Coping with Performance-Review Anxiety

Annual reviews tend to stress out bosses and workers. Here are some tips for how to make the most of this career-building exercise

Employees and managers alike often look at the annual performance review as the corporate equivalent of going to the dentist, but they shouldn't. Well-prepared-for, forthright, performance-review discussions can not only help bring individual and team performance to the next level, but improve the relationship between employee and manager as well.

While they can be stress-inducing for everyone, I reserve my greatest sympathy for department managers, who don't have to complete just one performance review but a separate one for every member of the team. One year when I had 12 direct reports to evaluate, I got behind on my performance-review writing and ended staying up all night completing evaluation forms, going to bed around 7 a.m.

Advice for Managers

As a manager, even though you may have multiple reviews to do, bear in mind that with each of your employees it's a critical, one-time-only exercise. Don't schedule your employees' review meetings back-to-back, or you'll be a burnt-out shell after two hours and unable to give each session—and employee—the proper energy and focus. Spacing them out, one per day over a week or two weeks' time, is a much smarter solution. If that's not practical, try doing one in the morning and one in the afternoon. But don't make it the last thing you do before you go home. Even if you're able to keep your energy up, your direct report, who will probably be nervous anyhow, might feel that it's something you want to get done with quickly so you can get home.

It's easy to fall into the trap of evaluating employees based on your needs as a manager—departmental objectives, corporate strategy, or even your own professional advancement roadmap—rather than on clear objectives that have already been communicated to the employee. That's why it's important that you begin each review discussion by harking back to last year's goals. Didn't set goals last year? That'll teach you: It's a critical management function, and now you know why.

Make sure you evaluate employees on their full year's performance as well as the entire range of their strengths and weaknesses. It's tempting to talk about recent history—good or bad, because it's freshest in your mind—but there's a reason this is called an annual review. Likewise, watch out for the halo effect: If an employee is tremendous at one thing, that's great, but don't let that stop you from providing guidance on areas where he or she has room for improvement.

Lastly, remember that an annual performance review is a snapshot of an employee's performance, a point-in-time measurement of what's working and what's not. It's also the perfect time to set goals for the coming year, talk about last year's compensation and your plans for next year's, and get some feedback on your own management style.

Advice for Employees

The most important thing employees can do is focus on the purpose of the review meeting—alignment of goals and performance objectives. That means not getting bogged down in details, and especially not arguing about them. If your manager is factually wrong on important matters, that's worthy of discussion, but you are not in a courtroom arguing your case in front of a third party. There is no third party in this relationship: It's all about you and your manager and the communication between the two of you, and strengthening that link is more important than debating your manager into the ground.

One way to make sure that doesn't happen is to do your homework and be prepared to back up your claims of success. It's one thing to say, "I had a great year and people are really responding to the changes I made." It's another to say, "Sales are up 25% and revenue is up by 40%, and I've received positive feedback via e-mail from other department heads on the new system."

And while you don't want to get bogged down in details, it's important that you seek—and attain—clarity. You should walk out of a review with a strong, clear picture of how your boss thinks you did last year, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what he or she expects from you going forward. Of all of those, the last one is the most important. There's no way you can expect to have a good review next year—or perform well in the meantime—otherwise.

Be confident, honest, and remember that your boss's success depends on the success of the people who work for him or her. Your manager has a vested interest in your doing your best. Make the most of this opportunity to get guidance on how you can do that.

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