I think a lot about examinations and how they don’t end, even after you’re done with school. Performance reviews at work can feel a lot like an exam, and with that can come all those familiar nervous feelings leading up to it, and the pride and excitement that comes from getting a good grade, or the sinking disappointment of finding out you didn’t. Once, I had an informal performance review that made me feel like I failed an exam. After recovering from the initial disappointment, I spent some time reflecting on this personal failure. I thought about how I’d spent my time and the challenges I’d had while navigating the new domain that I was working in. Then, I thought about the outcome I wanted for my next performance review, and I made a game plan to get there with the support of my lead.
I want to share what this process was like in hopes that it might help you if you’re ever in the situation I was. So, let’s say you just got a not-so-great performance review. Now what?
I’ve broken down the process that worked for me into five steps:
- Don’t take it personally.
- Approach it with a growth mindset.
- Get clarity.
- Know how to measure your success.
- Implement a feedback loop.
1. Don’t Take It Personally
Performance reviews should assess how well you’re accomplishing the work that is expected in your role. This is often reflected in specific skills, behaviors, and results that are conducive to success within your scope and area of responsibility. They’re not a total reflection of your skills and abilities as a person. Your professional and personal identities are two different things and although your career takes up a good portion of your daily life, it isn’t the entirety of who you are. Once you look at it this way, then you start to realize that you aren’t being attacked, but rather being objectively evaluated and provided with a clearer path to success. If you’re finding the things you excel at aren’t at all aligned with the things your performance is assessed on, that can be an opportunity to talk to your lead about alternate career development paths in a direction that suits you better.
Performance reviews should ideally offer constructive feedback, not destructive feedback. In the article I linked, the author notes that even though constructive feedback is designed to help you get better and uncover opportunities for your development, it doesn’t always feel positive. This is natural, but do your best to assume positive intent on behalf of your manager (or whoever is delivering your review). Believe that they want to see you succeed, and they’re doing their best to give you the necessary feedback to make that happen. In this Harvard Business Review article, the author opines that when you take professional kicks personally you compromise your own ability to recover and see the bigger picture. In the case of a performance review, instead of seeing it as a kick, see it as a nudge in the right direction.
2. Approach It with a Growth Mindset
If you’re new to the idea of a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset, I recommend watching this TedTalk by Carol Dweck, an American psychologist renowned for her work on the power of mindset. In short, having a growth mindset means that you view intelligence, ability, and talent all as learnable and improvable through effort . Someone with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, views these things as innate or inherently unchangeable. For example, they might say something like “I’m just bad at math.” or “I’m not creative!”
Having a growth mindset can be easier said than done. Once, I received some feedback from my lead about me taking a long time to ship my code. My reasoning was that I felt I needed to get things to a near-perfect state before releasing anything, so this feedback stung me a little. Having a growth mindset allowed me to pause and reflect on this, instead of becoming defensive or resisting the feedback altogether. I realized that the purpose of this feedback was to teach me that small incremental improvements can be a much better way to ship code, and I applied this principle from that moment forward.
Maybe you’ve heard the old saying “feedback is a gift,” and what better way to enjoy and experience a gift than to take it and unwrap it? After a performance review, accept the gift of feedback. Accept that you may not have put your best foot forward this time, or maybe things happened that got in the way of doing your finest work, or maybe the work was just really hard this time. Things happen and there might be valid reasons for your performance. This is where the kind of mindset you have comes into play.
3. Get Clarity
Even when job expectations are stated on a high level, it’s important to align with your lead on how exactly your performance is being assessed. Sometimes you might interpret an expectation differently than your lead, or you might just not have a clear picture of what something looks like in practice. If you’ve ever felt surprised by your performance feedback, this is often a contributing factor.
After receiving the feedback from your performance review, have a follow-up conversation with your lead to unpack anything you’re not clear on. Your goal should be to come away with a very clear and actionable picture of what success looks like in your role and tie these expectations to specific behaviors, metrics, or output. I recommend you don’t do this during the initial performance review meeting, unless you’re really confident in your ability to avoid becoming upset or defensive. Take some time to absorb the feedback so you can come back with thoughtful questions about any areas of uncertainty and the right mindset to have a productive conversation.
If You Need to Push Back
If you feel like you have been evaluated unfairly, you may need to push back on this review. Let your lead know that you’d like to have a follow-up discussion of your performance review, and come into the conversation prepared to present evidence of your positive impact. Going back to the point of communication, your manager might not know all that you have been up to for that period. For this, I can’t stress enough the importance of a brag doc, a quarterly calibration document, or some means of recording your progress, accomplishments, and the work you have done, and sharing this with your manager. Documenting your progress should be done while the facts are still fresh in your memory and ideally shared with your lead before the performance review. Although sharing this after the fact might be a little too late, it can still help in pleading your case. If you have colleagues that can advocate for you and have shared positive feedback, use those in your favor. In my case, I didn’t have much written in my brag doc, but I had other documents that helped in tracking how I spent my time. I was able to use these in my discussion with my lead in my next one-on-one.
4. Know How to Measure Your Success
Now that you’ve reflected on your review, adjusted your mindset, and gained clarity on your opportunities for improvement, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and reassess how you worked over the performance review period, the goals you set, and how feasible they were. Maybe the reason you didn’t hit a specific goal or target is because you didn’t work efficiently, or because your idea of success wasn’t aligned with your lead’s. Revisit your goals for the past period and figure out what went wrong and what you can do better. One way to do this is to ensure that each goal you set for yourself can be measured by a specific key performance indicator (KPI) or other tangible metric. After setting your metrics, run this by someone who can look at this objectively, like a lead or mentor, and give feedback on if it’s good or needs some modification. Personally, I have a professional development plan that I update at the beginning of every quarter with a new set of goals and measures of success. I use the feedback from previous performance reviews and from my lead and my mentor to ensure that I have strong KPIs for each goal. At the end of the quarter, I assess the goals using this quarterly objectives template. By doing this, I have an overview of what is going well and what needs to be prioritized moving forward.
5. Implement a Feedback Loop
By this point, you should have a solid understanding of where you need to improve and a clear picture of what success will look like (and how you’ll measure it). Use this as input to shape your next set of goals. For example, if you’re ranked not-so-great at collaboration, you can set a goal of pair programming with another engineer biweekly or contributing to two tech design documents per month. If poor communication was flagged, look for opportunities like presenting a talk or participating in a show and tell. Sometimes it can be hard to set tangible and meaningful goals for the next quarter. Look no further than feedback from your previous review. Even if you got a great assessment, look at the next opportunities suggested. The ability to take the feedback from your performance review and apply it towards making improvements for the next cycle is a good indicator of growth in your job.
Preparing for Your Next Review
Much like school exams, your performance largely depends on how well you prepare for it. If you get a not-so-great performance review, aim to do better next time by preparing adequately for your next review. From this point onwards, the feedback you get from your performance review should not be a complete surprise to you if you regularly check in with your lead. Through these regular touchpoints, your lead will be able to guide you properly on areas where you need improvement, and also give quicker feedback on your performance, review the expectations of your role and guide you in meeting these expectations. Equally as important, don't forget to keep your brag doc up to date and keep your lead informed about the changes.
A bad performance review can be disheartening at first, but with the right mindset and a clear plan for moving forward, it can be the thing that propels you to success next time around.
Ebunoluwa Segun is a developer with experience in orders and shipping labels working in the Fulfillment team at Shopify, where she splits her engineering efforts between frontend and backend development. Some of her greatest passions include reading, writing, fashion, indoor and outdoor gardening, and mentoring high school girls through STEM-focused programs. You can reach out to her on LinkedIn or her website.
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