how to figure out how well you’re doing in your job — and talk about it in a performance evaluation

In last week’s open thread, a commenter offered this excellent advice on how to how to (a) prepare for a performance evaluation when you haven’t received much feedback and aren’t sure where you stand and (b) figure out how well you’re doing in your job overall:

Try to assess your performance in the role as honestly as possible. That means going back to your job description for the core duties of the position, and then expanding your view to encompass other aspects of your performance that make a difference to the company and your manager (getting along with others, good judgment about when to escalate issues, etc.). If there are others in the role – or others who have similar duties – this can help you calibrate your scale.

If part of your job is responding to emails, for example, do you respond as quickly as others do? As quickly as your manager would like? Have you received any “thank you for getting back to me so quickly” messages from your work partners – or is your inbox full of “why haven’t you done this – we’re waiting” messages? Try to be as objective and data-driven as possible.

Think about what your impact has been to the business. Did you work extra hours to finish your part of a successful new business proposal, or offend the firm’s biggest client? Improve the efficiency of a process, or force others to redo their work because of a mistake you made? Think about this from the perspective of a business leader who does not know what you’re thinking. If you smile and say cheerfully “I’ll get right on it” when someone hands you a task you hate, no one else knows that you are secretly seething. Like the old song says, “You can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking” so set that aside and focus on your impact, your performance, and your visible behavior.

In speaking or writing about your performance, manage your adjectives and adverbs. Up the positives very slightly, and acknowledge any issues in a neutral fashion. If you are unhappy – or are thinking about the negatives – you will have a tendency to overdo the discussion of those items. “I was concerned that I didn’t position the message properly for the audience when I sent the email about the Chocolate Teapot account to the board, so I’m [taking extra time to review / having trusted colleague help me with] any future emails to this audience” is appropriate. “I know the Chocolate Teapot account email was an unmitigated disaster – completely inappropriate, and totally destroyed the our reputation with the most important people we deal with” may convince the manager that he or she didn’t realize just how bad it was. Pay attention to your wording.

If your manager gives you any positive feedback, thank them and let them know you appreciate the recognition of your good work / contribution / positive attitude or whatever. For negative feedback, take it well. Late report every month that preventing the closing of the books? You’re sorry about that, and [corrective action you can take / frank discussion of legitimate issue you need your manager to help with (such as not receiving the data on time)].

If the feedback seems a little more personal, keep your cool and pretend you are a scientist hearing the results of an experiment and preparing to try again after making adjustments. Sarah thinks you’re unfriendly? Discussion of what would help, followed by conclusion that you’ll make sure to smile, greet her, and chat for a few minutes every morning. You are adjusting the part of the work system you control (you) to improve overall efficiency. It’s not personal. As a manager, I am happy to work with someone who is willing to be coached. I don’t need to deal with unconstructive attitude or ego (well, actually I do – it’s part of the job on occasion, but I will avoid the problem by eliminating it where I can).

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. KarenT*

    Very good advice.

    I would also keep track of special projects and above and beyond tasks that you do, because that can often separate the great from the good.

  2. KarenT*

    Alison, please forgive this unrelated comment but I thought you may enjoy this:
    Today I was speaking with a co-worker who asked me to be a reference for her, and she said, and I quote “I’m so nervous about negotiating the offer. I’ve been reading the Ask A Manager archives and I’m going to read the rest when I go home tonight. Have you heard of this site? It’s awesome.”
    It did make me wish I’d picked a more conspicuous username…

        1. Autumn*

          I tell friends and family to check Ask A Manager every chance I get – they probably all think I’m obsessed, but it’s just really great, solid advice! Thanks Alison!

  3. Claire*

    Great advice! I have my first ever annual review tomorrow, and I’m nervous…I feel like I’ve been doing well, but it’s still stressful.

  4. WorkingMom*

    This is great advice… I’m taking notes over here. Thanks for reposting this for those of us who may have missed it in the comments!

  5. Glennis*

    This is good advice – I remember reading it when it was first posted. In my organization, the performance evaluation includes a set of goals and objectives. A couple months prior to the deadline for the annual evaluation, my supervisor would do the following things:
    1) remind me to check the status of my goals, let her know where I think I am
    2) Ask what goals I would like to have set for myself in the following year.
    3) list any accomplishments I had during the period
    4) list any challenges or problems I’ve had (be honest!)
    5) list any awards, praise, “attagirls” or notable incidents (ideally, you would have shared these with her)
    6) list any training, coursework, or professional development you’ve experienced over the year.

    This way you make sure she knows what you’ve been doing over the year, plus you can spend a little time in advance reviewing your performance so that you’re prepared.

    They say that in a well-managed workplace, there should be no surprises in a performance evaluation.

  6. Carrie in Scotland*

    For me , this is excellent advice for the future…I don’t know if my manager is *really* manager material so I’m not sure if I’ll have a performance evaluation. Or if she is bothered doing that for her employees. Probably hasn’t even thought about to be honest.

  7. Carrie in Scotland*

    Or maybe I should ask for one? I have been there 10 months now although my manager has only been my manager (she was a secretary to a dept head before) since April.

  8. Andie*

    Sarah thinks you’re unfriendly? Discussion of what would help, followed by conclusion that you’ll make sure to smile, greet her, and chat for a few minutes every morning.

