It’s time we use performance reviews to drive self-development, not fear
Performance reviews have a bad reputation. Blame it on decades of toxic workplace cultures in which fear was used as a driving force — and an extremely inefficient one. Unfortunately, this outdated notion of performance reviews still lingers, which can make you fear a process that, as forward-thinking companies now understand, can boost engagement and development, foster collaboration, and promote the growth of organizations.
Enter self-assessments, a critical part of performance reviews. According to coach and people enthusiast Sophie Schönicke, self-evaluation “helps the participant compare their self-perception with external views and recognize strengths and areas for development.” Yet, instead of a productive conversation that can benefit your career and personal development, what you may be picturing is an image of yourself on a therapist’s couch — and with an audience.
We’ve also discussed the topic with management consultant and coach Claudia Braun:
“Self-assessments are crucial for several reasons: first, only if I’m clear on how I see myself can I check to what degree this matches how others perceive me. To know how well I can judge myself — and to get better at this over time — supports self-confidence.
Second, if I ‘give feedback to myself,’ what I ‘hear’ is not as threatening as it would be if someone else gave it to me. I will also not argue or defend myself, as it sometimes happens when we get feedback from others. I’m then more likely to adapt my behavior, as I consider this feedback (from myself) less threatening and more adequate.”
Granted, not every employer is as progressive as they could be, and performance reviews are still misused by many. Still, you should think of your self-assessment as something you’re doing for your benefit. It’s an opportunity to focus on your growth, have your achievements recognized, and discover your strengths. What’s more, expressing your thoughts and knowing how you’re perceived will potentially increase transparency at work.
Claudia Braun argues that we must move away from the fear of performance reviews, as fear makes it hard for our brains to absorb information and change behaviors. “Fear narrows our view and makes us more likely to shut down,” Braun adds.
Play to your strengths
An extra benefit of self-assessments is appreciating what you do exceptionally well. This will help you gain more clarity on what tasks you enjoy the most and use constructive feedback in your favor.
Having a conversation about your strengths can make way for projects where you’ll have the opportunity to put your top skills to use. This can be your chance to achieve even better results and find more enjoyment in what you do — Gallup data demonstrates that using your strengths at work can improve your engagement up to six times and increase your productivity by 12.5%. Additionally, identifying what you’re good at is crucial for knowing what to take in if you receive harsh feedback.
Self-evaluation & self-awareness
“Personal growth is closely linked to self-awareness, as reflection helps us be more attentive to underlying values, own biases, subjective perception, and situational behavior.” — Sophie Schönicke, Coach & People Enthusiast
Put simply, self-awareness means being conscious of your personality, actions, thoughts, and emotions. Associating this idea with ruminating over flaws and wishing you could change the past is a misconception. Research published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology explains that “[w]ithout self-awareness, people could not take the perspectives of others, exercise self-control, produce creative accomplishments, or experience pride and high self-esteem.”
Bringing self-awareness into your self-evaluation can help you make the most of the process and take action for improvement. Claudia Braun suggests that we also observe how we treat ourselves:
“What is your inner reaction when you notice that you made a mistake or could have done something better or faster? Is there an element of beating yourself up (as in ‘Idiot, how did I not consider X, Y, Z?’), or is there an attitude of interest — ‘Oh, let me understand what happened here. There is certainly something I can learn!’”
Practicing self-awareness has the potential to improve your life beyond your job. But that’s not to say that the march to the mirror is an easy one, especially during a pandemic.
Self-assessments in the age of COVID-19
“The events of 2020 have turned workplaces upside down. Under the highly challenging circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis, many employees are struggling to do their jobs. Many feel like they’re ‘always on’ now that the boundaries between work and home have blurred. They’re worried about their family’s health and finances. Burnout is a real issue.
Women in particular have been negatively impacted. Women — especially women of color — are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security.” — Women in the Workplace 2020 report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org.
If you feel that you didn’t deliver the same performance you did before the pandemic, try to bring self-compassion into your self-awareness practice. Even if OKRs and KPIs were revised to account for the new circumstances, your self-expectations might not be realistic — especially if your industry has been strongly affected or if you experienced loss.
Be humble, but authentic
Staying true to yourself should be your main priority during self-assessments. This means not showing off, not humble-bragging, but also not diminishing your skills. Don’t be afraid of giving yourself an outstanding grade if you feel you’ve excelled in a particular area.
