By Caroline M. Cole
Many employees think about raises, bonuses, and promotions throughout the year, but few think about the ways they might build or make their case for merit-based compensation until they receive a formal notice of evaluation, and it’s no surprise. Performance reviews should provide one more opportunity for employees to examine the work they’ve been doing, identify areas of success, discern areas for improvement, establish short- and long-term goals, and discuss strategies for reaching those goals successfully. Unfortunately, employees and supervisors alike argue that most reviews are poorly executed, overly subjective, arbitrary, and political-weighted assessments that demoralize even top-tier employees. Consequently, most employees wait until their review cycle to consider where they’ve been spending their time, scramble to recall and gather evidence that demonstrate the contributions they’ve made since their last evaluation, and then find themselves dejected by results their own supervisors may be unable to explain satisfactorily. It is a system rife with problems.
One problem is that details become fuzzy and nuances get lost as additional responsibilities, experiences, and combinations of engagement displace memories of earlier projects and interactions. As a result, employees may be able to recall only the big, flashy moments and assume others can or will fill in the details.
Another problem is the “perception vs. reality” phenomenon. What we perceive and what is reality are often inconsistent, even in the calmest moments. For example, if you were to ask people in a line how long they had been waiting, you might find a range of answers shaped by what they are doing as they wait, what tasks they may need to do after leaving the line, what those around them may be doing or saying, the service they may see those at the front of the line wanting or getting, and so on. Chances are, however, none of the individuals could accurately identify how long he or she had been waiting without looking at a watch or a clock. If, then, our interpretations of innocuous, objective, and verifiable information like time can be skewed, how much more so might our perceptions be affected in high-stake contexts working with less tangible, potentially bias information, like performance reviews?
The perception vs. reality problem takes on additional concerns when we add discussions of performance and competence, the foundation of most evaluations. Performance is a person’s ability to do something—such as an employee’s ability to perform the technical skills, tasks, and procedures called out in a job description. Competence is an evaluation of that performance; that is, the extent to which someone does a task poorly, satisfactorily, or exceptionally. Clearly performance and competence are connected, but the ways they’re often connected in performance reviews can be problematic, primarily because performance alone is not an indication of competence, and not all competence is measured accurately by a given performance.
Consider, for example, someone who may not know or understand fundamental elements of a given industry, system, or project might nevertheless complete various tasks, perhaps through trail-and-error, persistence, or luck. Similarly, a person who is well-versed in a profession may struggle to perform a particular task for any number of reasons, including incomplete or inaccurate information, resource availability, time constraints, or simultaneous responsibilities.
Unfortunately, employees increasingly see their jobs as a series of tasks they are to perform which, upon completion, merits recognition, conflating performance with competence: I perform; therefore, I must add value. Meanwhile, supervisors increasingly see their own value tied to the competence of the employees they oversee, conflating competence with performance: My employees helps me look good (or not); therefore, they must be high (or low) performers. In such a context, it’s understandable why performance reviews are criticized, for an employee’s actual performance becomes secondary to perceptions of that performance by the various stakeholders.
Performance reviews are, ultimately, narratives of value presented to senior decision-makers. By viewing evaluations as such, you can be more purposeful, thoughtful, and strategic today so as to ensure a better story for your review down the road. The following discussion explains how to move in that direction.
• Record the responsibilities you have at work. The more time someone spends in a position, or doing particular work, the more likely they are to flatten descriptions of what they do, assuming a task, title, or forum says it all: they plan events, they design buildings, they teach, they’re a store manager, they work in a bank, they design software, they run a lab, they’re an engineer, and so on. What gets less attention, however, is how, why, and to what extent they may do these things given the context, purpose, audiences, and resources available. Also shortchanged is the impact their work may have—the very elements that determine their value to and for others.
The first step, then, for creating your narrative of value is documenting what you do, for whom, how, and why. For example, if you “plan events,” consider the tasks that might be involved in such an enterprise: researching and reserving a venue, soliciting and confirming speakers, establishing an itinerary, developing a program, sending out invitations, lining up a caterer, managing RSVPs, advertising, and so on.
