Reader Question #25: How can I keep my cool during my annual performance review at work?

Dear Captain Awkward,

My annual review is coming up at work and I need some advice.  I’m always terribly nervous at these things, despite having nothing to be nervous about, and everything I had planned to talk about tends to fly right out of my head.  How do I go about keeping a calm and still remember what I want to talk about?

Thank you,

Desperate For A Better Work Situation
Dear Desperate:

This is a common problem.  We’re not comfortable talking about our accomplishments, because it feels like we’re bragging or putting ourselves forward.  But if we can’t present our accomplishments at review time, they risk getting lost in the daily grind and it makes it that much harder to ask for a raise or promotion.

I think the answer is preparation. This review isn’t a passive thing where you sit and listen to your strengths and weaknesses.  You need to prepare for this review like it is a negotiation.  You are re-negotiating your future at this company.  You want it to be a future where you have better pay, better or different responsibilities, more control, more flexibility, more visibility.  Whatever it is that’s making you desperate for better working conditions, this is where you ask for it.

As a filmmaker and a teacher, I’m a dork for process.  I think there are certain managerial tasks that you have to do to make a film (budget, schedule, shot list, storyboards, writing a good synopsis, revising the screenplay, picking out props and costumes, location scouting, recruiting cast and crew) that on the surface can be mundane administrative work but the process of doing them is where you really make your idea into something real.  Every task tests your idea a little more, leads you to possibilities and compromises, and forces you to make concrete choices.  The choices are what make it real and make it yours.

So I think there is a process that you could use to prepare for your review.  The upside is that it will also prepare you for your next steps  if your review doesn’t go the way you want it to.

First, gather materials. Locate your job description from when you were hired.  If you have the resume and cover letter you used to apply, dig that up, too.  Put those aside for right now, I just want you to have them on hand.  Take out last year’s review (or, if you don’t have a copy, reconstruct what your boss said to the extent you can). Also put that aside for the moment – we’re just gathering materials now.

Second, document. Write this down in a notebook or type it up:

  1. List all the months of the year.
  2. Working month by month, list the best things about work from those months.  What projects did you accomplish?  Where did you shine?  What made you look forward to coming to work in the morning?  When did you rise to a challenge?  (For a lot of people reading this, the rising to the challenge section is going to read:  “Half of my coworkers were laid off and I did their jobs and kept things running.”)
  3. Also working month by month, list the bad stuff.  What were the rough patches?  What was the most stressful?  What are the duties that you dread or hate?  Where there any crises or failures?  Be honest about the bad stuff, too – all information is good information right now.

Third, quantify.  Go back to your old job description – is that still your job now?  What duties and responsibilities have been added to your shoulders?  Go back to your list of accomplishments.  Can you pull any numbers out of them?  Sometimes this is easy because you made the company money or saved the company money.  Sometimes this can be expressed in terms of numbers of successful projects/services/products created/new clients found.  Back when I worked in management consulting, my team and I figured out that we had been completing a proposal every four days for a year (This is an insane number and we were all crazy from stress).  But we didn’t have a winning record.  Our boss had insisted on going after every possible piece of new business because you “never know.”  By having the numbers we could say “Okay, you’re working us to death for diminishing returns – obviously it’s not a quantity problem, it’s a quality problem because we’re spread too thin.  Give us a few months to pick and choose what we bid on and focus on quality.”  We could also compare the numbers to last year.

Wherever you work (even if it is for a non-profit), you are either a profit center or a cost center.  By this I mean your job is either directly responsible for generating $ or it is a cost of doing business that contributes indirectly to the bottom line.  For example, if you work as an attorney or a consultant, your expertise and your time are the “product” the company sells.  You work billable hours, the company makes money. Chances are you know exactly what your billable rate is and exactly how many hours you billed compared to last year, and if it’s significantly more then you have good case for a raise or a bonus.  If you’re the IT person or human resources or other support staff, you don’t generate money directly for the business.  You do it indirectly by making it easier for the lawyers or consultants to do billable work.

