How to Sail Through Your Tough Performance Review

December is performance review month. While the merits and validity of a year-end review are often the subject of great debate, the fact that many firms use them as a tool for compensation and promotion is not.

Your managers will spend much time (hopefully) preparing to deliver your review in a thoughtful and constructive manner. You should spend as much time, if not more, preparing yourself to receive the feedback in a thoughtful and constructive way too — to impress your manager, address negative issues head-on, and set a positive tone for the year ahead.

2009 has been a tough year for many of us. Most people I know have been hanging on for dear life at their jobs, versus swinging for the fences. It is rare, these days, to hear, “I knocked it out of the park.”

For those who are more apprehensive than usual regarding the fateful meeting with the boss, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. More importantly, know that there are three things you can and should do to prepare yourself, whether or not you expect the conversation to be difficult. The goal of the performance review, from your perspective (not just your manager’s), should be to highlight what you’ve done well, acknowledge areas of weakness, and demonstrate what you’re doing now to make things better next year.

What does each of these mean in terms of helping you prepare?

1.Highlight what you’ve done well. Before your performance review, you owe it to yourself to take stock of your accomplishments and be ready to toot your own horn. No one else is going to do it for you. This may be your only chance to let senior management know about 2009 “wins,” big or small. Failing to go into that meeting prepared to dazzle your manager with what you’re most proud of is nothing short of professional negligence. Too many people walk out of a performance review caught off-guard and realize after the fact that they’ve just spent thirty minutes talking about what went wrong without ever mentioning their important clients, biggest deals or contributions to the firm.

2.Acknowledge areas of weakness. Don’t fight the obvious. I’ve spoken to several people lately who have expressed a great deal of concern about their upcoming reviews. In two cases, both people told me right off the bat about the criticism they knew was coming at them. If you know what’s coming, don’t try to hide behind it. You’ll do far better with your manager if you acknowledge the issue and then show how you’re moving past it or why it actually isn’t a problem after all.

Anna B., a human resources professional, had been receiving rave reviews from her internal clients in the various business divisions she covered. Her HR manager, however, didn’t like Anna’s direct approach and disregard for the hierarchy implicit in the organization. Anna spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between her and her manager before her performance review. She recognized her style was different and could be perceived as threatening, but she also knew that she delivered results and her clients valued her contributions greatly. She decided to frame the discussion like this: her process might be different, but her work product was excellent. If the firm valued process over product, then perhaps she should look for something new. If the firm valued her work product, then she and her manager needed to find some common ground on process while not sacrificing the end goal: great client service, which she was delivering.

3.Demonstrate what you’re doing now to make things better next year. Here’s where you’ve got to be ahead of the eight ball. It doesn’t fly to just sit there and listen and agree to work harder or smarter or better next year. You’ve got to show a meaningful understanding of what went wrong, or what could have been better, and then show what you’re already doing, or planning to do, to fix the situation.

David M. had just moved cross-country and his productivity had slipped. He knew he wasn’t on top of his game while getting his life up and running in California. He himself was upset that he hadn’t been able to produce the results he had hoped for in the 4th quarter and he was nervous about his upcoming review. I asked David how he was going to improve his productivity in the new year. He mentioned several new initiatives underway and the fact that his transition period would be over. I encouraged David to pre-empt the criticism. He needed to walk into that meeting, acknowledge the disruption his move had caused and then move past it quickly with a concrete timeline and action plan for producing results in the first half of 2010.

The performance review can be a valuable learning experience. It takes work, however. Don’t be an observer; be an active participant in the conversation. Know and be able to communicate what has gone well, what hasn’t and how you’re working to improve next year — you’ll be well positioned for a constructive dialogue that shows you to be the competent and capable professional you are.

Jodi Glickman Brown is the founder and president of communication consulting firm Great on the Job. She is the author of the forthcoming book Great on the Job, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in early 2011.

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