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Annual Review, how to take control of your career

annual review

Frustrated with the annual review process?

Take control of your annual review

There is a lot of talk about Fortune companies moving away from annual reviews. I am sure this isn’t news to anyone reading this blog, but some quick-hit facts:

  • GE, the company that made the annual review famous is moving away from the annual review for its 300K employees over the next couple of years. This company also did away with forced ranking about a decade ago.
  • Accenture announced it is abandoning annual reviews for its 330K employees.
  • Adobe, Medtronic, MSFT and the Gap have also abandoned the annual review. A few years ago, MSFT also did away with forced ranking.

An entire year in 60 minutes

How do you sum up an entire year of performance in 90 min or less? Can you also cram into these same 90-minute sessions ways to improve performance? How does a manager with 10 or 12 reports prepare him or herself all these reviews? Pass the dutchie, please.

One of the many complaints about annual reviews is that this particular review can incorporate what is known as the Recency Effect. This is a term used when we analyze an entire years performance on the recent events. If we did great work the first 11 months of the year but made a few mistakes in the last month, it can be tragic when the focus of the review becomes just the recent mistakes and not the earlier successes.

This is an incomplete picture of the year’s performance and does two things:

  • Leaves the manager feeling good about the review because in their opinion they helped the employee by giving feedback to improve.
  • Leaves the employee being reviewed depressed, pissed-off and demoralized.

I don’t think the breaking of the spirit is an intentional act on the part of the manager, it is just easiest to remember what happened the prior month vs. what happened 11 months ago.

Sports analogy

For the sports fans out there, a similar situation is when a pro athlete has a multiple year contract. There seems to be a trend that the player does well and puts up great statistics during the last year of this multi-year contract. This coincidently, is the year that the upcoming contract will be negotiated. It works both ways folks, unfortunately, most of us are not professional athletes and we do not have multiple year contracts.

As individual readers, some of us are asking the following: “I am not a professional athlete and I work for an archaic company that still conducts annual reviews. How does this help me? WTF can I do HRNasty?”

First, I am a fan of reviews, I just think the cadence of reviews needs to be more often. This doesn’t mean we need a full-blown review, just constant feedback.

Be grateful

Second, if your company does have annual reviews, be grateful. There are companies out there that do not even have annual reviews. Raises in these corporate cultures can be even harder to negotiate so read on grasshopper.

If you are on an annual review, you know what your process looks like. For many of us, the manager asks the employee to rate their personal performance from the prior year. Included in this rating process are some competencies that the company places value on and usually support the company culture. For individual contributors, competencies might include a few of the following:

  • Communication
  • Interpersonal Relationships
  • Job Knowledge
  • Change Management
  • Analytical thinking

For leaders, a few more competencies may be added to the list:

  • Team Work and Leadership
  • Empowering others
  • Managing Change
  • Developing others

We are asked to rate ourselves in company-specific competencies which usually reflect the company values. From my experience, and this is a generalization, the best employees rate themselves lower than they should and the employees that are struggling rate themselves higher than they should.

My advice is as it has always been: Take control of your situation and do what you can to be proactive with your career. Instead of waiting for the end of the year to have the dreaded review with your manager, conduct the review yourself on a more aggressive cadence. Instead of once a year, consider giving YOURSELF a review after every large project or every couple of months and then ask for your manager’s feedback.

How to complete your own annual review

When you complete a project or a cycle of time, rate yourself, set up a meeting with your manager, and then drive the conversation discussing your performance. Talk about what you did well and the behavior you want to continue and then discuss what you think you could do differently next time. Include this in a word .doc and bring 2 copies to the meeting: one for yourself and one for your manager. Some highlights of the conversation below:

To Manager Mulligan:

  • I just completed the integration project over the last 3 months.
  • I conducted a personal retrospective and I wanted to check in with you to see if I am missing anything.
  • Overall I feel the project went well.
  • I think I did X, Y, and Z, well.
  • I hit the dates I wanted to hit, I got buy-in from the team and I kept the project under budget.
  • If I were to do it again, I would try  A and B a little differently next time. (Describe the specific behaviors you would change next time to improve performance).
  • Do you have any advice for me for the next time I do this sort of thing?

With the above conversation, we are accomplishing a number of things

  • We are giving our manager fodder for our personal file. We can email this word document with edits after the conversation and we make it very it easy for our manager to put together an annual review if needed. 
  • With the proper documentation, we can avoid the Recency Effect. If the Recency Effect does come into play, we can bring back the documentation from earlier cycles and conversations and remind the manager of what we did well.
  • This conversation and documentation should be heavy on the things done well.
  • We include just a few things that we can try differently next time and we make sure the things we include in this category are doable. Yes, we are throwing the manager a bone, a very big bone, but whose career is this? We are essentially giving our manager a script so they can deliver an annual review to us.
  • If our manager leaves us halfway through the year and is replaced by someone new, we have history and documentation that can be passed along to the next manager.


After the conversation, email your manager the word doc as an attachment. This way, they can print off the document and keep a physical file, or they can create an email folder and drop your email into this folder. Yes, we are making our managers job of managing us as individuals very easy, but at the end of the year, the annual review (or your companies equivalent) is essentially done. All your manager needs to do is cut and paste from your word document and there is a history of projects, feedback for both job’s well done, areas of improvement progress against these areas of improvement (heavy on the job’s well done).

If you finished a personal development project, we can do the same thing. Whether it is taking a class for a few days or reading a self-help book. Let your manager know NOT just what you did, but more importantly what you learned and how your behavior will change.

1-year cycles are for those not making moves

If this sounds daunting, start with a 6-month cycle, then go to a 4-month cycle and then a 3-month cycle. The point is, get off the one year cycle. Meet with your manager and build that relationship. Get them invested in you. After each cycle or project, rinse, lather and repeat.

Nobody can improve only receiving feedback once a year. Professional athletes would not be successful if they only received feedback once a year. Software developers would not be successful if their products were only tested once a year. As employees, we are no different. Although it happens all across corporate America, we can not be expected to be successful receiving feedback only once a year. We are not going to grow with feedback on this pace. 

Manage your manager

In the course of a year, the company will change, the manager will change and what was successful on one project may not be successful on the next. Don’t let a lazy manager influence your raise or promotion. Be proactive. Don’t allow a change in management to negate a year’s worth of work because they don’t have any insight into what you accomplished prior to their arrival. It’s our own fault if we allow an inexperienced manager control our career destiny. Strive for constant feedback and iterate for the next cycle.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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