Career advice

How to ace your annual performance review

For many people, the end of one year and the start of another brings with it the corporate tradition of the annual performance review. This formal look back at the triumphs and trip-ups of the past twelve months is part of the procedure for setting goals and expectations for the year to come. 

Most people – both employees and their managers – do not enjoy this process. It can be challenging to even remember what you worked on ten or twelve months earlier, and many people find it uncomfortable to talk about their work and achievements. It's even less pleasant to talk about shortcomings and projects that failed. 

Despite that, regular performance reviews aren't going away any time soon. You might as well make the most of them. When handled properly, your annual performance review can be an opportunity to set yourself up for career advancement in the year ahead. 

Similar to acing a job interview, the key to a winning performance review is preparation. Doing your homework before the meeting makes all the difference. Here is how to prepare for your annual appraisal like a pro. 

Take notes

If you were suddenly asked out of the blue to talk about your work over the past year, you would probably only be able to speak with any detail about your most recent projects. That won't paint a rich and fulsome picture of all that you have done over the full twelve months. 

So, don't rely on memory alone. Open a Word document, your Notes app, or get out a good old-fashioned notepad, and make a list of all the projects you worked on throughout the year. Read back through your inbox and check your calendar for the previous months to jog your memory. Arrange the files in your documents folder by date instead of name and look back at all that you worked on. 

Highlight your accomplishments

Having a grasp on all of the hard work you contributed this year can put you in a positive frame of mind for your annual review. However, like a job interview, what matters most is your key accomplishments. 

While you are reviewing your emails, calendar, and documents, make particular note of your achievements from the year. Focus specifically on your own individual contributions to successful projects. How did your work stand out from the ordinary? What were you able to accomplish that made the department or the company more successful? Talking about your achievements in a performance review is not boasting, it's a necessary part of the process. 

Use numbers whenever possible. Describing your accomplishments will be more impactful if you can quantify them. Think of ways you improved efficiency, saved time or money, increased profits, brought in new clients or improved customer experiences. Add numbers to the things you've done that made the business more successful (or made your manager look good to his or her own boss.) 

For example: 

  • Maintained a 95 percent customer satisfaction score as a Client Services Representative.
  • Increased email communications open rate from 4% to 35% through optimized subject lines and distribution times. 
  • Trained a crew of six new hires into a high-performing team that exceeded targets by 25% in the first year. 

Other achievements from the year could include awards or recognitions that you received on the job. Have other departments or teams thanked you for your contributions throughout the year? Were you singled out for going above and beyond over the past twelve months? Have any incidents such as these top of mind when you go into your review.  

Also take note of the setbacks 

It's unlikely that everything went smoothly and every project you worked on exceeded expectations all year long. (But if it did, congratulations, you are certainly going to ace your annual review!) There were probably initiatives that didn't work out as intended or deliver the desired results.

While you don't necessarily want to bring these up to remind your boss about setbacks from the year, you should be prepared to discuss them in case they come up. Don't get blindsided. Think about why the projects underperformed. What caused the problem, what have you learned from the challenges, and how would you approach a similar situation differently?

Positive communication is important to professional working relationships, even when talking about disappointments or even failures. So, don't blame other people, make excuses, or get defensive when discussing areas that need improvement. 

Your performance review is a chance to course correct, avoid future pitfalls, and set yourself up for a more successful future. And, as uncomfortable as it might be to talk about weaknesses, your manager may even be mandated by HR to bring up shortcomings as well as strengths. They are usually not allowed to give all glowing reviews, even if they wanted to. 

Be open to feedback. In fact, you should even request it. Clearly demonstrating that you are open to constructive criticism and actively looking to improve shows that you are self-aware and professional. Ask how you can do more for the company – or if there is something you should do less of to maximize your efficiency. Ask your manager what more you could take on to make their job easier. 

Practice talking about your accomplishments and setbacks out loud before the review. This will help you to discuss them in a natural and conversational style when the time comes. Prepare for the meeting as you would for an important job interview. Because in a way, it is a job interview. You can use the occasion to make a pitch for your future job development with the organization. 

If the review goes well – and it will because you've prepared like a pro – you can even close by expressing your desire to take on more. Say something such as: 

“Thank you very much for the feedback. I’m happy to hear that you appreciate my contributions. I feel that there is even more that I can do for the team, and I would look forward to taking on more responsibilities in the future when an opportunity becomes available.”

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