Before I turn this into Captain Obvious Explains Business, my point is:  It’s good to know how your job impacts the bottom line of the company you work for.  If you can quantify the revenue you personally (or your team members or department) generate, it’s sometimes easier to argue for more money.  If you are a cost center, it still helps to express things in terms of numbers.  Numbers make everything sound more businessy and like your arguments are based on facts.  Businessy facts make bosses feel good!

Fourth, qualify. Can you find nice emails and good feedback from coworkers, clients, and managers? Are there good quotes from past reviews about things you did particularly well?  Can you remember conversations where your boss expressed appreciation or admiration – “You’ve got a knack for presentations, we should have you give more of them!” (Hold onto that stuff for times like these.)

Fifth, rewrite.  Write yourself a new job description.  This should be based on both your accomplishments and expanded duties since you began the job and also be a bit of a propaganda piece that prioritized the things you love doing about your job and minimizes the stuff you hate doing.   You probably won’t show this to your boss, this is just background for you to present in the review, and when you do, always express it to your boss in terms of positives, like “The best part of last year was putting together the annual conference.  I learned how much I love event management and thrive on the energy of deadlines and working with so many people and moving parts.  Is there any way we can gear my job more toward projects like that?   I want to take the conference and (other events) and make them even better this year Unfortunately, when handling something as time-sensitive as conference planning, it’s harder for me to stay on top of routine record-keeping.”

When you’ve written your ideal job description, write yourself a new resume that is tailored to that job description.  Highlight your accomplishments, emphasize the duties you want to have, minimize the ones you don’t want to keep doing.

Sixth, craft a story. You are going to write a story about yourself at work.  This will be the story you take into the review with you, and if it doesn’t go your way, this will be the story you take into looking for a new job.

The first draft can be wide-ranging and reflective.  You’re not showing it to anyone, this is just for you. The materials you gathered are going to help you structure this narrative. You’re going to use the month-by-month summaries you did, client feedback, numbers, your job descriptions and resumes (both the old ones and the new one you crafted) The story could come out in a bunch of different ways.

  • “A Tale of Two Job Descriptions” would use your original job description from when you were first hired and a job description you create now to show what you actually do.  It would also require you to rewrite your resume as if you were applying for the job you have now (or a promotion that reflects what you really want to do).  This is a story of change and growth.  Example:  “Back when you hired me for this job, I was fresh out of school, and the position focused mostly on answering phones, typing memos, and occasionally updating the website.  After three years, I’m creating high-end presentations and responsible for hiring graphic designers and videographers for special projects. In February of last year I shepherded the re-design and re-launch of our site, which one client told me was “Fantastic!” and  “So much easier to use!”  So I want to use this review as an opportunity to express my gratitude for the way you’ve mentored me and allowed me to grow, but I also want the company* to acknowledge that this is a substantially different job and should have substantially different compensation.  I’d like my new title to be ________, and based on my research the going rate for someone with these skills is ________.  (You’ve researched this, right?)  What do we need to do to make this happen for me within this year?
  • “Triumph Over Adversity/How I Rose To The Occasion”  This is one to use when there have been layoffs, financial reversals, and other clear struggles for the business, but you want to point out how you held down the fort and kept producing at a high level, and while money is tight, surely they can find some way to acknowledge your service.

Seventh, demonstrate.  Write your self-review. Pitch it towards what you are good at and what you want.  Be honest about what you need to work on.  Go back to old reviews and show how you worked on things that your boss has had trouble with in the past:

  • “Last year when we talked, you were concerned that _____.  I took that to heart, and on further reflection, I saw that you were right.  ______ were the steps I took to improve that, and ______ was the result.  This really taught me to seek and welcome feedback.
  • Health issues and  family pressures really distracted me from work at the beginning of the year, and I admit, my head wasn’t in the game.  I appreciate how you adjusted my workload to take the pressure off.  Things are much better now, as you’ll see from my year-end numbers, and I’m ready to take on whatever you want to throw at me.”

Also use specific examples when talking positively about your strengths:

  • “I was able to be a team player when….”
  • “I handled a difficult situation and kept a long-time client on board when….”
  • “I found new ways to bring in business when….”

