How to Hack Your Self-Review

Hack your review, hack yourself. Photo © johngineer

Hack your review, hack yourself.
Photo © johngineer

Once again, it’s time to write your annual self-review. Just like last year (and the year before), Review Season sneaked up on you when you weren’t looking.

Now you’ve landed on this page after raiding Google for tips and tricks, hoping to find some secret key or formula that will help you ace your written self-evaluation so that you can get back to… well, whatever it is you’re doing instead of preparing for your review.

No such luck. There’s no hidden back door, no algorithm to fool, no “one weird trick” to get around evaluating yourself and your actions.

If you were successful in your work this year, you’ll need to weigh the merits of touting that success versus coming off like a braggart. But if you failed to meet your goals, then you’ll need to decide how to handle being accountable for your actions or whether you’ll blame circumstances, your colleagues, or that old favorite, “The System”.

Sound familiar? It’s a painful scenario experienced by workers all around the world. But reviews shouldn’t be so binary. And they shouldn’t be dreaded, either. Accountability has somehow become a dirty word in our lexicon… a tool that’s wielded like a cudgel when it should instead be seen as being more like a warm blanket.

Because reviews can be hacked, just like any other system or process. Hating on reviews only displays a lack of imagination. And you’re better than that — I know it.

In Star Trek, Did Captain Kirk give up when he was faced with the Kobayashi Maru evaluation? Hell no! Most of us see our self-reviews as being just like this famous “no-win scenario”: we’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t.

But when the system presented Kirk with this choice to test his resolve, Kirk made a novel decision: he hacked the system to work in his favor.

And so can you. Here are six key ways to hack your review.

Your annual review shouldn’t be your only review

Ask for feedback from your manager and your colleagues throughout the year. If your manager isn’t actively encouraging you to do this, then something’s already gone wrong — your annual review should never be a surprise. By the time your review rolls around, you should know exactly what your manager is going to tell you… because you’ve already heard it several times throughout the year.

You can do get quick, informal feedback from any colleague by saving a few minutes at the end of a meeting or having a quick hallway conversation. Rather than leading them with a question like “Didn’t I do a good job on this?”, instead ask an open question: “I’m trying to improve my work on {project or skill}, so what do you think went well and what could have gone better?” This will get you more honest results that are far more useful.

Getting feedback on your work from many sources throughout the year helps you understand the landscape of opportunity when it comes to crafting your self-review. And you can work in all of these comments and learnings from other people as your write.

Start early

Make your reviews easier by building relationships early in the year. Photo © chichacha

Make your reviews easier by building relationships early in the year.
Photo © chichacha

Document your accomplishments (and data about their results or impact) throughout the year as they occur. This will save you time so that you’re not scrambling at the last moment to find that one e-mail with all the success metrics that was sent out after the project was over. But don’t just stop with your successes, be sure to document lessons learned, too.

PRO-Tip: Take no more than 10 minutes per week to enter all these into a text file or a spreadsheet. That should help you focus on just the biggest wins or learnings. You don’t need everything; you just need the most important things pursuant to your goals.

More importantly, take the time to build direct relationships with your colleagues throughout the year. One of the best ways to do this is to show your vulnerability, your imperfections, the challenges you’re trying to overcome. Show that you’re human and empathetic to their needs and concerns. As you begin to learn about their goals and the accomplishments they value, you can begin to win their trust by helping them succeed throughout the year.

Helping other people reach their goals is a strong way to earn their support for yours.

Know what your manager wants, make it easy to find

Don't make your manager hunt for the important details. Photo © Jake Bouma

Don’t make your manager hunt for the important details.
Photo © Jake Bouma

Ideally, your manager won’t be surprised by what they find in your self-review. That said, there’s no need to make your self-review difficult to read or use. More likely than not, your manager will need to work with their peers to calibrate their reviews against others.

So if you apply the principles of inbound marketing, content strategy, and UX to your self-review, that will make it much easier for your manager to promote your success upstream. The usability of content in your review is just as important as the content itself. I’d argue that it’s inseparable.

Include a brief summary of your primary accomplishment or success metric against your each of your goals. Use bullet points to illustrate your actions.

Be short. Be succinct. You can show more context and data more quickly in a simple chart than you can in a paragraph. Include hyperlinks to artifacts of your work (campaigns, presentations, data reports) rather than describing or re-creating them in your self-review.

If you’re reading over your self-review and find yourself wishing that there was a “TL;DR” statement at the top, then it’s still too long. Go back and cut it down to just the most essential points.

True story: I once wrote a 12+ page annual self-review when I was working for REI and had a new manager. It was a nearly Stephen King-like compilation of ALL THE THINGS I did over the year, data about their performance, and their impact on our customers. It took me two weeks to write and I feverishly worked on it at night and throughout the weekends.

My manager was really impressed… by my waste of time. A half-page summary would have been much better for highlighting my biggest wins.

