A number of companies are moving away from annual reviews. Yet they remain a popular part of corporate life, and they do serve a purpose. They provide at least some accountability for managers and employees. They give people at least one chance to discuss how things are going.
So what if they’re not going well? Is there anything that can be done in the fourth quarter to salvage what you suspect will be a negative annual review?
The good news is that if you know a bad review is coming, you’re ahead of the game. “No one should ever be surprised by a bad review, but people don’t give feedback,” says Kim Zoller, coauthor of You Did What? The Biggest Blunders Professionals Make. If you know you’re viewed negatively, then there’s some feedback mechanism you can work with. Here’s how to assess and change the situation.
Impressions are hard to change, and to change them you need the right mindset–approaching the situation “with a humble heart,” says Zoller. So, first, ask how much you care about the job. There are lots of ways to earn a living, and if you suspect the negative impressions stem from something you like about yourself (e.g., you pride yourself in speaking up, but it’s a hierarchical office), you may be better off elsewhere.
If you do want to stay, recognize that negative impressions often have little to do with who you are as a person. A potential negative review is about how you and other people acted in one very specific corner of the universe. Whether you agree with your manager or not, you can approach the concept of changing impressions as “a whole growth and learning experience,” says Zoller.
To figure out how to change things, you need to understand what people think now. “The more you show self-awareness and a sense of self-critique, the better off you’ll be,” says Steve Hunt, senior vice president for customer value at SAP. The vast majority of the time, he says, “the problems people run into are usually not skill-based.” Instead, it’s about whether you play well with others. Managers (and others) are often loathe to give feedback on these matters because it can be awkward.
Zoller suggests finding anyone in your life who will be honest with you. Ask these people, “This is what I want in my career, this is what I’m trying to do, I need help from you. Am I on the right track?” You can ask specifically, “I’ve heard a few things: How do people perceive me?” Ask people to watch you in professional situations. Thank people profusely for the feedback. Even if you don’t agree with it, you’re better off knowing.
In order to change impressions, “You almost have to go on your own small PR/marketing campaign,” says Zoller.
A key part of this is meeting frequently with your manager. If things are tense, it’s easier not to do that, but try to give your manager the benefit of the doubt. The honest truth is that “most managers were not promoted to managerial positions because they’re good at managing employees,” says Hunt. He or she probably isn’t out to get you; your manager may just not know how to manage you. “Most managers truly want their employees to be successful,” says Hunt, because then the team performs better.
Describe the impressions you’ve picked up on, and ask for concrete examples of what your manager would like to see you change. Try asking what you should “stop, start, or continue,” suggests Hunt. Never ask “why” your manager thinks what she does–“why is a very accusatory word.”
Then set a time to follow up, and give examples of how you’ve incorporated feedback. Say, “My goal is to take your feedback and change my behavior and be consistent about it, and I value your opinion.” says Zoller.
It’s a quirk of human psychology that once we have a thesis, we only see evidence that supports it. So you need to make sure that everyone in the office is seeing evidence that supports the impression you wish to convey. “You cannot let go for one minute,” says Zoller. “You’re on.”
But the good news is that if you have, in good faith, asked someone for help in changing your behavior, that person is almost universally willing to give it. “Anytime someone is watching you, they become an advocate for you,” she says. In conversations, “your name comes up, and the person says, ‘He or she is really trying to change that perception.’” People start to notice things they never would have, and the more new evidence they see, the more a new impression takes shape.
By meeting frequently with your manager and asking colleagues for help, you will likely short-circuit any unpleasant news at review time. Treat the review as just one more conversation about your performance. And know this: “Recency bias” means that people tend to remember what’s happened in the past few weeks (or even days) much more than earlier in the year. When it comes to bad reviews, sometimes people think “there’s nothing I can do about it,” but “that’s not true,” says Zoller. Some solid effort can change a lot.