The year is drawing to a close. Christmas lights line the façades of urban architecture while the dulcet tones of Mariah Carey and slurred poetry of the late, great Shane MacGowan offer a familiar festive soundtrack. It’s a time for reflection, personal and professional.
As we reflect, we can’t help but be caught up in questions as to how our year has gone – have we achieved everything we set out to? Where did we shine? Where did we fall short? How can we know if we’re progressing?
As with all self-reflection, such questions are difficult to answer objectively. Still, it’s worth taking the time to assess your year as measuredly as you are able to. Coach Harriet Minter says that conducting your own end of year review is only useful if you can walk the line between self-castigation and self-congratulation .
Of course, if you set goals at the turn of the previous year, your results will be easier to measure. You can roll through your objectives and see which you achieved. For those you didn’t, ask why, though not in a punitive sense. Rather, look at the aim and assess whether there is something you can do next year to ensure you reach this target or whether fulfilling it was actually out of your control.
It’s perfectly possible that your goals changed throughout the year and so by December you were no longer pursuing certain aims. As John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind” . It’s useful to remember when setting goals that we need not be slaves to them throughout the year. Life and work are at the mercy of constant fluctuations and external shifts. There is nothing to be gained by remaining fixed on a target that has lost its relevance.
If you struggle with self-assessment – either finding yourself too generous or too harsh in your appraisal – Minter suggests you picture a great boss and try to think what they would say . Good leaders tend to know how to motivate their employees and celebrate their strengths while also providing constructive feedback as to how they can improve going forwards. Mimic that and you’re halfway there.
Measuring progress, not achievements
In The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul, author Danielle LaPorte says that we set ourselves goals in order to achieve a feeling we want . For example, if we seek a promotion, as well as the fiscal benefits it affords, we are also hoping to achieve a feeling of pride that our work is being recognised. When assessing our end-of-year achievements, it’s important to focus on the latter as much as the former. Perhaps you did not get the promotion, the pay rise, the new office, but did you get the feeling that you are making progress? Did you make steps in the right direction? This, in itself, can be worth celebrating.
That’s not to say one should simply accept being overlooked, especially if you’re quite certain that your efforts and achievements throughout the year are deserving of more respect than they’ve been shown. If that’s the case, vocalise it (in a courteous, professional manner, of course, open to hearing why your employer potentially disagrees).
But for the years in which you outwardly achieve little, have none of the obvious markers of progress to show for your efforts, it’s still worth giving yourself credit for effort and achievement. That can sound condescending, of course, like draping a participation medal around your own neck, but it is valuable. We all have years that don’t quite go our way. It could be a matter of timing, we could be part of a team that doesn’t suit us, we could be dealing with something in our personal life that bleeds into our work performance – these things happen. So long as you can look back at your performance and say, “Well, I gave it all I could, but this time things didn’t go my way”, that’s enough.
If you conclude that, in fact, you didn’t give your all, it might be worth asking why not and what steps you can take next year to improve.
Sometimes the end of the year brings about not just self-analysis but external evaluation too. Some companies choose to do this at the end of the fiscal year, others the end of the calendar year, others around employee contracts. Regardless, performance reviews can be nerve wracking for even the best of employees. Often they are seen as something to survive, with employees and employers alike thinking “how can I get through this?” for another year, rather than viewing them as the opportunities for growth they can be if handled properly.
A 2018 McKinsey survey found that the majority of CEOs don’t find the appraisal process in their companies helpful when it comes to identifying top performers, while more than half of employees don’t believe that their managers get performance degrees right . Similarly, a Gallup study found that only one in five employees agree that their company’s performance practices motivate them .
The lack of benefits performance reviews generally afford paired with the anxiety they tend to foster could suggest that the practice is overdue a place on the scrap pile. But amongst firms who tried to rid themselves of such measures, a separate McKinsey study found that when “organisations scrapped the performance ratings, they found a need for a form of annual documented administrative evaluation to make employment decisions, such as promotions and raises. To address this need, these organisations often implemented ‘ghost’ ratings—a system of evaluation that is, ultimately, just another annual performance rating” .