Keep your goals close… and your challenges closer

Learning from failures helps you reach higher next time. Photo © Alessandro Valli

Learning from failures helps you reach higher next time.
Photo © Alessandro Valli

As you write your self-review, you should address your overall goals and objectives for the year, showing how you made progress against them. Beyond using data to show the results and impact you had, you should also address their qualitative impact: bringing people together, leading them, removing barriers from other people’s paths, increasing morale and efficiency.

After all, you’re not being managed by a robot (hopefully) — so you need data to appeal to your manager’s head while using emotion and social impacts to appeal to their heart.

Even so, many people focus on the big wins throughout the year, forgetting to address the things that got in the way: the barriers or challenges that reduced their impact. You should draw attention these impediments, explaining how you overcame them or otherwise pivoted in response to them.

Everyone faces adversity, so your leadership will want to know how you responded to it. Even if your challenges couldn’t be overcome this year, they’ll want to know your lessons learned and how you’ll approach them with a fresh start next year.

This is a great place to be direct and honest in your review. I do this by using statements like “I achieved only 80% of {goal} because of {clear, simple reason}. But I’m already working to improve my performance by {new approach}.”

Your new approach should acknowledge your failure and show that you learned something from it. Not sure how you can improve your performance? Ask for guidance, educational opportunities, or mentoring. And don’t wait until next year to start — show how you’re already making progress now.

Everyone swims or sinks together

Show how you support your pack. Photo © Willy Volk

Show how you support your pack.
Photo © Willy Volk

The strongest teams are greater than the sum of their members. What holds them together are strong fibers of technical, tactical, and emotional support. If you’ve ever been on a team like this, you know the feeling: everyone takes care of each other, everyone’s got each other’s backs. It’s a great feeling that serves as the genesis for a strong organizational culture supported by authentic core values.

Guess what? The actions you take to support others and their work are fair game for your self-review. They’re accomplishments that aid in cohesion, increase morale, and help your organization as a whole make progress toward its overall goals or mission.

Unfortunately, most organizations fail to value or hold people accountable for supporting others. But you can do your part to change the way your organization works by documenting that you, personally, value these actions.

Want ideas for simple actions that help your colleagues? Start a shared, mobile-friendly library of helpful resources on a team Dropbox. Connect people with conferences they can attend and encourage them to speak. Connect your colleagues with other practitioners in the industry using social media. Actively participate in team critique sessions to help people succeed in their individual projects.

Review and improve your team’s library of standards or best practices; if none exist, then create them. Build a simple, fun rewards program for your team’s partners that go above and beyond the call of duty to support your goals. Improve your on-boarding program for new hires and interns. Organize team events like happy hours, lunches, or 15-minute coffee breaks.

These are all things that my colleagues at Facebook have done — you can do them, too!

Be human

Show empathy toward others and yourself. Photo © Ben Smith

Show empathy toward others and yourself.
Photo © Ben Smith

Ideally, the people within your organization want you to be successful, but no one who’s reasonable expects you to be a superhuman and dedicate your life to squeezing out a tenth of a percentage point of incremental profit or engagement. If your review reads like a hero-worship story, then you’re probably not being realistic about your misses, your losses, or other opportunities that you turned down along the way.

Narcissism and exaggeration come across poorly in your review, just like in Real Life.

The point here is not that you shouldn’t celebrate your victories; it’s that the best antidotes for bragging are honesty and vulnerability. No one has (or should expect) a perfect record, even during the best of years. Showing your manager that you’re aware of things that could have gone better and taking responsibility for them creates a deeper bond and increases trust. Why? Because you’re showing that you care, that you’re human.

Don’t rate yourself any lower than you deserve, but do show empathy toward your team, your manager, and your wider organization in your self-review. But even more importantly, as you write you should look inward and turn that empathy back on yourself. No one else in your organization will be able to help you improve your performance until you decide to value yourself and your hard work.

That’s what helps you to build new approaches, measure your progress, and learn from your errors. That’s what helps you test improvements and continuously deliver better performance.

And that’s what hacking your self-review is all about: hacking yourself.

About Jonathon Colman

Jonathon Colman is a UX content strategist at Facebook, keynote speaker, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter @jcolman. Feel free to contact him directly.

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3 Responses to How to Hack Your Self-Review

  1. Ryan Glass says:

    High-five for taking a potentially nerve-inducing topic and turning it into me spending 15 minutes re-reading the Kobayashi Maru. Helpful, and timely info; thanks!

  2. Pingback: Content Strategy Interview with Jonathon Colman of Facebook

  3. Solid advice, This year I’ve been keeping a really simple Google calendar that I update throughout the day to personally keep track of where I spend my time.

    Generally I just use it to block out time for specific projects and protect myself from getting sidetracked on less important tasks during my most productive times of the workday.

    Added benefit is I can page through the calendar and use it as a refresher for reflecting on what I worked on six months ago.

    Oh look I spent 40 hours over two weeks on this project…

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