Between the crush of the holidays and the start of the new year, many American workers have to carve out time for a less cheery annual event: the yearly performance review.
The review and all it may entail — boastful self-evaluations, mounting anxiety about critical feedback — can be a source of dread, especially during another pandemic year, which saw many women continuing to do their jobs remotely, switching careers or juggling additional caregiving responsibilities.
When it’s hard to recall what you did last week, assessing your job performance from the last year can seem more than a little overwhelming. We asked experts for their advice on how to prep for your evaluations — and set yourself up for success the rest of the year.
How women may experience performance reviews differently
First off, it’s important to keep in mind that women can experience their jobs — and their evaluations — differently than their male counterparts, said Cynthia Pong, founder of Embrace Change, a career and leadership coaching organization that focuses on helping women of color.
“We’re expected to be communal, to think of team and organizations first, then put our needs, goals, aspirations, preferences and requirements underneath,” Pong said. “It’s very easy for women to be perceived as self-centered when they advocate for themselves.”
This emotional labor can be heightened for women of color, who are hyper-aware of how they’re being perceived: “Especially in this moment, there’s a heightened feeling of having to put forward a case and defend yourself,” she said.
The pressure can be especially pronounced if you’re not receiving feedback on a regular basis, said Pong.
Women may also underestimate their performance at work. Laura McFadden, an executive leadership coach, says that in their self-evaluations, women tend to grade themselves lower than men do.
One study found that men rate their performances 33 percent higher than women — even when their performance is equal. Researchers found this gap in self-promotion persisted even when workers were told their actual performance and how they rated among their peers.
What the performance review should look like
Sarah Kim, an executive at Antenna, a data analyst start-up, recently helped set up her company’s review process. In an ideal world, she said, managers and workers would be in conversation all year about performance, shared goals and needs.
“The review cycle should be a formality, a decision-making point or milestone,” she said. “When people are ready for public changes to a role, it would feel very obvious because there’s this organic culture of talking about performance and giving feedback.”
“The purpose of the performance review is really to be a playback,” said Kym Harris-Lee, founder and president of YourSweetSpot, a coaching and consulting firm in Atlanta. Ideally, there should be no surprises, she added.
“People shouldn’t be hearing anything they have not heard before. There should be no blindsiding.”
Common concerns — and missteps
Pong said her women of color clients are typically concerned about how they will be treated — will they be judged fairly? Will they face microaggressions? Some also say they are unsure what to ask for and don’t know how to effectively advocate for themselves.
The pandemic has added anxieties, too, Pong added. Some people didn’t have their best work years because of the stress of the last year, which could include increased caregiving responsibilities, she said.
McFadden said for her many of her women clients, the stakes feel particularly high: “They see this evaluation process as, ‘This could be it.’”
“They are always expecting the shoe to drop, because they want to be perfect,” she said. And during the pandemic, workers across the board are worried about losing the ability to have “on-the-fly” communication with their leaders — including casual conversation and feedback given in the moment.
But entering on the defensive or focusing on what you’re going to hear is counterproductive, argues Harris-Lee. She likes to reframe how her clients look at the review: You’re not going in to hear how you’ve done, but to help shape the narrative. You are there to ensure the story of your year is an accurate one.
As Harris-Lee put it: ”You need to come prepared to tell that story."
How to prepare if you’re short on time
First, you want to know how your company structures its reviews, said Pong: Different companies have different review processes, and you want to be clear when salary and promotion decisions are being made in relation to them.
Generally, reviews are not decision-making conversations, said Harris-Lee, who also advised against bringing up anything in the review that you haven’t already discussed with your manager.
“If you’re having a rich conversation, [salary] is likely to come up,” she said. But she recommends raising it with your manager beforehand, so they know to talk about it, or afterward, when you are planning goals and objectives for the new year.
If, when filling out your self-evaluation, you have trouble recalling everything you’ve done in the last year, she suggests looking at your calendar.
“If you can’t remember what you did, can you remember who you worked with?” said Harris-Lee. “What meetings did you have? What was your purpose in those meetings? Ask people you work with what your contributions have been.”
And don’t just focus on what you’ve achieved, but the value of what you’ve achieved, she added. Focus on what is unique about your approach and how you engage with others, and consider the long-term impacts of what you’ve done: What have you put in place that only you can do?
How to prepare if you have a lot of time
Experts agree that, ideally, you want to be keeping track of your achievements throughout the year so that it’s easy to talk about them during review cycles.
One of the ways to do this is to keep a running list of highlights, or a “professional brag book,” as McFadden calls it.
There are the obvious things to include — compliments people gave your work, awards or recognition you’ve won, projects you’ve initiated or participated in and deadlines you’ve hit.
But don’t forget the smaller, more granular things: Did you step in for a co-worker? Resolve a conflict? How many reports did you write and how many relationships did you build?
“We’re all centered on ourselves,” said Pong. “You can’t rely on your supervisor remembering all the wins you’ve had.”
This is especially true for women of color in the workplace, who, because of explicit and implicit bias, often need to actively manage those perceptions, Pong added.
“It’s almost like running your own internal PR campaign for your work, 24/7, 365,” she said.
So, update your brag book regularly: It could be weekly, biweekly or monthly, depending on what makes the most sense for your job. Harris-Lee suggested that a regular “brain dump” can also be helpful not just for tracking your performance, but as a regular reminder of what happened, what went well and what you might do differently.
How to spot — and manage — red flags
Many times, managers can give vague or generalized feedback that can be confusing or hard to act on. Or, you might hear criticism you haven’t heard before.
According to McFadden, this happens because managers may not be comfortable giving critical feedback: “They haven’t addressed it because they don’t want to face the conflict.”
If that happens, you should ask clarifying questions, but try not to get defensive, McFadden advises.
“You get to choose if you agree with, or if you’re going to use the feedback given to you,” she said. Asking for specifics doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with your leader. “You’re getting more data so that you can make a full decision on how or if you want to implement something to make future changes.”
This is the same in cases where you feel the goal posts have shifted or you’ve heard surprising feedback, said Pong: You don’t need to respond in the moment. Thank your manager for their feedback, then say you’d like to take some time to process it.
When you’re ready to revisit the conversation, make sure you get specifics: What are your targets? What’s the next milestone? Pong advises workers to send follow-up communication recapping their understanding of the conversation, just in case they need a paper trail.
What to do after the review
Set aside some time to reflect on the conversation and debrief, then set up any follow-up meetings you need to, advises Harris-Lee. If you have a promotion or salary discussion coming up afterward, you can use a good review to support your case.
Think about what changes you’d like to make, or what areas you’d like to improve. And keep up the communication loop — with your leader and others that you work with — especially if your aim is to grow in your career.
“We have to cultivate the ground, create the environment that makes it easy for people to give us constructive feedback,” said Harris-Lee. These conversations could not only help you, but your entire team.
They don’t all have to be work- or project-centric either, she pointed out. Even if you’re continuing to work remotely, monthly virtual coffees or lunches can be a way to touch base, as well as maintain and grow relationships — be they with your leader, co-workers or potential mentors.
“Don’t allow distance to prevent you from connecting,” she said. “These are the kinds of conversations that people don’t often have, so when you have them, it’s a differentiator.”
Most importantly, if you aren’t already having regular conversations with your manager, set those up. “Preferably every other week,” said Pong, create a regular check-in with your supervisor to solicit feedback, share information and progress and discuss challenges. Make sure you level-set with your manager to ensure you’re on the same page about how you like to communicate and receive information.
“It can be a 15-to-20-minute thing,” Pong said. By getting feedback regularly, “you’re going to set yourself up for success in the long run.”