Essentially, then, the question isn’t “should we get rid of performance reviews?” Rather, it’s “how can we make them more effective, for employer and employee alike?”
Making the most of performance reviews
Writing in Forbes, Chris Lee, President of Ventureblick, says that in his experience employees spend too much time in performance reviews bragging about their achievements and strengths. Instead of embarking on a self-promotion sales initiative, he recommends employees list what they consider to be their weaknesses as well as offering proactive proposals for areas of development.
“The trick here,” he writes, “is that you are setting yourself up to demonstrate your self-awareness and readiness for further career advancement” . In practice, that means that rather than saying, “I deserve to be given a leadership position for X, Y and Z,” you say, “I have developed strong project management skills in the past years, but I’m still lacking people management experience. I’d like to develop this facet and lead a small team.”
Taking this approach shows a level of self-awareness, proves you acknowledge your weaknesses (rather than grifting and pretending everything you touch turns to gold), and demonstrates your capacity for taking the initiative to improve an area of weakness.
Equally, Lee writes, you must listen to your manager’s feedback and not get defensive. As well as showing maturity and level-headedness (both valuable), you’re also making your boss’s life easier. “A boss I respected highly once told me that performance reviews are psychologically stressful for him,” Lee says. Many of his staff would come in ready for “bruising battle,” determined to show their worth and fight their corner.
While one should always be willing to stick up for oneself, an inability to take constructive criticism is a major red flag for any employer. The point of a performance review is to learn what you’re doing well, what you could do better, and how to do so next time. If all you’re after from your appraisal is a stream of praise, the implication is you think there’s nowhere you can improve, which is not the case for any of us. Take the feedback, listen to it and respond accordingly. If you really think it’s unfair, perhaps think about it further before arranging a follow-up meeting with your boss where you can explain why you disagree, and then learn whether they had indeed overlooked some of your achievements or you really are at odds over your performance.
For employers, it’s important to remember that for a lot of your staff this is the one opportunity they get to truly hear what you think of their performance. Give the moment the respect it deserves.
When giving feedback, be specific. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Frank V. Cespedes, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the author of Sales Management That Works: How to Sell in a World That Never Stops Changing, observes that, “Too much performance feedback is of the “do good and avoid evil” variety. That may sound harmless, but overly general feedback increases feelings of defensiveness, rather than openness to behaviour change, because it involves broad judgments and invites counterpunching rather than discussion” .
Giving specific feedback – i.e. you didn’t mention X, Y and Z in this presentation, or you kept interrupting a client during a meeting – “makes it easier to receive negative comments and take corrective action because both manager and employee can now concentrate on elements that can be improved” .
The most conclusive area in which performance reviews often fall short is in setting employees up with a clear plan moving forward. Inbuilt to the “let’s just get through this” mentality is the idea that once the review is over, that’s it for another year. Instead, Cespedes argues, “A review is incomplete without a discussion of next steps in which both parties take appropriate responsibility for change options” . He goes on to say that the bulk of this responsibility rests with the manager. In what areas do they want to see progress from their employees in the coming months and year? How do they want to bring those changes about? Are there courses they can offer? Or mentorship sessions? More regular feedback so they can check the employee is making steps in the right direction?
Even something as simple as a regular reminder of the goal set in the performance review can be enough. Various studies, in areas ranging from health care to voting to energy usage to drinking habits, find that these reminders significantly affect behaviour and improve outcomes .
Providing opportunities for growth and development is a pivotal part of a leader’s role. Fail to provide sufficient routes to improvement and you shouldn’t be surprised to see employees looking for the exit. As the old saying goes, “people don’t quit jobs, they quit managers.”
As the year draws to a close, it can be useful to assess whether we made everything we wanted of it. That can be done through self-assessment, handled as objectively as we can manage, or through a more formal performance review. It’s the job of both the worker and boss in question to make these reviews more than just a tick-box exercise and instead use them as a launchpad for further development for the year ahead. That means honest assessment, constructive, specific feedback, and most importantly setting out a framework through which improvement can be made. Proper self-assessment leads to proper self-development, which benefits the individual and the company alike.
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