To avoid impostor syndrome (and avoid overestimating your skills), provide factual information and data when rating yourself. You did a great job launching a new project at work? Don’t count on your manager remembering each of your wins — make sure to include them in your review.
Keeping a success journal is a great way to ensure you also don’t forget what you’ve accomplished. No matter how big or small, each win should make it into this diary, which will help you when it’s time for your performance appraisal.
Although it may feel odd at first, we must train ourselves not to give more weight to shortcomings than to accomplishments. Chances are, you’ve learned to excel in negative self-talk over the years and not to acknowledge your talents.
This is especially pervasive if you identify as a woman and/or are part of a marginalized community — in which case, you might also be dealing with unconscious bias in performance reviews from managers and colleagues in privileged positions. On a similar note, be careful not to reinforce toxic gender expectations that dictate, for instance, that men can’t be too soft and women must be docile.
All in all, be honest about your strong skills while considering how you could apply them for professional development in other areas. There is no such thing as perfection, and you shouldn’t be expected to figure everything out on your own. Ask for help when needed — you might be setting a great example and helping advance workplace culture.
Understand how your company measures performance
There are different performance management methods, and not every employer follows the same metric in 360° reviews. Even if grades seem to be the same (e.g., 0-10, 1-5), benchmarks may differ. For instance, 3 would indicate average performance within some metrics, but we recommend a system in which 3 stands for meeting all expectations (or 100%).
Make sure to get informed before starting your self-assessment. This way, you won’t be at risk of assigning yourself grades that don’t correspond to your self-evaluation. Furthermore, you won’t be startled if you receive a rating that seems very low, but according to your company’s system, reflects a better evaluation than you thought.
After the review, focus on the “what”
If you’re anxious about your self-assessment and performance review, this feeling may not immediately go away after your development talk with your manager. For many, negative self-talk and rumination kick in after the process — but this is not the way to go about change.
Taking actionable steps for improvement
You might have come across Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle.” This framework suggests that organizations must know their purpose (the “why”) before exploring “how” they aim to achieve the “what” (products or services). Focusing on the “why” is a tried-and-tested path to successful entrepreneurship. But when approaching our performance reviews, we’re looking to first focus on the “what.”
Consider this situation: a new position opens at your company, which could be your chance to get promoted and take on more responsibility. However, you don’t voice your wants and expect your manager to promote you if they think you have sufficient skills. In the end, a new person gets hired for the position. As you discuss your 360° review, you and your manager determine that you would be ready to take on more responsibilities, but the position is no longer available.
As argued, practicing self-awareness is essential, and unearthing why we have certain behaviors is important for change. However, focusing on “why” questions at this time (“Why didn’t my manager see my skills before?” or “Why didn’t I believe in myself?”) might make you blame yourself and doubt your potential even more. It will bring no resolution. What you need is to pave the way for the next steps in your career path.
In contrast, “what” questions can be valuable tools to digest your performance review. They have the potential to provide objective conclusions and point toward actionable solutions. A “what” question such as “What can I do, given my circumstances today, to advance my career?” focuses on the present and what can be done to improve a situation.
Additionally, Claudia Braun recommends that we use “what” questions to dig deeper.
“If we truly and sustainably want to change behavior and develop ourselves, it’s very useful not to stop with self-awareness at our behavior and how others perceive it, but also understand what is driving our behavior, namely thoughts and emotions and — if you want to go even deeper — needs and fears. One very effective way of training self-awareness on these different levels is mindfulness and meditation.”
9 tips for self-assessments in performance reviews
- Make self-awareness a daily practice;
- Practice self-compassion;
- Keep a success journal with every win (big or small);
- Be authentic and don’t reinforce gender expectations;
- Use factual information to help you rate yourself;
- Be honest and ask for help when needed;
- Don’t give more weight to shortcomings than to achievements;
- Understand how your company measures performance;
- After the review, focus on “what” questions.
Getting to know ourselves is a lifelong endeavor, and each step will help you perceive what you can do to improve in different areas of your life. Hopefully, you’ll practice self-compassion along the way and accept that external circumstances can impact your performance. Whichever direction results go, they don’t determine who you are, but they can help you grow into who you want to be.
The next time you’re asked to fill out a self-assessment for a performance review, remember that this process is your ally and that self-development can be an exciting and gratifying journey.
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— If you’re an HR or People Ops professional who would like to learn more about how Leapsome can help your team with self-assessments, book a demo with one of our product experts.