People love to talk about themselves. But when it comes to the one meeting that's all about you - your annual performance review - you may feel about as comfortable as a student waiting the results of a final exam.
Few professionals would pass up a raise, promotion or even a chance to have their manager's undivided attention. Yet performance reviews - which offer all of these possibilities - are sometimes seen as a chore rather than an opportunity to get ahead.
Maybe you view these meetings as a business requirement that has little bearing on your professional prospects. Or you might be turned off by the paperwork; filling out forms about yourself can be an awkward and tedious process.
Keep in mind, though, that what you get out of a performance review is directly tied to what you put into it. Being an active participant will increase your chances of earning a raise or promotion, not to mention your manager's respect - all of which can make your job more fulfilling.
Even if you work for a small company that doesn't have a formal evaluation process, try to schedule a time to meet with your manager to discuss your career progress. The following are some tips to help make your next review a preview of a brighter professional future:
Think outside the bucks
Concentrating on compensation during a review can be a mistake, especially if your employer can't offer you a significant pay increase. Most raises tend to be in the neighbourhood of 3 percent to 10 percent - sums that likely won't dramatically enhance your lifestyle. Changes in job duties or your schedule, though, could have a greater impact on your overall job satisfaction and may be easier for your manager to implement.
Try to come to the table with at least one request other than a raise. Asking your manager if the company can reimburse you for training classes, for example, is a great way to show that you're looking to advance your career as well as increase your value to the company.
If balancing your professional and personal obligations is a concern, consider asking for modified work hours or the ability to work from home one day a week. When presenting your proposal, be prepared to explain how you'll be able to accomplish your duties with a revised schedule, and offer to begin the new arrangement on a trial basis.
If you do ask for a raise, be sure to enumerate the ways you think you've added to the company's bottom line rather than just stating that you deserve it because you've worked hard. Before your review, try to determine what a realistic range would be, taking into account your company's recent financial performance, past raises you've received and what your peers at other companies are making. Publications such as the annual Robert Half Technology Salary Guide can give you an objective standard to share with your boss.
Jog your memory
Before your review, make a list of your accomplishments over the past year - not just the last few months - and how they benefited your employer. Did you mentor a new employee? Fill in when a co-worker unexpectedly quit? Don't expect your manager to remember all of your contributions.
Also, revisit your goals from the previous year and assess whether they've been met. This can form the basis for much of the meeting, especially if you're building a case for a raise or promotion.
Treat it as a conversation, not a lecture
Preparing for your review is crucial, but how you listen and respond to feedback is equally important. Ideally, your performance review is a chance to work with your supervisor to develop an action plan that will move your career forward in the coming year.
Few managers wait until review time to let you know that you came up short on a key project or didn't respond well to a crisis, but you should be prepared for broader critiques - for example, your boss might like you to be better organized or pay more attention to detail. Don't panic or become defensive when presented with this type of feedback.
Instead, use the criticism to establish goals for the coming year. If you need to enhance a certain skill, how do you plan to do it? Don't leave your manager's office until the two of you have devised a basic action plan and agreed on ways to evaluate your progress.
If the criticism is confusing or you think it's unwarranted, ask for clarification or examples. Also, find out how significant an obstacle really is: A manager may mention an area of improvement to a nearly perfect employee just to provide some form of critique.
Finally, keep in mind that delivering criticism can be more uncomfortable than receiving it. Neutral or lukewarm feedback often is a sign that your manager has some criticism but doesn't want to discourage you or hurt your feelings. Pressing gently for a more forthright assessment and discussing ways to correct shortcomings (such as training in a specific area) are ways to show that you're serious about improving.
Even positive feedback is an opportunity for an active response. If you're doing well in your current job, what can you do to be given more responsibility or position yourself for a promotion down the line? Where can you build new skills that will increase your value to your employer?
Dish it out - carefully
You should use the review as an opportunity to provide your manager with feedback as well. Your supervisor wants to ensure that employees remain satisfied and engaged and learn of ways he could improve. This also is your chance to tell your manager where you could use more support or resources.
Never use your manager to justify poor performance on your part - by saying, for example, "I would've completed the project on time if you'd given me a large enough budget!" Instead, give general critiques, backing up your points with specific examples. Also, don't forget to temper the negative with the positive. Everyone, including the boss, needs a kind word now and then.
Position yourself for the future
To make next year's review easier and more productive, start tracking your achievements and challenges now, and note any requests you'd like to make, such as skills you'd like to develop, classes you'd like to take or projects you'd like to work on. That way, you'll be in the driver's seat during your next review.
Performance reviews are a chance to take a good look at your overall career path, not just your current position. Assessing what you've delivered and what you want gives you a solid base to build on, not only for future performance reviews but also for employment interviews.
Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis