Clients approach me when they are surprised (even shocked) and disappointed after getting their first Annual Performance Review at their new place of work. Even though some of them get good increases in pay or bonus despite their “poor” performance, primarily because their company or business unit doing well during the review period, they feel stung by the gap between what they expected to see and what their boss delivered to them at review time. Many show me a long list of accomplishments—even breakthroughs—that they delivered in that review period and look puzzled at how such stellar contributions can translate into a mediocre review.
Here’s why this can happen!
Most fail to recognize that a strong job performance is not merely being an expert in your main technical area and delivering great results, but it is comprised of factors, many of which are not well articulated or communicated during early stages of employment. Of course, there is the technical expertise that provides the main platform for an employee to show their prowess in their work area. During the early stages of one’s career—not just in their jobs—this skill plays a key part in how they are rated in their job. Thus, from individual contributors to mid-level managers this single factor influences much of the performance rating in a review.
But, even at these levels being able to do a good job entails several other factors, many of which can be classified as Social (not technical), which contribute to one’s job performance. These factors include teamwork, communication, ease of getting along with others, personal development, managing up and down, and being a good company ambassador. Many performance review templates do not even include these as itemized elements with rating factors to allow the boss to rate their employees.
What compounds this further is that a typical boss is not good at verbalizing the gaps and communicating them to the employee in an actionable way, so that their overall job performance gets rated high on the scale. They are awkward at or even incapable of having a meaningful discussion with their employees about factors that are important to them or to their immediate superiors, but which remain as mysteries, especially during the first performance review.
Many of the non-technical performance factors, particularly those not well articulated in the performance review forms require a strong understanding of a company’s culture and knowing what behaviors translate into an employee’s strong alignment with that culture. These are some of the intangibles that are difficult to articulate in quantifiable terms and which often result in bringing down an employee’s overall performance rating. What sets the tone for an employee’s career path at a company is how they rate and rank in their initial rounds of performance reviews; their first review being the most important one in this regard.
So, what are some of the ways a new employee can work on to improve their performance review rating in an otherwise “rational” environment?
Here is my list:
- As soon as you get your feet on the ground in your new job, first get acclimated to your new environment, get to know the key stakeholders, know what is expected of you in your role, and then have a discussion about your first year in your job with your boss.
- Spend the first month or so getting to know your environment and understanding how you must work to be efficient in what you do. This includes knowing what systems are available to support your work, names of the key players and influencers that touch your work group, and how you can build relationships with them to seek their support for making you successful in your role.
- Develop a 100-Day plan and start working on 3-5 key elements of that plan during the first month at your new job. A 100-Day plan is a pre-mapped trajectory during your first year. Elements in such a plan can include what you must contribute beyond your defined task or role to improve the work group, make a contribution that changes the way it contributes to company’s success, and improve things that appear broken.
- Immediately after the first month on the job arrange a meeting with your boss to discuss the 100-Day plan. Let your boss know that you are putting together this plan to get their guidance on how to integrate this plan with your work assignment, so that you have a clear mandate to carry out this plan. Seek their guidance in refining this plan so that it is owned by you and supported by your boss. In making such a plan make sure that you under promise and over deliver; most do its opposite in an anxiety to impress their boss!
- During the conversation of your 100-Day plan probe how your boss has signed up with their chain of command to deliver things to put them in good stead. Ask how this translates into specific actions in your 100-Day plan. This alone will ensure that your boss will support your plan.
- This is also a good time to ask your boss how the Annual Performance Review would be conducted. If there are any other reviews and their timelines your boss should reveal them to you. One of my clients was surprised when he was evaluated on “Values Review” six months into his tenure, and received a mediocre rating despite his exceptional work, where no one even told him that he was being measured against some set Values this company held.
- Ask to see the Performance Review Forms (including the 360 reviews if your company has them) and ask your manager about how different parameters are evaluated. If you are not clear about a particular parameter ask your boss to explain what behaviors will be expected to secure a top rating in a particularly ambiguous parameter, including the weight of each.
- Do a six-month self-audit of each parameter in the Performance Review Form and see where you are struggling to get a high rating. Do some self-inspection and meet with your boss and check their sense of how they see you on this vector. Ask for guidance and make an action plan, which you can share with your boss. Merely being aware of a deficit and having an action plan to remedy it shows diligence, and often, that alone is half the battle.
- When doing a self-evaluation for your contribution prior to the Annual Performance Review be modest about your own ratings and make appropriate comments in each area of review. Acknowledge the support of your boss in your own success.
- If despite these actions and diligence you come up short in your rating, have an open and specific discussion with your boss about further improving your job performance in your subsequent rounds. This, with your action plan to remedy any gaps, alone will set you up for a great review the next time around.
It is best to deal with a performance review before its time. By taking charge proactively of your own review and by delivering above and beyond you are set for a great job performance review.