I'm a Career Coach — I Tell Clients to Never End a Performance Review Without Saying This

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woman in performance review


Jane Scudder
Jane Scudder15
Performance reviews: Opportunity to showcase your accomplishments and make a case for a promotion, or a stomach-churning regular event comparable to dental work? In my professional opinion as a career coach, the answer can be easily both.
A healthy dose of angst is something you can channel to take a review more seriously. But with a little bit of preparation, a few deep breaths and reminding yourself of the results you’ve driven over the last 12-months (or whatever your review period is), you can rock it.

How do you prepare for a performance review?

The key is to have an understanding of what you want to communicate, what you to learn and clear next steps. In my experience that last piece is often neglected. It’s easy to focus on what you accomplished during the previous period of time and receive feedback from a superior or group — and this is all really important — but performance reviews are also an ideal time to establish your focus for the future so that you can continue to excel on the key initiatives your management team values.
Every company is different in how they handle reviews. Whether your company has a formula for how they are structured or you're calling the review and leading the conversation, there’s one thing you cannot leave your review without saying:

What is your No. 1 priority for the next 12-months, and how can I support this?

At the end of the day, we support our managers, who support their managers, who support their managers and so on, until you get to a board or an individual owner who should have clear, prioritized goals. 
Taking a moment of your review to learn your manager’s priorities is a smart tactic to both help inform your future work and express empathy and understanding of your boss’s workload.
I encourage clients to spend 80% of a review looking back and 20% looking ahead. The name of the game is to learn from your past and focus that learning on action and growth. At the end of the day, action and growth are where a promotion, raise and all that good stuff will come from.
This key question will help you laser into where your action should be focused, so that you know you are driving work that matters. No matter where you fall in the ranks, this question will resonate with your boss. 
It will accomplish and reveal nine key things:

1. You'll learn your manager’s actual number 1 priority. 

If she says she has five you need to push her to get to one. She gets an A+ on ONE project and a mix of A’s, B’s and C’s on the rest. What is her A+ project?

2. You know where to focus if you need to prioritize. 

When you have five competing priorities and you have to make a choice on what to focus on for the rest of your day or week, that’s how you choose. This is also good directionally when you have to juggle meetings (and may also give you insight into why one particular colleague is always asking you to reschedule meetings because “a high priority need has come up”).

3. You know explicitly what work of yours supports this. 

Asking, “How can I support this?” will give you insight into which of your projects are her top projects. If she cites work that you are not a part of that’s something to take notice of as well. You might want to follow up to better understand how you fit in if it seems like you might not be part of this mission — perhaps it's an oversight, or maybe, you need to make yourself more indispensable.

4. You know what the future looks like.

Unless you are literally about to turn in your notice the next day (in which case, your performance review is likely not going to be productive for you anyway) this question will help you see your boss’ and the companies priorities and vision more clearly.

5. You know your strengths.

Asking this question demonstrates that you want to help out. By asking, you're implying that you want to be there for your boss, and by being there, you'll use the talents you have to support her. It takes confidence to ask this question, and this is another strength you're displaying to your boss.

6. You'll figure out where you fit into the larger organizational picture.

As with #3, asking this question will help you understand how you fit in at work. But not only does it give you insight into where you stand in terms of a single initiative, but it will also help you see how you fit into the organization as a whole. For example, if the project or initiative is something that falls under your area of expertise, you'll see that you're an important player.

7. You'll be able to hone your own career goals.

What your manager prioritizes could be something you agree with...or not. If it's the latter, you may want to rethink your role and whether this is the right place for you. If it's the former, you'll have a better sense of what to work toward.

8. You demonstrate skills of your own.

As we discussed, you're showing confidence by asking this question. You're also displaying strong communication, problem-solving and teamwork skills — since you're asking the right question, emphasizing that you want to be part of a solution and showing that you intend to work with your boss (and presumably others) on the big picture.

9. You'll learn something new for future performance reviews.

In an early performance review, you might wonder, "What should I write in a performance appraisal?" Your manager's response will help inform future reviews — you'll know her own goals and can better gear your questions and aspirations accordingly.

What should you avoid in a performance review?

There are some topics you should never broach during a performance review. For instance, never:
• Argue 
• Place blame on someone else
• Try to negotiate salary (unless the meeting is explicitly for this purpose)
• Shirk responsibilities

How do you write a bad performance review?

It's an awkward and difficult position when you have to deliver a bad performance review as a manager. The most important thing to remember is to focus on the employee's performance, not their character. Also, if there are glaring issues, bring them up before the performance review — don't wait to spring it on them. 
Use examples to point to help the employee understand her mistakes and what to do differently, and then work out a plan for improvement together. The employee should offer their own suggestions, so it's not just you telling them what to do. Make note if they seem to be putting in real effort toward improvement.
Your nerves may never go away but like anything else control what you can, and you MUST control what you walk away with — clarity on your focus.
And if you want even more questions, we have seven questions to ask during your annual performance review.
Jane Scudder is a certified coach & workshop facilitator. She also works as a strategy & marketing consultant and teaches a Career Development & Preparation course at Loyola University Chicago. She lives and works remotely in Chicago, IL.