As you identify the tasks encompassed in larger responsibilities, aim to be as specific and concrete as possible to help others understand all that’s involved in your work; your objective, here, is to make the “stuff” you do tangible, rather than assume that people in another division, another department, or even another office will know or be able to infer what you did, as you did it. Along the way, include information on where and how your efforts made a difference to your team, your organization, particular clients, and the industry at large. For example, details that might appear in a record of responsibilities for “planning an event” include:
Researched and reserved a venue to accommodate 250–300 tech managers and division leaders from around the country participating in a two-day software development and training conference; solicited and confirmed two industry leaders in system administration to provide keynotes, as well as 12 facilitators to run training sessions on industry practices, facility management, product implementation, mobility functionality, reporting hierarchies, and maintenance; scheduled itinerary to accommodate 3–4 simultaneous events for each time slot throughout the conference; developed an online, interactive pre-conference discussion forum, which attracted 90–100 unique visitors each day since its launch; tracked conference registrations and payments to arrange catering for buffets, plated sit-down meals, and breakout sessions; solicited vendors and corporate sponsors….
By creating a record of the work you do, you lay a foundation for demonstrating where and how you are creating value for others.
• Find or request a copy of your job description, and compare it to the list of responsibilities you created. Once you record your responsibilities, get a copy of your job description and review the tasks linked to your position. In doing so, you may find that some tasks that appear in the job description are obsolete, or you might find tasks you forgot to mention in the list of responsibilities you started. You may also find responsibilities you should be doing but are not; such tasks may be important to begin or to ask about to make sure they are not held against you during an evaluation.
• Write your own performance review. Comparing the responsibilities you listed against your job description, draft a sample performance review explaining the work you have done and that which you continue to do; where and how you have succeeded in those efforts; and areas that may raise questions, concerns, and even criticism.
Finding a fair, balanced tone for this write up is critical, even at this stage because, if you are to create a narrative of value that others also would be willing to accept, you must identify genuine strengths and limits in your work. Therefore, resist the urge to insert a string of adjectives that inflate or otherwise present you as exceptionally brilliant. Similarly, resist skewing evidence by drawing upon examples primarily or exclusively from your most recent or most successful projects, suggesting these details are emblematic of all of your work. Rather, aim to represent the entire year as matter-of-factly as possible: work and projects that helped the organization reach or move closer to its goals, projects that didn’t go as planned, things you should have done differently, and so on.
To help in this endeavor, think like a manager, instead of an employee angling for more money, more responsibility, or more visibility simply because you worked long hours, tried hard, or did what’s expected to get the work done. After all, few managers think it’s their responsibility to pay for an employee’s learning curve; they want and expect to see results that, ultimately, help them look good. Therefore, focus your draft on where and how your performance helped save time, money, or other resources; increased sales, profits, visibility; closed deals; brought in more or better clients; and so forth. However, also be sure to include where your efforts fell short of management and company expectations in those areas.
By anticipating things that may come up in a formal review—especially negative information—you can look for ways to build upon or address those areas in the weeks and months ahead.
• Arrange a time to meet with supervisors and others to discuss your work. Although your organization may have set times to review your work, this meeting aims to identify how you can strengthen or redirect your efforts in strategic ways to bring more value to those who have a stake in your performance: your clients, your supervisor, your team, and the larger organization. Guiding this discussion will be the list of tasks you created, the copy of your job description, and the information you called out in the sample performance review you wrote.
You might begin with places you have met target goals, verifying their completion and asking your supervisor if there may have been better, more efficient ways to achieve those goals. In doing so, you move beyond the assumption that merely completing the task is a sign of competence; you might also identify more strategic methods to meet later, comparable objectives in ways that others recognize and value. You could then turn to areas you may not have been performing as expected, asking for assistance in how you could have approached or done the work differently, or how you might better prioritize your efforts going forward. Such information might help you rectify and improve situations that could have repercussions in a formal review.
You might close out the discussion by asking about other expectations people may have for someone in your position, or for you specifically, that you should be (more) attentive to as you move forward in your projects.
Depending on the topics you want or need to discuss, the timing these meetings can be key. Because asking for feedback a few weeks before a formal review can seem like a desperate effort to “fix” things in light of a less favorable review on the horizon, aim to schedule these discussions months before the formal review season. Doing so can make supervisors more amendable to giving substantive feedback, especially if your ability to create or increase value would help them look better in the process. Moreover, you would have more time to incorporate any changes you may need to make.
