Using Performance Reviews as Levers for Constructive Change

Standup Speaker

Lots of peole have been talking about performance reviews, so I thought I’d write about them here.

Performance reviews are excellent tools for accessing needed resources, insight, connections and growth. You should always lead your own performance reviews as if you’re the only one who cares about them. Avoid waiting for your boss to lead the effort, as s/he may not have the time, skills or interest to make the best of it.

In this post, I’ll explore this topic in a way that helps you prepare for your own review with your boss. In another, I’ll share how you lead excellent performance reviews for your team members.

1 – Take complete ownership of your performance review

You are the master of your destiny and you should lead every part of your life. If you want to wait for someone else to do something for you, consider the consequences and accept them fully. Avoid waiting around, which might lead to a victim perspective, blame and frustration if someone else falls short of your expectations.

In most cases, the people responsible for giving you input might not necessarily take all the time and effort needed to write an accurate report. The onus is on YOU to make this exercise useful.

Performance reviews are important to some companies, but not all. They’re either linked to remuneration increases or promotions, used merely as administrative tasks without developmental value or worse, in toxic environments, they are used as weapons. Be aware of the ways your employer uses performance reviews, while at the same time, never stop yourself from using them as powerful tools for personal and professional development.

2 – Use your performance review as a negotiating lever

Enter the review with a clear idea of what you want and need to grow as a professional and perform at your best.

Think about what you want. Maybe ideas, perspective, input, resources, connections, leadership development, international experience, new projects, technical training? Consider what will help you move from the current to your next level of performance, creativity and effectiveness. This requires contemplation, so prepare yourself and even talk to a few people before your review to make sure you’re asking for everything you might need – and everything that the company has to offer.

Negotiate everything. No need to worry about whether or not you’ll get what you want, because it is important that your boss knows what you need to work at your best, regardless of whether s/he can give it to you. If you can’t get exactly what you want or need, think of something comparable that will make you happy and successful. In expat negotiations, for example, employees usually ask for higher salaries, but companies have flexibility with cars or higher home perks,  instead. Ask around to see what your organization can and cannot easily give out. This will also depend on the number of layers within the HR organization and where power sits over budget.

Do your best to avoid double binds. This means that you’re damned if you do and dammed if you don’t. For example, your boss might ask you to take initiative on a specific project and then blast you for taking initiative in your way and not his/hers. Speak up and represent yourself well if you’re being asked to do something that will likely fail. Ensuring clarity and accepting only the goals and objectives that you can actually achieve, is in the best interest of everyone, even if your boss might not necessarily be able to make that happen. If you’re shy about self-representation, change that quickly through some sort of training and in the meantime, pretend you’re a friend’s lawyer. This perspective will help you remember to bring out all the positive points, while ensuring solutions that will plug the holes.

3 – Present your requests in clever and creative ways

Most companies forget to ensure a link between company goals, resources and employee needs. This is especially true with across-the-board cost cutting or post-M&A integrations, when disconnects commonly surface. You need to take ownership of this task, even if it might be difficult to do from your hierarchical position. Think of people within the stakeholder network who can help you. Always exercise your leadership and self-direction.

When making requests, use measures that are linked to your goals and team/corporate metrics. If these metrics are not clear, ask around and if nothing seems to work, create your own. This will help you express the value you’re contributing in ways that make a go/no-go decision easy. For example, if you need $35M for an acquisition project to achieve your next year’s goals, discuss with your boss the easiest way to access that funding, plus possible obstacles. Always include a few comments in your performance review that speak to any challenges that might deter or block your ability to access the needed resources to get things done. This is usually best within a low-trust environment.

A couple of measures:

(a) Percentage of total spent on that activity. For example, if you want to take a course or hire a coach to boost your leadership influence, find out how much your firm spends on that annually. Or, you could use an equivalent metric that helps make a case – compare coaching, for example, to a week-long executive education course, which makes it easy to compare cost and value.

(b) Comparison to other projects or company initiatives. For example, if you need funding to meet corporate goals that have already been announced to investors, you can remind your boss of that link. People forget. If other groups are asking for more, use a metric that shows how small your request is in relation to potential growth, customer satisfaction, new customer numbers, etc.