    I know this is hypothetical but………..
    Is it really ok for a manager to tell you one person thinks you are unfriendly? I could see if it is several people then there might be an issue but one? There could be a million and one reasons for not be friendly to Sarah and who gets to decide what the definition of friendly is?

    1. Kayza*

      Sometimes it is appropriate for a supervisor to do that. And even when it’s not, if supervisor is telling someone this, it’s probably valuable information about the organization’s culture that you would do well to pay attention to.

      Here are some examples of situations where it’s totally appropriate for a manager to say something about “friendliness”.

      You don’t say good morning to the receptionist or greet her when you come in the door.

      Your office manager never hears your voice unless you are complaining about something or are placing an order with him.

      Your coworker with whom you work to provide customer service feels that your lack of friendliness is impeding necessary communications about clients.

      There are other types of situations which are more nebulous. But, the reality is that managers do have to worry about how their staff get along with each other, and with other parts of the organization. Effectiveness is not just about having the most subject matter expertise and technical skills. It’s also about working well with others. You may be the biggest expert in the place on the tax issues related to imported vs domestic chocolate teapots, and all the possible permutations of imported vs domestic. But if people only come to you with their issues when the ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO, because they think you are “unfriendly”, then your effectiveness is seriously reduced. And, if it’s only Jane who thinks that, but she’s a key person in dealing with the accounting on the chocolate teapots you sell, it’s still going to be a big issue in terms of your performance.

  9. Brett*

    I wonder if you could give some insight on the manager perspective of performance reviews when there are no rewards, only consequences, tied to the review.

    I used to get detailed glowing reviews laying out goals, expectations, and lots of two way communication. Word came down from above that there would be no more merit reviews; a review process is necessary to discipline or terminate an employee but no positive actions (promotions, raises, flex time, time off, training, etc) could be awarded based on reviews.

    My reviews are even more glowing than before, but now they just come to me in an envelope in my inbox with a “Sign here” sticky. No goals, no expectations, just a bunch of superiors, a laudatory paragraph, and a sign here.

    I honestly think that the entire department is pretty much getting the same thing. I understand a good manager should still make the effort just as if the review mattered to anyone above them, but when the reviews stop having any importance, do the managers stop caring about them too?

      1. Brett*

        Good to know that.
        I think he might feel lost because nearly all of my work his specialized technical work that is very hard to judge efficiency, difficulty, and quality. Maybe I need to work on helping him understand those aspects of my work, or get him to give me feedback not connected to my technical work?

  10. Donatella Moss*

    My own self evaluation is due soon, and I have a related question. Is there a good way to say that you like the company but you are struggling to stay motivated in your current role? I was promoted six months ago and I am getting increased responsibility soon (my team is being slightly restructured soon and I’m getting a few more supervisory roles with it) but I’m starting to grow out of my job. I got a lot of good opportunities after my last review, which I appreciate, but I spend a lot of time finding work to keep myself occupied.

    1. MJ*


      As a manager, getting this particular type of feedback is one of the most important. Mainly because it’s generally easy to fix and actually solves MY problems too. So what I would recommend is a two-pronged approach:

      1) On your self evaluation, identify one or two specific areas for improvement and list them as “goals.” For instance, “During the upcoming year, I hope to learn system ___ and be able to contribute in that area.” Or, “I have been working to improve my project management skills so that I can help facilitate [don’t say ‘manage’ here, unless you mean it…that’s a possible yellow flag] the flow of our work.”

      2) When you meet with your manager to discuss your evaluation (and if your manage is worth his/her weight, you will be having such a meeting), bring this up. Ideally, they’ll ask you about that part of your eval, or at least comment on it, but if they don’t you should mention it. And point out how happy you are here and working in your current team (if you are), but would be excited for additional challenges. In general, I think this type of feedback would be well-received.

      One thing to note, just make sure that your manager is actually happy with your performance on your current workload. If they aren’t, asking for more could send a bad message.

  11. Calibrachoa*

    This is timely as I have a quarterly performance review in 5 hours’ time. And by whch i mean I will get tickyboxes from HR and then we’ll talk about what i’d like to do career wise, etc…

    … and I have a job interview 6 hours after that. (Largely thanks to this site, I imagine) so this will get interesting.

  12. Hooptie*

    We use a standard weekly check in sheet template. Each employee lists current projects, goals, accomplishments, issues, etc. and these are ‘saved-as’ and updated each week.

    This makes it really easy to do your quarterly and annual self-review – all you need to do is go through your check in sheets and list out 3-5 bullet points of projects and accomplishments.

    I use the same format in my weekly check ins with my director – it is so hard to remember everything you’ve done in the course of a year, but if you have a system like this it is so easy to do when review times roll around.

    Also, these sheets serve as a reminder for things I need to do, since I’m always working off of the last version. They’re really handy in a lot of ways.

    1. Anonymous*

      I love this idea and may steal it!

      I have a spreadsheet where I currently track how I spend my time so that at the end of the month/quarter/year I can easily show that 35% of my effort is going to key responsibility A. This has been great in a lot of ways, but I’ve lost some of the detail I had when I used to do a daily log, and have been looking for a way to track progress towards a goal – thanks!!

  13. Carrie in Scotland*

    I think I might steal this too :-) as when I next go job hunting it will come in handy even if I never do get a review.

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