The Right Way to Receive a Year-End Review

People spend a lot of time dealing with year-end reviews, whether they’re giving them or receiving them. Unfortunately, most of what they feel about them is negative. In a previous article, I discussed how to make giving a year-end review a more useful leadership experience. This article is about how to get the most out of receiving a performance review this year.

In an ideal world, you and your manager would both think of your review as a tool to help you develop your skills and talents. However, the typical organization’s culture and processes don’t encourage that. Reviews are often primarily about compensation and disregard for anything less tangible. That makes you focus on giving yourself the best press to get the best deal. In some places reviews are considered an empty ritual. That doesn’t lead to honest and engaged discussion with your manager either. In any case, unless the year-end review is part of an ongoing feedback process, heightened emotions and destructive behavior are almost inevitable.

Still, even in an unfavorable environment you can turn the ritual into a productive effort. The key is to develop a perspective on the review process that can guide you–and your manager–toward growth. First you must understand how emotional challenges can derail the process. Then you can develop the skills to increase your payback.

Getting a job performance review raises powerful emotions for several reasons:

Fear: People often approach their reviews as crime-and-punishment situations. The scene can evoke early parent-child dynamics, so you find yourself struggling with feelings of vulnerability, fearing criticism and punishment. This emotional turbulence can prevent you from hearing the feedback you’re given, let alone putting it to good use.

Perfectionism: Your fear may be intertwined with unrealistically high standards you hold for yourself. You may need to be praised as the good child or the good student, and thus dismiss any feedback that smacks of criticism. You may feel deflated and embarrassed by anything that isn’t a full-throated endorsement of your achievements and talents. This kind of ego deflation often gives rise to anger and resentment toward your manager.

Mistrust: Lack of trust is the most frequent derailer of the review process. You may mistrust everyone in authority. Or you may mistrust a manager who lacks self-awareness, can’t handle his or her emotions, or uses a crime-and-punishment style. You may actually like your manager but still not trust him or her to give it to you straight. It’s your responsibility to do an honest reading of your own level of trust. It could be you’ll have to find alternative sources of developmental feedback, as we’ll discuss below.

Once you understanding these derailers of the review process, you can develop responses that can impress even a recalcitrant manager. You can manage the process for your own growth and development, as long as you focus on strengthening your mastery of the following key psychological skills:

Open-mindedness: Start by recognizing two key psychological facts of life. First, most of us are far more likely to overestimate our own performance than to underestimate it. Second, true open-mindedness, especially about oneself, is extremely hard to achieve. Criticism can threaten our identity and self-esteem, and we seem to be wired as a species to reject or downplay it. We have a lot at stake in maintaining our image of who we think we are. The problem is compounded by the fact that in American business open-mindedness is commonly seen as self-doubt or paralysis. Open-mindedness means listening honestly and not being defensive. Defensiveness is natural, especially during a critical review, so watch for signs of it, such as making excuses (you’d call them reasons) or extensive explanations. A persistent feeling that you’re misunderstood is another sign of defensiveness.

Self-awareness and self-confidence: If you’ve made productive use of criticism over the course of your career, you have real insight into your skills, talents and goals. The year-end review is another opportunity to evaluate the fit between you and the organization, and to assess whether you can grow and develop in your current position. Your self-confidence may be tested if you find you need to advocate for more or different responsibilities, or especially if you conclude that you have to leave the organization to find a more suitable position.

Partnership building: You’ve got to be an active participant in your own career growth and development. This is easiest if your manager shares your interest in your development. If not, you may need to address issues of conflict and trust between you and the manager. You may also need to persuade him or her to give you regular feedback and help remove organizational barriers to your achievement of your goals.

Before your review meeting, prepare yourself psychologically. During the meeting, watch for strong, disruptive emotions, either yours or your manager’s. If they surface, you might suggest taking a break and reconvening at a later time. Ultimately, if there’s nothing you can do to rebuild trust between you and your manager, you may want to discuss the meeting with a colleague you can rely on to be fair and balanced.

A good performance review process–one that is systematic, fair, and has psychological integrity–is at the heart of the mutual influence and social understanding that hold organizations together. A more productive year-end review can improve organizational alignment and unleash your own productive energy–and both those things drive bottom-line results.

The Right Way to Give a Year-End Review

Up and down the chain of command, year-end performance reviews fill people with dread or with resentment, and very rarely with joy. Both the givers and the receivers spend a lot of time on the reviews, yet they generally see them as an empty exercise. After all the procedural T’s are crossed and the I’s dotted, it takes people skills to get a real return on investment from this important, labor-intensive process. Leaders need to set an example by turning a ritual into a productive effort.

