The self-appraisal as a business communication

Once more, I find myself writing about the self-appraisal, that much maligned part of the annual performance review so common in our corporate circles.  Can you believe it’s been eight years since I first wrote about the self-appraisal process?  My own approach to this topic has evolved considerably over time, and so has the corporate environment in which I write them.

Here at Dell EMC, the biggest difference between self-appraisals in 2009 and 2017 is that we no longer make use of open-ended documents. Instead of having unlimited space to wage a marketing campaign for ourselves, we’re forced to focus our thoughts on each question into just a few sentences. We often joke that we’re tweeting our strengths and weaknesses, and the comparison is apt.  With a strict character limit, every word counts, which makes strong communication skills vital in producing an effective self-appraisal.

I don’t have any “tricks” here, but I make a point to think of my self-appraisal as a piece of business communication. As with any such communication, there are some tried and true keys to effectiveness.

Know your audience
Who are you writing this appraisal for? Who is going to read it, and when? In our environment, the self-appraisal has a limited lifespan. Once my manager provides me with an official performance appraisal, the system automatically deletes my self-appraisal. In other words, it has a very specific audience: my direct manager and nobody else.  It won’t be looked at next year, or the year after.  Future managers won’t be reading it.

Armed with that information, I can tailor my document accordingly, and make every character count, knowing I don’t need to waste any space on a broader appeal.  I can get away with jargon and abbreviations I might avoid in another document.

Have a clear goal
How do you want to influence the reader of your self-appraisal? Do you want to dazzle them with a long list of responsibilities, making it clear you are overworked? Maybe you want to position yourself for a conversation about abandoning a responsibility you don’t want, in favor of one you would prefer.  Maybe you’re trying to tie your accomplishments in with some business objectives that were wildly successful.

No matter what, your goal is probably slightly more complex than “make sure my boss knows what I did last year.”  And even if it isn’t, it’s worth approaching that goal mindfully too.  Read it a few times.  Put it away for 24 hours, and read it again.  Put yourself in the reader’s mind, and think about how it makes you feel.

Choose a format
Your choice of format is likely somewhat limited, but it’s worth making sure you invest some energy into it.  You could list four different responsibilities as bullet items, one per line, or you could write a sentence which mentions all four.  You could sum things up in pseudo-sentences, phrases that skip the subject (“Addressed defects, hired team member, walked on water”) or you could make them grammatically correct (“I addressed defects, hired a team member, and walked on water.”)

Which flows better for your audience, and which better accomplishes your goal?  Try them both, and see what works.  Whatever you decide, commit to it and stick with it. Even in a short document like this, switching format midstream is jarring.

Write well!
Lastly, we all know that writing matters. Spell correctly, use consistent grammar, and proofread several times.  Even if your goal is to have it seem informal and technical, little things like consistency in case, tense, and person will add up and make a difference.

I’ve always argued that the self-appraisal is your chance to set the tone of the performance conversation, and that it’s worth some investment. My advice? Think of it like any business communication, and leverage the skills you have there to make it count even more.  Done correctly, the quality of this communication will add to the overall impression you’re making.