Last-minute Self-Appraisal Tips

Walk around the hallways of any corporation around performance review time, and the conversations you hear will all sound alike.  Everybody has a complaint.  Starting with the awkwardness of the self-appraisal, continuing through the difficulty of encapsulating a year of effort into a few paragraphs, and concluding with the often difficult conversations that can take place when a review contains surprises, everybody loves to hate the performance review.

There’s all kinds of advice and tips which can make the review process less painful; the problem is that most of them (rightfully) require year-round investment. What if you want some last-minute tips?  You’re in luck, that’s what I’ve got.  Today, I’ll focus on the self-appraisal.  Followup posts will talk about other aspects of the review.

First off, let’s be clear.  You really should do your self-appraisal.

Within my organization, the self-appraisal is optional but encouraged.  I strongly advocate writing a self-appraisal, and even if the deadline has passed for an official one I still recommend writing an unofficial one and sending it via email.  Nobody has as much vested in your review as you do. If you can’t find the time to do the self-appraisal, what makes you think your manager will find the time to do a thorough job on the final review?

A few simple tips around the SA:

  • Use bullet lists for describing the year’s accomplishments.  Be thorough but brief. Don’t overwhelm with detail or highlight trivial tasks to make your list look longer.
  • One place to add more detail is in tasks which your manager wasn’t directly involved in.  “Interfaced with reporting team” isn’t as good as “Spent a week with reporting team helping integrate with version 3.1 of database views.”
  • Use names for cross-functional contributions so your manager can follow up if he or she wants … unless you don’t want your manager following up!
  • When describing your strengths, consult last year’s review to refresh your memory of what your manager thinks you bring to the table.
  • Try to pick out a strength that he or she didn’t focus on last year, and mention it.
  • Talk about how your strengths helped your team and other teams.  When it comes down to it, your manager doesn’t care that you’re a good communicator — but he or she does care that your communication skills helped with collaborative troubleshooting of a customer problem across two geographical sites.

My last few tips for the SA are important enough to separate out of the list above.

First, if you choose to fill in anything in the “development opportunities” (or “things I could do better”) section, pick a trait you and your manager have already discussed and one you feel you can see a clear path on.  Whatever you do, do not mention something your manager isn’t already aware of.  For example, if you have a fear of confrontation and you think it’s slowing down your ability to function in collaborative design meetings, but nobody else seems to have picked up on it, go ahead and keep working on that issue on your own.  You’re obviously compensating for it enough and any improvements you make will be seen as growth and not as fixing a problem.  On the other hand, if you’ve already discussed ways in which you could be contributing more at those meetings with your manager, call back to that conversation and use it to fill in this section.

Second, realize that by writing the self-appraisal you are setting the tone for the conversation.  Don’t waste that opportunity!  If you expect some disagreement over the scope of your influence, for example, make sure you have some examples of how you’ve been influential in ways your manager might not know.  If you feel you’ve made progress in an area that was discussed as a growth opportunity in a previous review, call it out.

Every manager uses the SA differently.  At a minimum, the SA gives your manager a list of accomplishments.  At the next level it helps set the tone of the conversation around strengths you want to highlight, and weaknesses you want to focus on.  But at its most useful, the SA can be much more powerful.  If you come into the performance review with a comprehensive and realistic outlook of your strengths and their impacts, as well as a focus point for future development and concrete ideas on how to go forward, your review might just be painless. At the very least you’ve shown that your career is important to you, and that you have ideas about where you’re going in it.  Your manager will have no choice but to respect that and to respond to it.

(Finally, even though it violates the idea behind this post, writing your SA should give you some idea of what you could do differently this year to make writing next year’s easier.  Try to take something away from the process and feed it into this year’s workflow, so next year you aren’t stressing for last-minute tips!)

Other people have of course written on this subject.  I found a great writeup from a director at Microsoft that you might enjoy as well.  Any tips you want to add?  Leave them in comments or drop me a line on twitter….


#1 MadKat97 on 01.06.09 at 10:10 am

From a manager’s perspective, I’ll agree with the “no surprises” rule. If you haven’t talked about a subject with your manager/report prior to a review, the review is not the time to bring it up.

#2 Michele on 01.06.09 at 12:44 pm

I agree that an SA is important. As a manager, I have only so much documentation to rely on to help me in writing the PA. There are things that people do as part of their everyday jobs that goes undocumented. So the SA is the perfect place call these things out.

As for writing my SA. I’m sitting here in front of a blank form as I read your blog post. It is hard to talk about strengths because you never really know how others perceive you.

#3 KC on 01.06.09 at 1:34 pm

Thanks Dave! I’m doing my SA today, so this was timely.

One other tip is to review the past year’s MBOs or status reports or whatever you might have. It’ll refresh your memory, and you know your manager will refer to those as well.