The Right Way to Receive a Year-End Review

By Steve Axelrod
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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.