The Best Way to Make Sure You're Not Blindsided in Your Performance Review

Last year, a friend and I had our performance reviews days apart. We both had worked hard and felt good about our work.

My meeting went as I’d hoped, but my friend’s went terribly. Her manager had a totally different view of her work, and told her if things didn’t improve ASAP she’d be on the chopping block. To boot, she was so stunned that when it was her turn to speak, she was at a loss for words. To say she was deflated would be an understatement. She’d worked her butt off all year and the official record said she said sucked at her job.

As my friend’s experience shows, performance reviews don’t always go according to plan (especially if your boss doesn’t give you a lot of feedback throughout the year). So the best way to approach it is to be prepared—not just for what you expect, but also for what you’re going to do if your supervisor sees things differently.

1. If You Think You Did Well

…And So Does Your Boss

Most likely, your success is clear to everyone because it’s objective. You can point to concrete goals you’ve hit and exceeded—like money you’ve earned for the company, or mentions you’ve gotten in the media, or problems you’ve solved.

Before your meeting, think ahead to what you’d like moving forward. Is it a raise, more leadership opportunities, or perhaps a promotion? Muse Writer Sarah Weber points to research that shows a logical argument will be most effective (think: “I exceeded my sales goal by X% each quarter of last year which led to [amount] money for the company and therefore I would like a raise of X%”).

Of course, there might not always be money for a raise, flexibility in the team structure for a promotion, or whatever the exact perk is you’re looking for. So, it’s helpful to have other ideas for how your manager could show appreciation and support your great work (say, a trial of working from home once a week or giving you more autonomy over your workload).

…But Your Boss Doesn’t

This is the very worst-case scenario: You’ve followed all of the steps above to prepare and then your boss sits you down and says she’s disappointed. The good news is—just knowing this can happen is half the battle. Instead of being blindsided and saying nothing (like my friend), you’ll be able to power through the conversation.

That argument you were prepared to make about all of your good work doesn’t go out the window, but it’s no longer going to be the main focus either. It may seem like your best bet is to counter everything your boss says with facts that show you’re actually doing great, but she’ll see that as being defensive (and it’s unlikely to change her mind).

Instead, really dig into where she sees areas for improvement to get on the same page. Let’s take the same example of where you think you’re doing great because you exceeded your sales goals. It could be your boss is giving you a poor review because of how you did it. Maybe you undermined a fellow team member and took their client, maybe you promised a timeline that meant other teams had to work overtime, or maybe you’ve been trying to make close rates a competition when that goes against company culture.

The only way to remedy whatever your boss sees as the problem is to be crystal clear on two things: what it is, and how progress will be tracked moving forward. Find out what’s wrong, then ask what you can do in the next 30, 60, and 90 days to get back on track.

That said, you could also get a poor review when a disconnected manager has no idea what’s going on (e.g., she cites poor relationships with your clients, but they love you; or regular tardiness when you’ve been late once over the past year). If she’s a bad enough manager to be clueless about your workload—and keep her negative feedback to herself all year long—it’s unlikely things are going to improve, and you probably want to start looking for a new job.

2. If You Think You’re Struggling

…And So Does Your Boss

Again, the silver lining here is that you two are on the same page. While you may feel nervous, you two have the same benchmarks for success, and you can use this meeting to talk about how you’re going to work together to get there.

To prepare, try to identify where you’re coming up short and how your boss can support you. Are you having trouble meeting deadlines because you feel overloaded with work? Is it because you’re never quite clear on what’s being asked in the first place?

While it’s possible you’ll get some bad news in this meeting, if you can clearly point to your challenges—and how you’ll overcome them—then it’s reasonable to ask for some time to try your new strategies.

…But Your Boss Doesn’t

You may be tempted to breathe a sign of relief because your boss has no idea you’re struggling. But, truth talk: It’s not actually in your best interest to keep this a secret.

If you’ve been drowning in work and your boss thinks it’s all good, then there’s no reason for him to think of moderating your workload in the future (and he might even pile on more). Or, if you’ve just been pretending to be up to speed in meetings, but you’re lost; what are you going to do when he promotes you to spearheading that new initiative?

First, check in and make sure this isn’t a case of impostor syndrome, where your own fear of inadequacy keeps you from seeing what an objectively great job you’re doing.

If you know you’re not selling yourself short, then pinpoint exactly where you’re feeling overwhelmed and how your boss can support you. You could say, “I appreciate you noticing that I’m always on deadline. I’ve been working late four nights a week to achieve that, and I’d love to discuss more flexibility in my deadlines so I could achieve greater work-life balance.”

Or, “I’m so glad you think I’m a strong team player. I feel like I’d be able to contribute to our latest initiative even more if I was able to take a course on [skill].” Remember, bosses aren’t mind readers—and they appreciate employees who want to do their best—so you shouldn’t be afraid to mention an obstacle (so long as it’s coupled with a solution).

In any performance review, the very worst-case scenario is that you’re caught off guard. So, prepare for the best—and worst—case scenario, and you’ll have as successful a meeting as possible. (For even more guidance, check out exact lines to use based on whatever feedback you receive.)

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