How to Prepare for Your Year-End Performance Review Like a Boss

Whether you’re expecting good news or bad, there’s a right and a wrong way to handle it.

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There’s a lot to look forward to at the end of the year: Quality time with friends and family (if you’re into that sort of thing); the promise of gifts (like a new pair of socks); and of course, an extra 10-to-15 pounds of winter weight to keep you warm at night — courtesy of some very rich home-cooked meals.

Unfortunately, if you work in an office, it also comes with one particularly uncomfortable downside: The specter of your year-end performance review. No one likes performance reviews — well, maybe Bob in accounting, but he’s a brown-nosing jerk — and yet, they’re a necessary, if not vital, part of the advancement process when it comes to determining where you stand in your career, and what changes you need to make if you want to keep climbing.

Like I said, though, they can be quite uncomfortable, because performance reviews are where feedback is given and received, and sometimes feedback is hard to hear. But it doesn’t have to be — with a little preparation and an open mind, you might come out the other side of your review with a clear plan for positive career growth, or even a promotion or a raise. Here’s what you need to do:

Step 1: Plan Ahead
Performance reviews are not things you simply show up to, throw your feet up and say, “I did pretty darn good this year, dontcha think?” Reviews require preparation. How much? “Start planning for it about a month or two out,” says Betty Wong, an HR professional who specializes in Organizational Development and Effectiveness. “Look back on your year and do some high-level thinking about what worked and what didn’t; what skills you want to continue to develop, and which ones you might want to jettison. Think about who are the stakeholders that you can talk to to help get the ball rolling, and then put all your thoughts down on paper.”

If you’re one of those go-getter tyles, Wong thinks you could even start earlier if you wanted to. “Soliciting feedback from your peers is something you can do year-round,” explains Wong. “Do it in real time as much as you can, so it’s fresh in everyone’s minds.” Knowing how people feel about your work and working with you is a great first step so that you’re not surprised come review-time. “You don’t want to be sitting there thinking, ‘Oh man, why didn’t someone tell me?’” continues Wong. “‘Why didn’t I think about that?’ and ‘What could I have done to help prevent that situation over and over again?’”

If you do find yourself with only a few days, hours or even minutes to go before your performance review, all is not lost. “Carve out some time for yourself when you can and look back, look forward, and think about what you want to do next,” says Wong. “Then ask yourself these questions: What should I stop doing? What do I want to start doing? Doing that will give you really quick clarity on your performance. Don’t overthink it, it should come naturally.”

Step 2: Keep an Open Mind
Okay, good: You’re thinking, you’re writing things down and now you’ve got the semblance of a plan started for what to say in your review. But you also need to be prepared for what your manager is going to say, too, and there’s a fair chance it’s not all going to be puppy dogs and ice cream, so you’ll want to plan how to react positively to whatever they throw your way.

“Remember that there’s always some truth to the feedback,” reminds Wong. “Ignore the tone; find the underlying intent. What’s the message, and what can you do with it? Don’t think about the negative, think about how to make it actionable.”

If you get a bad review, or negative feedback on some aspect of your work, don’t get overwhelmed and shut down. “Take a beat, that’s the first thing. What you don’t want to do is go on the defensive. Have the self-awareness to say, ‘Hey, can we table this for right now, and come back to it in a few hours? I need to take a beat and we can regroup at another point. I think everyone should be fine with saying that. I mean, everybody’s human.” Except Bob in accounting, obviously. 

Step 3: Turn Feedback into Action
Now that you’re through the hardest part, it’s time to take what you’ve heard and turn it into positive change — just not straight away.

“When you get the hard-copy of your review, take it away — or print out a hard copy if your manager emails it to you — and shelve it,” advises Wong. “Positive or negative, put it away and come back to it maybe two, three weeks later. You don’t want a horn or halo effect going on. Then, when you’re in the right mindset, read through it with fresh eyes: What was the person trying to say? How can you turn it into an action plan?”

Once you’ve taken the time to re-review the feedback, start jotting ideas down for how it all can fit into your long-term goals. “Take it to your manager and discuss it,” suggests Wong. “Change isn’t something that happens overnight, but at least it’s surfaced. It’s self-empowerment: You can’t just wait for someone to say, here you go, or here’s the way that we’re going to do it. You want to be in the driver’s seat and part of the change.”