4 – Present the value you create and contribute in a clear manner

Throughout the year, document which projects you lead, as well as the starting and ending points in revenue, cost reduction, profits, new skills, etc. Also jot down the projects you volunteered for and the benefits of doing that to the team/company. Be fair to include challenges that came up and things you learned, but unless you work in a completely trusting environment, shy away from documenting that in your review. I’ve seen, too many times, that new people come into the picture and use information in an unfair way, so ensure your performance review is written in a balanced manner that represents you as well as possible.

Further, think about and share how you’ve grown, using leadership development metrics that coaches or executive recruiting firms use, as well as those that reflect your specific functional skills. Always use metrics that are well-known, so you can talk about yourself in ways others will understand within your industry, even if you have to use other metrics specific to your company. Think about how your growth has affected your results, your team, your company and all stakeholders, in general.Make a case that you are leading yourself, proactive in learning and developing. Ask your boss for ideas and input, so that everyone comes out empowered and winning.

5 – Decide how you’d like to be known

Each of us in a unique mix of talents, intelligence, capabilities, skills and experiences and the more we understand our unique perspective, the better we can market ourselves as such. Do you want to be known as the best salesperson? Or an excellent negotiator? Or someone who can always solve a complex problem? Or the person who can always transform a frustrated client? Or someone who is the most reliable, etc. Choose something you’d like to represent and always invest in that skill set. If you’re shy about tooting your horn, don’t worry, your work can speak for itself.

6 – Find ways to support your boss in more ways than one

Sometimes, you won’t be asked to help your boss formally, although your goals are hopefully linked to his/hers. Ask him/her what might be helpful, so you can start to understand ways to add value, outside your job description. It is especially useful to know your boss’s obstacles or big challenges, as you can keep your eyes open to find solutions or other ways to help. Helping your boss is always in your best interest, even if s/he doesn’t always help you.

7 – Ask your boss for his/her goals

Do you know how your boss is being measured? Everyone in the team should know your boss’s objectives, first, to make sure yours are linked and second, to understand what’s different about you. S/he will hopefully have a bigger picture to lead and yours will be a subset. Always know how s/he is doing in his/her boss’s eyes – information you can glean directly or indireclty, depending on your relationship. If you’re not already close, find ways to become so to access needed information more quickly than you currently do.

In one of my previous performance reviews, when talking about my boss’s own review, he revealed that he hadn’t done that well and felt badly that my review was stellar. He wanted to reduce my rating to match his, but I didn’t allow that. I had metrics to support my rating and stood firm in representing myself fairly. Sometimes, your boss might dislike your performance level, if s/he can’t match it. Be careful about kowtowing from fear or pity. Whatever you do, represent yourself well. No one else will!

8 – Accept all feedback gracefully

Hopefully, you know that everyone is right – from his/her point of view. We all wear different color lenses, which affect the ways we perceive the world and therefore, how we experience it. Take both positive and negative feedback as positive, learning experiences that can expand your growth. If something seems unfair, express your opinion from a factual perspective and always ask for clarity. If something is not crystal clear, keep discussing until it is. Please, never sign a performance review that you don’t believe fully represents your intentions, integrity, capabilities, performance and potential. Think of your reviews as independent agents, which can be reviewed by new people who come into the company to get to know you. Avoid depending on a handshake or someone’s memory of what happened, unless you work in a trusting environment with a fact-driven memory.

Know yourself enough to talk about your strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you continually expand your self-awareness, so that you know more about yourself than others do. If you’re blind-sided by some comments from anyone around you, it means you need to pay closer attention to what you think, feel and do – and how your thought paradigms, feelings and behavior affect others.

Do your best to avoid any emotional discussions that will end up unproductive. Go into every review prepared and balanced; take a few deep breaths and stand firm in your work integrity, quality and intention. Remember that the biggest challenge for every CEO is to attract and retain top talent, so know that, as long as you stick to your principles and the highest work quality, you’ll be able to find a job anywhere.

Always believe in yourself, which doesn’t mean remain blind to your growth needs, rather, invest in your strengths and always live in a stretch zone.