How to Write the Dreaded Self-Appraisal

Harvard Business Review

No one likes review time. For many, self-appraisals are a particularly annoying part of the process. What can you say about your own performance? How can you be honest without coming off as arrogant, or shooting yourself in the foot?

What the Experts Say
Dick Grote, author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals, has a lot to say about self-appraisals and most of it isn't good. "I'll admit it's important to get the employee's point of view in the process but this is the wrong way to do it," he says. In his view, since study after study has shown that we are horrible judges of our own performance, any self-evaluation should focus exclusively on positives; people should not be self-critics. Timothy Butler, a senior fellow and the director of Career Development Programs at Harvard Business School, agrees that self-assessments aren't the best way to evaluate performance, but believes they do serve a purpose: "They're an important source of information about what happened in the past year," Butler says.

No matter where you stand on their value, self-appraisals are a staple of office life. So the question is how to handle them. Here are some principles to help you when review time rolls around.

Know how your boss will use it
Before you put pen to paper, ask your boss how he plans to use the self-appraisal. Will it play a key role in his review? Will he use it to make decisions about promotions and bonuses? Will he share it with anyone else? Knowing these things will inform what and how you write. "Many lazy bosses see it as an easy way to shuffle off the difficult task of writing a review," says Grote. If that sounds like your manager, write your appraisal in a way that allows him to copy and paste from your form to his, replacing every "I" and "my" with "she" and "her."

Emphasize your accomplishments
Both Grote and Butler agree that you should emphasize your achievements. Don't be arrogant but don't downplay your successes either. "If you've had a great year, you should talk explicitly about your accomplishments," says Butler. "Be very clear about what contributions you've made to the business unit." Grote adds there is no shame in being political. "It's OK to put the best face on what you did," he says.

Acknowledge mistakes — carefully
Of course, unless you're the best thing that ever happened to your office, you're likely to have faults or have made missteps too, and you should mention those, even if it's only in passing. Grote again advises to put the best possible spin on problem areas so you don't give your boss "the noose with which to hang you." Butler suggests using developmental language. "You don't want to say, 'Here's where I really fall down.' Instead, say 'Here's an area I want to work on. This is what I've learned. This is what we should do going forward.'"

Keep the focus on you
It can be tempting to talk about others in your appraisal — particularly if they're hindering your progress — but remember this is about you, not them. "Don't use defensive language or criticize other parties. That doesn't move things forward," Butler says. "If you're having a significant problem with a co-worker, talk to your manager long before the review — with the door closed, not in a written document."

Ask for what you need
Smart employees use self-appraisals to lobby for career development opportunities. Even if your boss doesn't explicitly ask for this, Butler says you should include it anyway "because if you don't ask, it's not going to happen." Be specific. Explain the aspects of your job that most excite you and suggest ways you can become more involved in those things. You might ask to be included in certain brainstorming meetings or request funding to take a class on data analytics. Just remember to make sure these requests reflect what your business unit needs as well.

Managers: Work to improve the process
Both Butler and Grote believe there are ways for managers to make self-appraisals more effective. Butler would like to see managers ask more about employees' motivations and interests so they can create jobs that are better suited for them. He suggests asking questions like, "Where do you think you can make your biggest contributions in the coming year?" and "Which types of projects and activities would you like to see more of in your day-to-day work?" Grote recommends focusing on the positive. Maybe ask for a "good stuff list," where employees can write down what they're really proud of. "That puts a very appropriate, positive view on the process," he says.

Principles to Remember

Do

  • Understand how your self-appraisal is going to be used
  • Focus mostly on what you've accomplished in the past year
  • Try to improve the process if you're a manager — ask about your employees' motivations and interests

Don't

  • Harp on your weaknesses — talk about them carefully, using developmental language
  • Be defensive or criticize others — this is about your performance
  • Forget to ask about growth opportunities — be specific about what you need

Case Study #1: Take it seriously and they will too
Darin Freitag has filled out six self-appraisal forms in his time at Ryan Associates, an employee-owned construction company based in San Francisco. The company uses a standard form that includes a handful of questions such as, "What are your job responsibilities and have you gone above and beyond them this year?"

Darin spends between two and four hours filling out his form each review time. "I make sure my managers know that I take this seriously," he says. He knows that his immediate boss (the company's COO), the CFO, and the head of HR all review his form and he gears it toward them. "This is my one time of year to push for my career growth," Darin says. He's explicit about how they can help. In the past, he's used the form to request new responsibilities and exposure to different types of projects. But he's honest about his performance as well. "I know that I have characteristics that require some comment. For example, I often get sucked into the details," he says. "I don't make a big deal about it but I recognize that's what I'm working on."

Case Study #2: Be honest when you can be
Two years in a row, Liz Steele*, a senior HR partner at a global non-profit, didn't achieve the goals she set for herself. "I was just too optimistic about what I could accomplish," she says. Since her self-appraisal required that she assess her performance against those objectives, she struggled with what to do. "Most people just talk about their accomplishments but I didn't feel comfortable doing that," she says. After carefully thinking it through, she decided to list each goal, explaining which ones she didn't meet. She also highlighted work she delivered that wasn't part of her original plan. She admits that it was a risky move: "I knew that it could backfire. In some cultures that would've been equivalent to career suicide." But she was confident in the security of her role and knew she was well-respected by her manager and her clients. Plus she felt her integrity mattered more. As an HR partner, Liz's success relies on her ability to influence others. "I can't influence if people don't trust me," she says.

Her immediate boss and the Head of HR reviewed her self-appraisal and were surprised. "They were amused but they also appreciated that I was willing to call myself out on my own failures," she explains. Her manager specifically noted on this year's evaluation that she was not afraid to admit her own mistakes. She knows she took a calculated risk by being so truthful, but in this case, her honest and careful approach paid off.

*not her real name

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