6 mins

Receiving a performance review can be very stressful. Planning ahead and narrowing your focus can help you use the feedback in your review productively.

Yearly performance reviews can be incredibly challenging. To compound the problem, these significant conversations are often linked to financial incentives, such as raises, bonuses, promotions, and other opportunities. With so much at stake, it can be difficult to remember the most important part of a performance review: to align with your manager on their expectations for you in your role.

I have seen lots of good writing about giving feedback and reviews, but not much about receiving those reviews. Although we strive for psychologically safe work environments, receiving a review means being vulnerable with someone who holds power over you. 

I hope to outline a more positive approach to receiving reviews for leaders who feel vulnerable during these evaluations or who may find it particularly difficult. Additionally, I hope to help some leaders gain empathy for their reports who struggle with receiving reviews. 

Preparing to receive a productive performance review

Before your meeting 

People process information differently, with some preferring written over verbal feedback, or vice versa. Whatever the case, a documented version of your review should exist and, ideally, it should be ready 24 hours in advance of your meeting.

Depending on your internal processes, you may need to request this report of your manager or your human resources (HR) team. If you’re not able to receive the written text in advance, not to worry! There will still be opportunities for you to plan ahead in the next section.

Once you are given your documented review, focus on it. Set aside time in your calendar, turn off Slack notifications, and enable “do not disturb”. Put yourself in your ideal environment for focus, whether you need silence or noise. Now, read it.

Your first read-through

Take notes. This is the best tool for processing your review. Take note of everything that you’re delighted about and agree with. Take note of everything that surprises you, confuses you, or that you disagree with. Take note of everything that provokes you to feel something. It’s okay to have strong feelings during this process.

Hopefully, you are proud of the work you accomplished in the prior year, but you may also feel disappointed by the mistakes that you think held you back. You can feel both at the same time. When you finish reading your review, take a moment – however long you need to regain your focus – and then read it again.

Your second read-through

This time you want to identify your manager’s intent with each section. Ask yourself these questions as you go through it and record the answers.

  • Do you understand the message they are trying to convey? 
  • Do you understand what they see as your strengths and growth opportunities?
  • Do you understand what they would like you to start, stop, or continue?
  • Does your review reflect the relationship you believe you have with your manager?

It can be difficult to interpret nuance in writing, but thankfully you do not need to make any assumptions. If you’re not sure about something, note it down and then bring it up in your review.

Once you finish your second read-through, evaluate your notes for unhelpful thoughts that get in your way. Below are some guiding questions that may help you weed these instances out: 

  • Am I treating this feedback as an attack on my identity, rather than a perception of my past behavior?

    Performance reviews assess prior actions and impact, but they aren’t a critique of you as an individual. We all make mistakes, but that isn’t indicative of our entire persona or approach to our work. We may misspeak, but that doesn’t mean that we are bad communicators. Using a growth mindset here allows us to recognize that we aren’t consistently successful yet. But we can choose to be someone who is still learning, no matter how much experience we have.
  • Am I treating this feedback as a fact to disprove?

    Reviews, like all feedback, are based on perceptions. It’s possible that our perception of an event may differ from our feedback-giver, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Make a note to clarify the situation if you’ve noticed something differs from your manager’s perception. Most importantly, however, you should take this as a chance to learn how to better understand and align with your supervisor, so as to avoid these sorts of miscommunications in the future.  
  • Am I feeling defensive?

    It can be cathartic to write out your perception of a situation and how that differs from what your manager wrote, but in your conversation, you should lead with curiosity. Rather than defend your position, ask your manager for more detail on that section. What message were they intending to send? You may find that you are both more aligned than you think.

Narrow your focus

The last thing to do before your review is go over the questions you want answered by your manager. This is another opportunity to demonstrate leadership strengths in the form of prioritization and clarity.

You want to ask the questions that will empower you to feel like you have the most opportunity to succeed this year. You also want to be as clear and to the point with your questions.

“When you wrote that my collaboration with Sue could have been more successful, can you give me an example of how?” is better than, “You mentioned that my collaboration with Sue could have been more successful, but here are nine reasons why I did the best I could, what more could I have done?”

If you’re not sure, follow up with, “Is this an area where I could have demonstrated higher level skill or an area where I failed to meet your expectations of me?”

During the meeting

Hopefully, you were able to take notes on your review before you entered the meeting, but if not, throughout the meeting, jot down as many of the points they raise as possible, while keeping these questions in mind:

  • Do I understand my manager’s intent in their messaging? 
  • Do I understand what my manager expects of me going forward?
  • Do I understand how my manager made their review determinations?

Even if your answer to every question is probably yes, it is a good idea to confirm or clarify their point of view. “When you mentioned that my work in this area may be distracting me from our team goals, I’m hearing that I should be very careful in how I prioritize my time, but not that I should stop working in that area. Is that what you meant?”

The point of this meeting is to gain and confirm alignment and if you run out of time before you feel fully aligned, you’ll need to slot in another one to complete that conversation. It is possible that after your meeting, you’ll want to take some time to digest this information, allowing you to come back later with clear and concise questions. You can do that in your next 1:1 session, an ad-hoc review continuation meeting, or asynchronously. 

After the meeting

Reviews are reflections of the prior year, but it’s important to carry those lessons forward.

After your review, it can be helpful to summarize what you learned from it and share that with your manager. Which strengths will you continue to use and which opportunities for growth will you focus on? This is a great way to validate that you and your manager are in agreement and that you had a successful performance review. If either of you misunderstood something, this is a great time to clear that up.

The more that you are aligned, the safer it may feel to receive continual feedback, which can make the next review cycle even easier.

Navigating engineering performance reviews
Navigating engineering performance reviews
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