Not all companies have employees do written self-reviews, but doing one anyway can help you prepare for the meeting.

Eighth, listen. Go into the performance review meeting ready to listen.  Have a note pad and write down everything people say, both positive and negative.  Do not argue or interrupt when someone gives you criticism – it makes you appear defensive because you are defensive.  There will be a time for you to talk, but give yourself as much time to fully take in information and process it before you react.  Then you can react in a measured, calm, positive way and come off like a pro.

Finally, negotiate. Speak your piece.  Why are you awesome?  What are your thoughts on their feedback?  (Hint:  You are grateful and it gave you a lot to think about.  You can admit that you screwed up whatever you screwed up and need to work on whatever you need to work on .  Do correct the record if they just have you wrong, in a calm, factual way – “I was a bit taken aback to hear your thoughts on _____  project.  I was really proud of the work we did, because ____…“)

What would constitute a better work situation for you?  You have to know this going in.  More money?  How much would make you happy?  Different responsibilities, a promotion, a transfer, company support for continuing education, a more flexible schedule?  How would that work out, both for you and for them?  Do some research about your industry, the job market, compensation, competitors, other departments, etc.  Before you go into that meeting, you need to nail down what these things are in order of their importance to you, because if you get into a horse-trading situation you need to be ready.

You might start asking for a raise, but in this environment that might not be feasible, so they’ll say “Unfortunately we can’t…” and then you say “Well, I had to ask…Is there any chance we could work out (something else you want)?”

Well, I had to ask.  Can we…

  • agree to revisit that question in 6 months if the company’s finances have improved?
  • agree that you can construct a more flexible schedule?
  • agree that you can have more vacation time?
  • agree to restructure your job so you take on more of what you want and get rid of things you don’t want to do?
  • agree to move you to a team that has people you like and not the ones you hate?
  • agree to support you in applying for a transfer to a branch or department that can give you what you want?
  • agree to give you priority consideration for the next open promotion, provided you have accomplished certain goals?
  • agree to pay for a few training classes to build your skills?

When someone’s just said no to you, but the relationship is overall a good one, they will often jump at the chance to say yes to something easy.  If you’ve done your homework and the prep for this review, what you’ve done is make it as easy as possible for them to say yes to you.  If they say no to everything, then you know that the company is not as stable and/or relationship is not as good as you thought it was, and you have the information you need to make the decision to start looking elsewhere.  The groundwork you did with your resume and identifying your own strengths and desires will serve you well in creating a better work environment for yourself either down the road or somewhere else.  We should probably all do this once a year even if we don’t get a formal review.  Career spring cleaning!

Good luck with it and let us know how it goes!

Readers, I’d love to hear your comments on how you prepare for performance reviews as either an employee or a boss, and as always you can send your questions to me at

*Note: In meetings with your boss, you can benefit by casting her as a wise and benevolent mentor, who always listens, appreciates, and helps you.  Treat her like the boss that you want her to be and that she can feel good about being.  The entity that owes you more money and respect is The Company.  You want your boss to be your ally and help The Company reward you as you deserve. So frame any really positive things as the work of your boss, and any negative things as “The System” or “The Company.”  To illustrate this further, think about how your boss would feel if you took the opposite tack:  “I’m so grateful that The Company has supported my career in this way, however, I need you to recognize and reward my value.”  A boss who feels crappy and defensive is not a boss who is going to be on your side about raises and promotions.

You’re probably never going to deliver these stories as speeches to your boss (though you may adapt them to any self-review), they are just ammunition for yourself to speak up when you have the opportunity.  If your boss is your ally, you will do better by asking questions.  “What do you see as the logical next step for someone like me?  If I wanted to be considered for X kind of position a year from now, what would you want to see from me?  If I can produce that, can I count on you to go to bat for me when the time comes?

2 thoughts on “Reader Question #25: How can I keep my cool during my annual performance review at work?

  1. This is one of the most helpful job-related things I’ve ever read. I’m currently a stay at home parent, but I will ABSOLUTELY be taking this with me to my next full time job. I wish I’d read this YEARS ago. Thanks so much!

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