No element of a performance review is as intimidating for employees as the dreaded self-evaluation section. A self-evaluation can change the trajectory of your career; hopefully for the better, but frequently for the worse -- especially as a manager begins to question your ability to self-assess.
Most people struggle with accurately representing their job performance. It’s hard to be objective about yourself, it’s hard to make time to do a thorough evaluation, and it’s hard to know what answers will move your career in the right direction. Measuring your own job performance requires a clear plan.
Study after study shows that employees and managers alike are fed up with traditional, annual performance reviews. In a 2017 study of 1,500 office workers, Adobe - who ditched traditional performance reviews in 2012 - found that 59% of those surveyed agreed that performance reviews “have no impact on how they do their job”. Performance reviews can be a source of trauma, not just annoyance: the same Adobe study found that 22% of office workers have cried after a review. That’s not a pretty picture.
More and more organizations are moving to a model that encourages continuous feedback between supervisors and their reports. As performance management and performance reviews have matured, self-evaluations have become commonplace.
Whether your organization has stuck with a traditional model, or abandoned formal reviews altogether, self-evaluation is an important skill. With the right approach, it can be a valuable exercise no matter what company you work for. Here’s how to get smart about self-evaluating.
Self-Assessment: Setting Expectations
Start early and make time. Depending on how often your organization conducts reviews, this could be a major project. Whether or not you make the time on your calendar to do it justice may be the difference between a stressful week and a careless submission and something that could advance your career.
There’s no way to evaluate your performance without a clear description of your job. If you already have one, keep it handy while composing your self-evaluation. If you don’t have one, or if your job description has changed, now’s the time to write one. It doesn’t have to be a massive document. Define the major responsibilities of your job, from consistent requirements to long-term projects.
It’s your job, so even if other colleagues share your title, make sure to review - or establish - the specifics that make your position yours. Do this even if it’s not a requirement for your review. If you don’t, the rest of your evaluation won’t be persuasive or effective.
Before beginning your review, ask your manager (or whoever is responsible for your review) how the self-evaluation will be used. You wouldn’t write anything else for work without knowing your target audience, right? This should be no different.
Once you know your role and the the role of your self-evaluation, you’ll be ready to start.
Self-Evaluation: The Core Of the Review
Until that day comes, we’ll have to do our best to walk a fine line: the goal is to not embellish but not be too self-deprecating.
Here are some tips for providing an authentic, effective self-evaluation so that your performance review doesn’t end in tears:
- Accountability starts with you. Not your coworker who missed a deadline, or your manager who doesn’t make themselves available, or your dog who ate your crucial presentation. During a self-evaluation, be self-centered in the most positive definition of the word. Use “I” statements to make sure you’re not writing someone else’s performance review. You can include the obstacles you’ve had to contend with - especially if management can help remove them in the future - but they can’t be the focal point of your self-evaluation.
- Lead with solutions. Many self-evaluations will ask employees to identify weaknesses, though they may not use that specific term. Now is not the time to reach for the comfort of the “I’m too much of a perfectionist” answer. Don’t disguise your weaknesses (or, if you prefer, areas for improvement). Address them, briefly, and explain how your organization can help address them. Each weakness should have a to-do attached for your management. Don’t linger on this section - a self-evaluation that spends more time on setbacks than forward progress is going to raise some red flags.
- Be forthcoming - but brief - regarding setbacks. Some reviews request specific failures or times you’ve missed the mark. If your review doesn’t ask for this, count yourself lucky - and consider offering an example anyway. However, don’t focus on the failure. Pivot to the lessons learned, the takeaways that will lead you to succeeding in similar situations in the future. If you didn’t learn a lesson, now’s the time!
- Report the facts of your success. Now for a part of the review that makes just as many employees uncomfortable: talking about your strengths. How do you list your many achievements without seeming smug or boastful? Think like a journalist. Your first obligation when talking about all the great things you’ve done is to faithfully report the truth of what you’ve done. Use “I” statements again, keep the positive adjectives to a minimum, and you’ll be golden. (Refrain from using the word “golden”, just to be safe.)
- Prove your worth. Make a clear connection between what you’ve accomplished and what your organization has accomplished (or is trying to accomplish). Read what you’ve written and see if you think of your contributions as indispensable. If you have to squint to see yourself that way, consider a rewrite and make sure your value is communicated.
- Write short. When you’re listing accomplishments, try to be as concise as possible. Keeping stories short has several advantages. It’s harder to come across boastful or long-winded when you don’t use a lot of words. There’s more room to include a truly impressive and diverse collection without putting the reader to sleep. Plus, if your manager is incorporating your review into theirs, a longer list of shorter feats will give them more to reference - and more room to elaborate.
- Track your progress for next time. If you’re going a long time in between reviews, keep track of your biggest moments (both accomplishments and disappointments) in a journal or document. It’s hard to find the time and energy to dig up the breakthrough you had last October when you’re filling out a self-evaluation in September. This can also have the positive effect of improving your engagement at work.
Self-Improvement: Setting Goals
Every performance review is an opportunity to forge ahead in your career. A review with a section for self-evaluation and employee-directed goals gives you the opportunity to design your future. If you’re only getting a review annually, this could be your best chance to push for career advancement all year!
Each goal should make sense within the context of your career path. (If your job description and your career aspirations don’t match, it’s time for a more profound conversation with your manager.)
Set well-defined goals that are realistic, but would be considered major accomplishments if you meet or exceed them. Your goals shouldn’t look anything like your job description - they can present openings to make this job your own.
If you’re having trouble coming up with goals that are attainable and relevant, there’s an acronym managers and employees have been using for almost 40 years: S.M.A.R.T.
- S - Specific
- M - Measurable
- A - Achievable
- R - Realistic
- T - Time-based
Goals that follow this acronym translate as directives for your manager, letting you set an agenda that more vague goals can’t.
Your goals are another opportunity to request the tools you need for career advancement. If you would be helped by mentorship, education, certification, or any other development programs, tying one or more of them to a goal in a self-evaluation is a great way to get that help.
Self-Preservation: Giving Feedback
Most performance review systems, new or old, give employees space to give feedback on the organization, its processes, and (gulp) their managers. Don’t shy away from filling that space - you’re qualified to share your thoughts on the organization as someone who works there.
At too many companies, performance reviews are one of the only forums where employee feedback is solicited. If that’s the case for you, take full advantage and tactfully share your observations.
Align with your manager by asking any questions you have about your role and your expectations. If there isn’t a place for you to ask questions of management - whether in your work environment or in the review - make this the place.
In fact, asking questions is definitely the safest way to approach a feedback section. Almost any criticism can be phrased as a polite if pointed question. Try to ask questions that require a more nuanced answer than “yes” or “no”. If your management values employee engagement, this could lead to you getting the answers to your questions in person.
Self-Compassion: Celebrating Your Progress
A performance review can be many things: a source of anxiety, a prelude to a raise, a pain in the neck. With the right approach, it can always be a chance to appreciate what you’ve accomplished in the time between the last review and the current one.
The self-appraisal is the part of the review that employees have the most control over, so take advantage of it! Then recognize what you’ve done well. You’ll notice that there’s no section on “Self-Criticism” in this article. Take a moment - or perhaps a celebratory lunch - to reflect on the process of reflection you just went through. When you go back to work, start taking notes for next time!
You can repeat this process independently from performance reviews to measure your progress. If you’re only getting prompted to self-evaluate once a year, that doesn’t mean it’s the only time of year you can take stock of where your career is headed.
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