Off-cycle feedback requests also can provide additional sources for comments. For example, supervisors in other departments or divisions and even coworkers may be able to highlight areas that could enhance your short- and long-term performance. Furthermore, depending on whether companies employ a 360-degree review system, you might find that discussions outside of the review season provide more accurate and authentic evaluations. After all, coworkers may be less inclined to offer quid pro quo comments when their own performance isn’t also under review. You might also sidestep the hyperbolic evaluation syndrome, whereby employees offer across-the-board exceptional reviews of their peers just to offset any resistance or hostility they may feel from management during review cycles.
• Demonstrate sincerity in asking for and listening to feedback. Some managers and coworkers may be reluctant to offer direct, explicit, and detailed feedback on where employees may not be performing as expected, for any number of reasons. If, however, you are to learn what others think about the work you do and the competence you project, you need honest feedback, and to get that, you must be genuinely interested in what others have to say, even if their comments are less favorable than you’d prefer.
Therefore, when others agree to talk with you about your performance, clarify upfront that you are trying to identify areas others think you can and should be doing more, better, differently, and so on. Then, while they are talking, resist the urge to lobby, argue, challenge, confront, or defend yourself, for such responses will inevitably move the discussion into vague, safer territory. By remaining open and approachable, even when comments seem harsh or unfair, you can better understand the specific actions, behavior, or attitudes that may directly or indirectly affect the way senior decision-makers could evaluate your performance in higher-stake contexts.
If you find yourself disagreeing with some of the feedback, rather than debating its validity, ask if the person could provide one or two examples that would help you understand the criticism in context (e.g., Could you point to a recent case where these traits emerged, hindering progress toward target goals?). Or, ask questions to infer what others would consider more valuable behaviors (e.g., What would you recommend to help me improve in this area?) You might also consider linking your request to goals you have in moving forward in the organization (e.g., In the next year or two, I would like to be leading projects. How can I move in that direction in the coming months?).
By understanding the perceptions others have about the work you’re doing, or how you’re doing it, you will be in a better position to move forward in ways that evoke better responses.
• Be aware of coded language. Sometimes overly general observations are code words and phrases that mask fundamental issues. For instance, saying that someone needs to “improve communication,” “initiate more projects,” “demonstrate better teamwork,” “increase leadership,” “delegate more” or “be more visible” are phrases that can justify unfavorable reviews, but in ways that are squishy enough to avoid confrontation or charges of bias.
Granted, not everyone uses such phrases as a cover up; some people use them simply because they’re imitating what others say or write in reviews, and sometimes these phrases accurately reflect what an employee must do.
Code or not, such references indicate that some people are not fully satisfied with your work, so you should focus on where and how your efforts may not be matching others’ views. To that end, you might ask supervisors for how you could define or demonstrate these goals in your position or in particular projects (e.g., Could you offer examples of how I might improve my teamwork abilities in some of the projects we are working on today?). You might also ask for guidance in using time and resources more effectively (e.g., Could you help me identify tasks that would be appropriate to delegate, and those I should continue to oversee myself? Could you offer suggestions on how I could gain visibility in forums where those who assign projects could assess my leadership capabilities?).
Of course these conversations may reveal that some difficulties are less about ways you could improve than with office politics, but that information is also valuable. So, if you can identify ways to develop or demonstrate skills valued by senior management, you will be in a better position to know what changes could build others’ confidence in your abilities.
• Develop a Plan of Action. Using the information from your conversations with supervisors and coworkers, identify specific ways to address the concerns others have about your performance and incorporate those actions into your work daily. You should also identify how you will know when or if you have succeeded in addressing those concerns.
Some possibilities may emerge from your discussions; others you may need to infer. If you’re still having difficulties, draft some options and then ask your supervisor to help narrow or prioritize the possibilities so you can be of greatest service to the team or larger organization. By developing a Plan of Action, you can become more conscientious and purposeful in improving your performance, your competence, and others’ perception of both.
• Keep track of your progress, modifying behavior as necessary. As you move forward in your work, record what you’re doing to move in directions valued by the company. Then, every few weeks, review your records to see if you’re on track for meeting the goals you’ve set in your Plan of Action. You might find that some tasks need to be added, deleted, or shifted in their priority; you might also find more strategic ways to accomplish certain tasks, enhancing the contributions you’re able to make.
Ideally, employees get regular coaching and feedback from managers, rather than a once-a-year commentary on their performance, but if your office culture does not provide such context, you can create forums in which there is more dialogue about things you are doing well and ways you can be improving to reach goals within the organization. In doing so, you can find a way to present a consistent, cohesive, company-driven narrative of value for why you deserve more money, more responsibility, and more recognition.
Working toward Areté…
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