Performance reviews offer managers an opportunity to connect with their direct reports, talk about their performance, and share feedback about what their employees are doing well and where they may not be performing as well as they could be. As positive as this sounds on paper, if you’re on the receiving end of a review, the process can be incredibly stressful — particularly if you have no idea what your manager is going to say about your performance.
This good news is, your performance review doesn’t have to be a suspenseful experience you dread. By taking the right steps in between reviews, you can stay informed on how your manager feels about your performance and avoid any unwelcome surprises during your review. Read on for the key steps to take to ensure that you’re not surprised during your next performance review.
6 Steps for Avoiding Performance Review Surprises
1. Don’t wait for your performance review to ask for feedback.
One of the most common reasons people are surprised during performance reviews is because it’s the first time they’ve received feedback since their last review, whether that review was the previous quarter or the previous year. If you want to avoid being surprised during your performance review, ask for feedback on a regular basis.
“Seek feedback proactively,” advised Emily Meekins, founder and CEO of Workstrat, where she’s a People and talent strategist, consultant, and coach. “Don't wait for your review to learn how you're performing; ask for specific feedback on your performance between reviews.”
Touch base with your manager on a regular basis (for example, once a week) and ask them how you’re doing and if there’s anything you can do to improve. By asking for feedback often, you can find out if and when your manager sees performance issues and address them in real time, which will help avoid any upsetting performance-related surprises come review time.
2. Make sure you and your manager are on the same page.
There’s no single definition of a “high performer.” So if you think you’re performing at a high level, but your manager has a different idea of what performing at a high level looks like, it could lead to a less-than-stellar performance review.
To avoid being surprised at your performance review, it’s crucial to make sure you and your manager are on the same page and in agreement about what exactly you need to be doing to excel at your job — and, as a result, get top marks in your performance review.
“Work with your manager to clearly articulate performance goals, role objectives, and development opportunities,” said Theresa M. Haskins, EdD, Adjunct Associate Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Southern California Bovard College. “Be sure you both agree on what good performance looks like in your role.”
For instance, if you define success in your role as closing as many new accounts as possible, but your manager judges success based on how well you collaborate with your team members, that disconnect could lead to some major (and unwelcome) surprises during your performance review. But if you work with your manager to set clear expectations about how they’ll be evaluating your performance, you can ensure that you’re consistently taking steps to meet those expectations throughout the year. In doing so, you’ll be poised for success when review time rolls around.
In addition to getting clarity about how performance is evaluated for your specific role, “you should also inquire and understand how performance is rated at your company,” Haskins said. For example, does your organization consider top performers the people who work late and on weekends until the job is done? Or is performance judged on your ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance? Understanding the performance culture at your company is a must to ensure that your work performance is in alignment with that culture and set yourself up for a successful (and unsurprising!) review from an organization standpoint.
3. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with your manager.
Regularly asking your manager for feedback is essential if you want to avoid surprises during your performance review. But in addition to the more casual “How am I doing?” conversations, you should also schedule formal one-on-one meetings with your manager — and regularly.
Scheduling regular one-on-ones with your manager “is a great way to stay on top of your performance and get feedback on a regular basis,” said Jennifer Patterson, founder of Patterson Consulting Group, an HR consultancy that offers a variety of services, including performance management consulting. “It will also help you build a relationship with your manager that can be helpful during the review process,” she continued.
During your one-on-ones, aim to have more in-depth conversations with your manager not only about your performance, but also about your career goals, how you can progress within the organization, and any support or resources you need to be successful. And keep in mind, one-on-one meetings aren’t just an opportunity for your manager to deliver feedback; it’s also an opportunity for you to do the same.
“Be sure to give your manager feedback on their performance as well,” Patterson said. “This will help them understand your perspective.” Ultimately, this will enable you to work together better and more efficiently.
4. Do your prep work.
If you’re new to the performance review process, or if your company has recently changed its performance review structure, the entire review can feel like a surprise. What are they going to ask? What are you going to talk about? What should you say? It can feel like one big question mark.
Luckily, there’s an easy way to avoid this type of performance review surprise: Prepare in advance. Ask your manager for their insights into the review process. Inquire about the details of what you’re going to discuss and what you should prepare beforehand to ensure the process runs as smoothly as possible.
