a list of inflated adjectives that someone else may never use to describe our work or contributions, we provide tangible evidence others could use to pound the proverbial table on our behalf.
• Consider areas of improvement—even in places of success. As we review our list of accomplishments, we should also consider projects that did not go as planned or efforts that did not meet expectations so that we can be proactive in addressing these areas in our review. After all, being able to fairly, honestly, and objectively comment on our efforts—even those that may have been less successful than desired—can demonstrate an ability to realistically assess our skills. Moreover, it can give us more control over how these efforts are framed and, by extension, viewed by others.
To that end, we might examine what was expected, what materialized, and what may have accounted for any discrepancies. Even if we might be able to argue that others are mostly or fully liable, we should focus on where and how we may have been responsible for things that did not go as planned. For instance, could our instructions have been clearer? Should we have asked more or better questions? Should we have been more or less involved? Should our contributions have been different? Could we have been more thorough, more accurate, or more timely? Should we have noticed some things more quickly? Such questions can help us uncover areas that could have been more effective and efficient—regardless of whether we accomplished what we set out to do—and ways or forums in which to enhance our performance going forward.
• Identify what is necessary to do a better job. As we look for areas to improve, we may discover that we need more assistance. At times we may need particular tools, equipment, resources, or professional training and development. At other times, we may need clearer guidelines, more explicit feedback, or stronger managerial support. Whatever the form, being able to identify what we need can help us know what to request going forward, thereby ensuring not only our success, but the success of others who depend on our work.
• Develop a plan of action. Although performance reviews focus primarily on what has been done, they do so in an effort to identify where to go next. In light of where we have succeeded, and areas we could improve, we should then consider where and how to proceed to be most efficient, effective, and strategic in helping the team, division, and larger organization achieve their goals. That is, we need a plan of action.
Starting with our current job responsibilities, we might examine what we should continue to do, and what can or should change as we take up those tasks. For instance, are there things we should be doing sooner, later, or differently than we presently do them, and what might such changes look like in the weeks and months ahead? Along the way, we might consider ways to streamline responsibilities, freeing up time or other resources so we can take on other tasks or projects of interest. And, if we have demonstrated an ability to objectively and realistically assess our performance, we may be able to propose new projects and activities that align with our team or the larger organization’s goals.
Certainly others may have suggestions for where and how we are to proceed after the review, but having an idea of where we would like to go and how we might get there can prepare us for any discussions that require us to talk about short- or long-term directives we’d like to pursue.
• Set up and maintain a record of contributions for subsequent reviews. Many people think about their performance reviews and the information they may need to provide when they get notice that they’re up for evaluation. By then, however, it’s too late. Scrambling to recall and gather evidence to suggest their worth, these employees inevitably forget key details that can effectively present their contributions to decisions makers. More problematic is that these employees often believe that others can or will fill in the gaps; when they don’t, the employees are left wondering why their supervisors, peers, and subordinates didn’t do more to promote their efforts.
As explained in “Start Preparing for Your Performance Review Today,” the more we do, the more the descriptions of what we do get flattened; that is, we assume that a task, title, or forum says it all. Or, we may assume that others can remember everything we ha done with as much or greater clarity than we can, so we do not provide much information. Unfortunately, it’s the smaller, nuanced details that often make the most compelling case, but if we cannot recall those elements or give those details to others to use on our behalf, we will continually work at a disadvantage. Therefore, we must get into the habit of recording our contributions.
By keeping a record of what we do and the impact those efforts have made, we will not only be able to identify ways we are meeting, extending, or drifting from our responsibilities, but we maintain a list of concrete, verifiable information that can help us draft a self-assessment on a moment’s notice.
* * *
Employees tend to dread the self-evaluation, seeing it as one more thing on a never-ending “To Do” list, but self-evaluations provide an opportunity to participate in the assessment process which, for many organizations, has increasingly higher stakes. As importantly, self-assessments allow us to fill in, clarify, or redress interpretations and potential misunderstandings about our performance, or even ourselves. Consequently, we should welcome the opportunity to add our voice to the conversations. In doing so, we may find talents we have acquired or honed, places we have excelled, areas we can improve, projects we have enjoyed more (or less) than we might have imagined, and directions we would like to move in the weeks and months ahead. And it is this information that, ultimately, will help us become better performers with the support and respect we seek.
Working toward Arête…
In the space below, share your strategies for writing self-assessments that help you reach your short- and long-term goals.