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Surviving Performance Review Season

dcwither profile image Devin Witherspoon ・4 min read

'Tis the season where we all pick up our pens and start writing performance reviews for ourselves, our managers, and our peers. Even if you've prepared ahead of time, this can be a stressful time of year where you have to look back on your recent work and find those nuggets that best represent what you've done over the last six months to a year.

Only you know everything you've done. Your manager and others evaluating your performance don't. Writing a strong self review empowers your manager to advocate for you. So how do we do that? This isn't a definitive guide on writing a performance review, rather a reminder to myself of tools I've used to make this time more manageable and sometimes even enjoyable.

Documenting

Looking over six months of work can be really hard if you haven't been documenting what you've been doing so far. I use a Trello board with lists representing quarters and cards representing each week. These cards include a highlight of the week in the title, as well as checklists of what I did and planned to do throughout the week.

For larger projects that I want to highlight, I have a separate template that I add to the bottom of each list to ensure I include them in my self review. The templates make authoring the weekly cards and projects easier and more consistent.

Template Quarterly Accomplishment trello board

Here's a template version.

Self Review

Gathering Information

In order to gather additional information, as well as make up for any gaps in my documentation, I use the following sources:

  • Pull requests I've authored and reviewed
  • Tickets I've owned
  • Threads from conversations with teammates
  • Incident channels I participated in

Writing The Review

Most of the self review prompts I've encountered are broken into three broad sections.

What Did You Do well?

A laundry list of tasks isn't enough - this is where I tell a narrative of the things I've done and their impact. Going beyond technical contributions, I include glue work, recruiting, and mentoring, tying them back to the organization's values. These other contributions are rarely as valued by leadership as technical ones, but they should be equally valued, if not more so, and round out your profile/narrative.

What Can You Improve On?

I try to be as honest as possible here, focusing on things that made my job in the last few months harder. In the past this has included communicating more clearly and proactively, working more effectively with people outside my area of expertise, and using my influence to make the recruitment process more equitable and consistent. Ideally with each self review, I can reference previous areas of improvement as places where I've made progress.

Rate Yourself

Often performance reviews ask you to grade your own performance. By default I start from a position of "Exceeds", and then review my contributions to convince myself whether it should be higher or lower.

Leveling yourself as "Meets all"/"Meets most" whether due to lack of confidence or humility often leads to managers accepting that rating and not pushing for a higher rating. If they disagree with the "Exceeds" rating, then this is a great opportunity to learn how their expectations of an "Exceeds" rating differ from your understanding of your own performance.

Ask a Peer to Review It

Having someone on your team, likely one of your peer reviewers, look over your self review (and doing the same for them) can help you catch things you missed and identify sections that need more detail/context to better describe the impact you had.

Peer Reviews

Peer review prompts are similar to those in self reviews but normally replace the rating with a section for additional notes.

Gathering Information

For peer reviews, I often sync with teammates to get an idea of the story they're trying to tell about their performance and to refresh myself on what we've worked on together. This gives them an opportunity to highlight what they think I would have unique context on.

Writing the Review

What did your peer do well?

Similar to in my self review, I try to highlight what they did as an individual, identifying specific contributions and the impact they had. I'm usually less detailed for this than my self review since I'm writing three to six of these. Highlighting their contributions that I have a unique perspective on is the priority here. This is often my favorite part of performance review season because I get to celebrate the achievements of others.

What Could Your Peer Improve on?

What I highlight depends on my teammate's experience level and where they're interested in growing. The more senior the teammate, the more I focus on their leadership, glue work, and how they drive change in the organization.

I've also had teammates that are performing well beyond their current level and I genuinely can't think of reasonable areas of improvement. In this scenario, I make recommendations for what they can do that's beyond the scope of their current role (e.g. recommend that they tech lead a project in the next cycle).

Additional Notes

This is for anything that doesn't fit in the previous two categories. In the past I've used this section for:

  • Describing mitigating factors for areas of improvement.
  • Giving a recommendation for promotion.
  • Giving additional context for the feedback.

Conclusion

So are performance reviews fun? Generally no, but doing them methodically can make them less intimidating and more effective. Making sure you find the process that works for you and allows your manager to effectively advocate for you is the most important piece here. An added benefit is the work I put into my self reviews becomes the foundation for my resume.

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