This column addresses giving a review. In a subsequent article I’ll tackle how to get the most out of receiving a review. Both articles aim to challenge you to shift your focus to the emotional experience on both sides of the table, and to increase the payback from year-end reviews by developing some key psychological skills.

The organizational barriers to having productive year-end reviews can be formidable. The tight link between reviews and compensation discourages openness and honesty. Managers at all levels may think as much about their organization’s needs as about individual performance when they do the reviews. For example, interdepartmental rivalries can force a kind of uniformity on your reviews as you try to do the best you can for your people in terms of compensation. If your organization’s culture discourages open and honest feedback (“we don’t do warm and fuzzy”), you may feel constrained to just focus on the numbers. Anything else might make you feel like an outlier and make your direct report feel singled out and anxious.

But even in an unfavorable organizational environment there are things you can control to get more from the process. By better understanding the experience on a gut emotional level and working on some key psychological skills, you can create a more useful experience and become a better leader in the process.

Ideally, the year-end review is all about the employee’s development. As a leader committed to optimal performance, you understand the importance of the fit between an employee’s skills, talents, and career goals and his or her organizational role. When you know how best to connect the arc of individual development with the direction of your organization, you form a partnership for growth with the employee. This partnership depends on candid feedback on the individual’s performance, your identification of personal and organizational barriers to better performance and your ongoing availability to help remove those barriers.

Managers commonly get derailed from the ideal developmental focus in year-end reviews by their own personal psychological challenges. It happens in these ways:

–Conflict avoidance: A fear of conflict can lead you to avoid difficult–and also meaningful–performance discussions with your subordinates. That fear of conflict can arise from deep-seated personal issues, a lack of skills for managing conflict or both.

–Need for approval: A strong need for approval often goes hand in hand with conflict avoidance. Managers approach their roles as a vehicle for acceptance and admiration more often than is commonly acknowledged. If you seek affirmation from your employees, even unconsciously, you may be sacrificing longer-term development and performance in favor of short-term comfort and acceptance. At the same time, your inability to put your own needs aside makes it difficult to earn subordinates’ trust and respect.

–Mistrust: Your overall mistrust of people and their motives may make you think that employees don’t want to hear corrective feedback, can’t take it in and won’t use it constructively. If you have a high level of mistrust, you may be convinced that people in general are incapable of changing, are motivated by fear and learn only by being punished.

–Lack of self-awareness: An inability to acknowledge your own motives and goals for the year-end review can mean mixed messages for your employees, sabotaging the process. For example, by denying your own negative feelings toward a subordinate, you may force the review into a developmental framework that’s frustrating for both you and the employee, who really needs to be managed out of the organization. At the other extreme, you could be hijacked by your own feelings of disappointment or envy and end up attacking an employee.

Work on the following core psychological skills and you will increase the benefit you and your employees get from the reviews you must give this year:

–Empathy: I take empathy to mean an accurate understanding of another’s emotional experience. Empathy toward your employees starts with your reviewing your own experiences receiving feedback. It always pays to be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Be guided by an understanding that people generally overestimate their own performance. We humans are hard-wired to maintain a positive self-image, and we tend to reject painful criticism. Your empathy increases when you deliberately seek to grasp what motivates people, what career goals are most important to them, what kind of standards they set for themselves and how they react to not living up to those standards. Empathy will enable you to craft each review message in a way that motivates each person to grow.

–Trustworthiness: Without trust, the year-end review is dead on arrival. The effective review depends on trust; it is also a prime opportunity to build trust. Work on your trustworthiness to make the review process more productive for all concerned. Do you consistently have your employees’ best interests in mind? Do you follow through on your commitments to facilitate their development? Will you act in ways that go beyond your self-interest? Take time to look in the mirror and consider whether others see you as trustworthy.

–Self-knowledge: It isn’t easy to keep your own personal likes and dislikes out of your objective assessment of someone else’s work, achievements or failures. You need to be scrupulously honest with yourself, confronting your own needs, motives and biases whenever you approach your employees. Take the time to reflect on your own experience receiving reviews to guide you to a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses in the process. When you have strong personal feelings about an employee, you may want to consult trusted colleagues to get a different perspective.

Going at the year-end performance review ritual with a fresh psychological perspective is a quick way to increase your payback from all the hours you will spend writing, reviewing and delivering important information. This year, acknowledge the strong emotions reviews elicit in you, as the giver, and in each person who receives the formal feedback. Develop your own empathy, trustworthiness and self-knowledge to enable yourself to strike a better balance between the evaluative and developmental aspects of the review. Your skill in laying out a path for better performance, identifying the employee’s core barriers to achieving his or her performance goals and providing ongoing assistance will enable you to both get the most from year-end reviews and grow as an authentic leader.