3 Ways to Think About Your Annual Performance Review

What is your approach?

May 6, 2015
Today is the day that I will be having a conversation with my boss about my annual performance review. So this upcoming discussion is much on my mind. 
How do you think about, and prepare for, your annual review? What sorts of review methods and processes have you found the most helpful in your career? How has the process of being in charge of conducting on of your direct reports reviews changed how you approach your own annual review?
All too often the annual review process, a process that we should all welcome as an opportunity to step back and think about how we work together and how we can work better, is approached from all involved with dread. An enormous amount of energy and social capital can be squandered on a performance review process that is not forward looking or collaborative. I’m convinced that the annual review process can be worthwhile and productive for everybody involved.  
Here are 3 ways that I’m thinking about my own performance review:
Idea #1 - Approach the Performance Review with a Growth Mindset:
The idea of approaching challenges with a growth mindset has honestly changed my life. If you believe that life is about learning, and that the goal is not perfection but evolution, you will be open to critique and critical feedback. In fact, you will welcome information about how you might do better, as your goal is constant improvement.    
The problem with too many performance reviews is that they are backward looking, and that they are often tied to compensation. These are both mistakes. A performance review should be a time to work with your boss to figure out how you can grow and improve as a member of your team and your community. In higher education it is particularly unproductive to tie the performance review process to compensation, as our industry does not build its compensation structure around bonuses or other short-term incentives.  Explicitly structuring the performance review process around a growth mindset philosophy will push the discussion into real (and hopefully measurable) ways that your performance can improve in the coming year.
Idea #2 - Keep Long-Term and Big Picture Goals Front-and-Center:
The long-term organizational (and departmental or unit) goals in which your performance review is embedded should be clear and well-understood. A focus on the long-term goals will lead to a more honest conversation of how you can better contribute to the achievement of these objectives. All of us in higher education need to figure out how we can create value for our institutions.  We can no longer rely on a standard roadmap or a well understood set of algorithms to guide our actions. More often than not, we need to make decisions with imperfect information, and engage in projects and initiatives with inadequate resources. Today’s non-faculty academic work environment means often coming up short on our near term objections, but hopefully making progress towards are big long-term goals.  
This does not mean that the performance review discussion should be abstract and superficial. Working towards big goals mostly involves a great deal of non-glamorous, and often boring, detail and logistical work. What we always need to keep in mind is that the larger institutional goals that we are working for, if we truly believe in those goals, are more important than the setbacks and frustrations of our daily work.  We need to talk about how we can get the small things right today so we can eventually get the big things right tomorrow. A focus on the long-term opens up room for that honest (and sometimes painful) discussion of how we can do better in the details.  
Idea #3 - Come Up With A Specific Plan for Improvement:
Your performance review is an opportunity to make a plan with your boss. This is a gift. If you think you are busy, think of all the balls that your boss is keeping in the air. A performance review is a moment in time where all the attention is focused on how you can improve your work (growth mindset). This is a precious opportunity, and I recommend that you use it to make a plan. It is therefore important that you spend as much time as you can preparing for your own performance review. Work hard to try to come up with your professional plan for the year, and use the time with your boss to make sure that this plan matches her needs and priorities. Going out of the performance review you should both be on the same page with what you are going to be doing, and how your boss can best support you (and your colleagues) in reaching your agreed upon objectives.
If you follow this method you will be well-positioned for your next performance review. A plan, one that is written out, can be quickly reviewed as you both work towards coming up with a revised plan for the coming year. (Again, most of the time in a performance review should be future oriented).  Try not to get tripped up in the lingo of SMART goals - (Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, Time-Related). Performance review methodologies and fads will come and go. What is important is that you have a plan for the coming year, and that you and your boss agree on this plan.
How do you approach performance review season?


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