How To Make Your Performance Review Truly Useful

Most career-oriented managers approach their annual performance reviews hoping to get useful feedback about what they need to do to increase their chances of getting promoted. But more often than not, they come away dissatisfied, feeling the feedback was inadequate. Even high-performers with top performance ratings get feedback from their bosses that can be vague, contradictory and unhelpful. Why is this, and what can you do to get the feedback you need to fuel your career development?


As a starting point, it's important to understand that your annual performance review is typically a poor place to get the candid advice you really need about how you're seen by those who make promotion and placement decisions. Your performance and track record in producing results are an important foundation for being considered for promotion, but beyond that the focus shifts to the skills and capabilities needed at higher levels. What strengths of yours have senior-level decision makers been able to observe? What other capabilities do they need to see to feel comfortable that you can perform at higher levels?

During a performance review, with its emphasis on your performance rating and salary increase, your boss is unlikely to really level with you about what you need to do to get ahead. The feedback you'll most likely receive will be intended to increase your performance in your current job, at your current level. In most organizations your direct boss doesn't know what criteria more senior-level decision-makers use to make promotions, and he or she may well not know how you're viewed by those decision-makers. And even if he or she does know all that, your boss will be careful about saying anything that might discourage a top performer.

As you prepare for your review, aim to initiate a series of career discussions and get your boss to commit to an ongoing dialogue. During the review discussion convey a sincere desire for feedback that will help you improve your performance and help position you to advance in the future. As you talk to your boss, ask who else can help give you useful perspective. Generally your goal is to speak with the highest-level executives familiar with your work. That way your request for feedback seems normal and appropriate.

Try to space your feedback and career-planning discussions out over a period of months, so you don't seem to be simply lobbying for a promotion. And keep your boss in the loop about any conversations you have with other executives. You don't want to give the impression that you're trying to do an end run, and other executives will usually touch base with your boss anyway to make sure your contact is authorized and their feedback is in sync with his or hers.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of these conversations:

If there was ever a time for active listening, this is it. Be careful of saying anything--or exhibiting any body language--that suggests defensiveness on your part. Most people hesitate to deliver feedback that may be interpreted as bad news, even if it is constructive advice about qualities you need to develop to get ahead. Ask questions to probe and better understand what the executive is really saying, but avoid arguing, because that tends to shut the other person down.

Be especially alert to vague feedback. Code words can mask important underlying issues and concerns. For example, an executive's suggestion that you increase your "initiative" may signal a need to display the ability to create a new strategy for your area or to demonstrate your level of comfort with innovation and change. A recommendation that you improve your "team leadership" may indicate a need to work better with peers on initiatives that cross department lines, or to resolve conflict better.

It's often useful to end a productive conversation with a summary question: "What one to two things, above all others, would be most helpful in building confidence that I can succeed at a higher level?" If you've shown that you're open to the feedback, this question can bring into high relief the most critical things you need to focus on.

Armed with this feedback, you'll be better able to make improvements. Your priority may be demonstrating more robust leadership behavior, for example, by dealing with difficult people issues or being more decisive. Or you may find that you need to get new job experience under your belt, perhaps a customer-facing role that will build new skills and broaden your perspective on the business and the organization. Responding to feedback from higher-level managers is not always easy, but at least you'll have a road map to maximize your chances of getting where you want to go in your career.

This post was originally published on Forbes.com. Find more of John Beeson's writing at HBR.org.  

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