How To Harness Psychology To Ace Your Performance Review

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Performance reviews have been reportedly going extinct for quite some time. But they aren’t completely in the grave yet, and maybe they shouldn’t be. Despite the dread with which many employees greet their year-end evaluations, psychological studies have shown that people still generally find them useful—as long as those reviews offer a chance to discuss relevant issues, outline key objectives, and provide constructive feedback.

But for that to happen, you need to go in prepared. In fact, you may think the biggest factor in your success is how you perform throughout the year, but your manager may know less about how well you’re actually performing than you may hope—meaning your annual review might count for more than you imagine. That can be good news for you, though. These are three tips, based on some fundamentals of human psychology, to help tilt the field in your favor.

1. It’s Really Not About You

Yes, it’s your performance review, and your work is under the spotlight—but with an important qualification: Your work only matters in the context of the company’s objectives. So while an annual review is a great time for self-assessment, it’s crucial to describe your efforts in terms of how they’ve contributed to your organization’s goals.

You may have heard this suggestion before, probably in the context of job interviews—that your experience and skills only really matter in terms of what they can help the company accomplish. The reason that’s good advice, though, has to do with what psychologists call “egocentric bias,” which is exactly what it sounds like: We have a natural tendency to interpret our experiences to accord with our own point of view, which can lead to warped assumptions and poor decisions we aren’t even aware of.

To put this another way, you probably equate your job performance most immediately with your own career success—but the truth is that the only person who really cares about your individual career progression is you. Your boss may very well want to help you grow and develop, but she’s (likewise) ultimately more committed to advancing her career than yours—and that’s all before accounting for how both of your efforts square with your employer’s goals.

Consider this, too: Most individuals who are correctly designated as high-potential employees differ from everyone else by being considered the vital few—those who contribute to an outsize share of the organization’s output. So your ultimate goal is to focus on that, persuading your boss that you’re part of the vital few. And that starts with knowing what the company considers vital, not (just) your own winning attributes.

2. Walk A Line Between Driven And Pushy

Try to come across as ambitious and committed without seeming pushy or threatening. It isn’t uncommon for managers to be conflict-averse, and many detest giving negative feedback.

Some managers may rate their employees more harshly when they appear more passive, complacent, or laid back. If your boss thinks you’re a pushover—or so deferential that you don’t stick up for yourself—it may work against you. On the other hand, being too pushy, demanding, or arrogant is likely to antagonize your boss. So you need to walk a line somewhere in the middle.

Where does it fall? Probably closer to the “agreeable” end of the spectrum. Psychologists understand that people are generally rewarded for being rewarding to deal with. So pay attention to your attitude and demeanor during your review—it may matter more here than you’d think. Managers may even be more prone to promoting less effective but more likable employees than those who perform better but are obnoxious or difficult.

3. Remember What Your Boss Wants (And Fears)

It’s worth reiterating that earlier point about how we each care the most about our own careers, because it goes right to the heart of a key piece of the review process: setting goals for the year ahead.

If you can—preferably in a subtle, almost subliminal way—explain how your past accomplishments help advance your boss’s own goals. And when setting your sights on the next year’s objectives, focus as much as you can on those that are likely to contribute to your manager’s career progression. In short, you’re in this together. So your task is to get your manager to perceive you as a valuable resource without leaving the impression that you may actually be a threat.

Up to a point, your manager should actually be able to take credit for your achievements (during his own performance review) as a reflection of how well he’s leading his team. You just don’t want to appear so driven and effective that it looks like you’re gunning for his job.

In a perfectly rational world, there’d be no difference between a person’s job performance and their career success. In the real world, however, workplaces are as rife with employees who excel at self-promoting as with those who make great contributions but fly under the radar. So since you can’t expect your boss to be a totally objective judge of your or others’ performance, you need to highlight what your strengths are—and why they’re such big assets in the first place. And you’ve really got to do that more than just once a year.

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