Career Q&A: Anxious about an upcoming performance review

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My performance review is scheduled for next month. I’ve been in the position for almost two years and this is my first one. I haven’t had formal performance reviews in any of my previous jobs before so I’m wondering what to expect. I think I have been doing a good job, have met deadlines, organized a couple of events that went really well, and get along well with my co-workers. My supervisor has not given me a lot of feedback but there have been no problems. We have a very friendly relationship and she doesn’t act like my “boss” most of the time but she has rescheduled the performance review twice now and has started acting a little cooler towards me. Is this a sign that I’ll be facing a bad performance review?

Welcome to the wonderful world of performance reviews! At two years into the job, this should not be your first and definitely will not be the last in your career. Here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare for this performance review and to keep in mind for the future.

First of all, we cannot deduce what is going through your supervisor’s head as she prepares to do your performance review and we would also advise you to not make any assumptions. Performance reviews are often dreaded even more by the supervisors who have to deliver them than those who receive them. Some managers consider them “administrivia” – something that gets in the way of doing other parts of their job they consider more important or more urgent. Other managers are not comfortable with – or experienced at – delivering feedback formally, a skill that is tougher than it looks when on the other side of the desk. What you perceive as a chill in your relationship may just be a sign of being busy with other responsibilities. It could also be a sign of her discomfort with having to put on her “boss” hat with you when she usually wears the “friendly co-worker” hat. Do not be overly sensitive or go into the review process with assumptions or preconceived ideas about what your supervisor thinks or feels.

Be clear on what the performance review process is in your organization. This should be specified in your human resources manual and should have been explained to you when you were hired. If you are unclear, check with your supervisor or human resources department. In many organizations, performance reviews combine a written evaluation completed by the staff person and supervisor independently, and a formal meeting to discuss the written review as well as set objectives for the upcoming period. You should also know if performance reviews are intended to be annual or more frequent. It is unusual for performance reviews to be less frequent than once a year, so this may be a sign that your organization is in the midst of professionalizing its performance review process.

Come prepared. In addition to knowing what the process is, you should know what will be covered in the meeting with your supervisor. This should be more than an unstructured “check-in” type of conversation (which you should hopefully be having regularly with your supervisor). Is this the time to discuss an increase in salary, changes in your job description or professional development needs? Will you be expected to identify performance objectives for the upcoming year?

Before the meeting, reflect on how what you actually do compares to your official job description and what changes might need to be made. Give some thought to what sort of training you need to improve your performance, fill gaps in the organization and/or grow into the next level of responsibility. Just as importantly, come prepared with what you need from your supervisor. Is the supervisory relationship working for you? Do you need more feedback on a more regular basis? Are you clear on what is expected of you? While you are not doing a performance review of your supervisor, you should have well-articulated ways in which your supervisor can best support you.

You say that you feel you have been doing a good job and have organized events that have gone well. Part of your preparation should also include taking time to document examples of this. What have you achieved? What have been the results of your work so far? Where, when and in what way have you met or surpassed objectives or targets? Have you implemented changes that have improved operations for your organization? What compliments or positive feedback have you received from others? Be as specific as possible.

Also try to be objectively honest about any mistakes or where you have room to improve. Reflect on what did not go as well as expected, what you learned from that and what you would do differently next time. What was on your to-do list that did not get done and why?

Be open-minded and curious. Ideally, there are no surprises at a performance review. If there were performance issues, they should have been dealt with at the time. Your supervisor should not “save them up” for a formal performance review. It sounds like your supervisor might be uncomfortable in delivering feedback. This will be easier for both of you if you approach the discussion with an open mind and genuine interest in receiving feedback – positive and constructive. Do not hesitate to ask questions or for more details or examples. Frame your questions in a way that she understands you are seeking ideas and opportunities for professional growth and are not being defensive.

Finally, make sure the performance review is documented and kept on file. This should already be part of your human resources procedures. If it is not, you and your supervisor should do this regardless. Both of you should agree on what is documented, which should include significant achievements, areas for improvement, a professional development plan and objectives for the upcoming period. It is also important to clarify the criteria against which those objectives will be measured. Do you both have the same understanding of what “success” means or what constitutes a “good job”? Then, set up a plan for making performance-related feedback a more regular part of the working relationship with your supervisor – it’s a vital ingredient in anyone’s career!

Nancy Ingram and Christa McMillin are co-founders and partners at Foot in the Door Consulting which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Together, they have over 30 years of experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector. They can be reached through www.footinthedoorconsulting.com.

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