While the prep work you have to do for your performance review will vary based on your job and company, one thing you’ll definitely want to show up to your performance review ready to discuss is your wins and achievements.
“Be prepared to discuss your accomplishments,” said Patterson. “During the meeting, be sure to highlight your successes and achievements. This is a great way to show your manager that you're doing a good job.”
For instance, if you’ve spearheaded a new initiative or taken on new job responsibilities, bring it up during your performance review. This will illustrate — with concrete examples — the value you’ve brought to your team and company.
Here are some questions to consider as you prepare for your review. And be sure to jot down notes about your answers so you don’t forget what you wanted to say during your performance review. Nerves can often cause us to forget in the moment the key things we’d wanted to share, so bring notes that you can easily reference in a notebook or on your phone or tablet.
- What are some big projects I did well on?
- What new responsibilities have I taken on since my last review?
- What are some of my biggest achievements? (Don’t forget to include your achievements from earlier in the review process that may not be as recent. Recency bias can cause managers to only remember your most recent accomplishments, so you’ll want to highlight those from earlier in the review period to mitigate that.)
- What were some mistakes I made — and how did I make up for them?
- How did I react to feedback my manager or peers gave me?
For more ideas on how to prepare for your review, read our article “How to Write a Performance Review Self-Assessment” or download our Self-Evaluation template. Even if writing up a formal self-assessment isn’t part of your review process, these resources provide helpful reflection questions for your review preparation.
You’ll also want to prepare questions to ask your manager about your performance during your review, both about where you shined and where they think you could improve. If your manager doesn’t proactively address the following points during your performance review meeting, some questions you may want to ask them during your review include:
- Where do you think I excel?
- What are some areas you’ve identified that I have room for improvement?
- How can I support our team and help them succeed?
- What goals should I be working toward if I want to advance within the organization?
- What skills can I acquire/improve if I want to advance within the organization?
The better prepared you are for your performance review, the less likely you are to be surprised about the outcome. So make sure to do your homework and prepare accordingly.
5. Keep an open mind.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you work or how much you prepare, you might get a piece of feedback during a review that catches you off-guard. And while your first instinct may be to defend yourself, the best thing you can do when faced with surprising unpleasant feedback during a performance review is to keep an open mind.
“Be ready to listen to constructive feedback, and don’t get defensive,” Haskins advised.
If your manager shares feedback you perceive as negative, listen. If you’re at all unclear about the feedback, ask follow-up questions until you understand exactly what your manager means. For example, if they deliver feedback that you haven’t been a team player, ask if they can share specific examples of when they felt you didn’t show up for your team. If they say that you’re not hitting productivity benchmarks, ask them to share the metrics where you’re falling short.|
Getting challenging feedback is never easy — particularly when it’s unexpected and during a performance review. But even though it’s difficult, keep an open mind when receiving feedback; your manager is delivering the feedback in an effort to help you reach your maximum potential, and you can use that feedback to your advantage to improve and grow professionally.
6. Use your performance review as a springboard for growth.
Performance reviews generally happen on a quarterly, biannual, or annual basis. To avoid being surprised at your next performance review, take all the feedback and information you gathered at your most recent review and turn it into an action plan to improve your performance.
“After taking [stock] of how you're doing, turn it into an action plan for growth,” Meekins advised. “Use this as an ongoing conversation piece with your manager between reviews, calibrating on your growth and opportunities for continued development.”
Let’s say you’re a salesperson and you received feedback during your performance review that you’re not closing enough business. Make a plan to increase your sales numbers (for example, following up with X number of leads per week or scheduling Y number of demos per quarter), and then share that plan with your manager and schedule regular one-on-ones to review your progress and adjust your plan as needed.
Your performance review will give you important insights into what you need to do to grow professionally; use this information to avoid any surprises in the future and ensure that your next performance review is a success.
If you don’t know what to expect, performance reviews can be fraught with anxiety and fear. But by employing these strategies throughout the year, you can walk into your next performance review feeling confident about the process and the feedback you’re going to receive — and avoid any unpleasant and unwelcome surprises.