How To Survive Performance Reviews

Photo by Mapbox on Unsplash

I have never had an annual performance review where my work product was criticized. I have, on the other hand, received lots of feedback on my personality. “Too loyal to your team.” “Inappropriately enthusiastic.” “Annoys others by coming up with the best idea too quickly.”

Since I now realize all of those critiques were actually “too neurodivergent,” it also makes sense why I found them totally baffling upon receipt. I mean, who doesn’t want a meeting to end early because of a good idea? You’re really working against yourself with that one, bosses. But it was that stuff, bonkers performance review stuff, that really made me start to peek behind the curtain of how organizational decisions are made. You know that analogy about watching sausage production? Except the effect is more like watching how souls get stabbed with tiny shards of glass.

Most of the places I worked, I was the expert communicator, so in most of those places, I was invited into high-level decision making meetings. In most places. (If you want to know how transparent a company really is, ask their communications lead how often they have the opportunity to influence big decisions, not just report on them. Avoid any place where the answer is never.) What I learned behind the scenes is that even places that are supposed to be progressive (possibly especially those places), have issues when it comes to managing humans.

There are a cornucopia of reasons why performance reviews can be terrible, from narcissists at the top of the company who don’t want to have to follow a traceable process, to mega-corporations that have standardized and monetized the humanity right out of human resources. But mostly, people are terrible at giving and receiving useful feedback. That’s even harder when the feedback is based on goals that were made up and provided by someone who is only tangentially involved in any of the actual work. Sure, there might have been forecasts and rigorous reporting along the way, but those individual objectives? Almost all entirely made up.

So, what’s a socially responsible employee to do when it’s time to rate and be rated by your fellow humans in exchange for money? Here are 3 emotional intelligence skills to pull out during review time no matter what side of the table you’re on.

Situational Awareness

When they say “everything is political,” they mean everything. And that includes review season. If you suspect things might be a little tense, or they get surprisingly weird, this is the first perspective you’re going to want to take. You might not want to be a player, but you’re on the board whether you like it or not, so before you get personal, take a look around.

  • What’s the system everyone is working within? Is your team part of a sub-company of a sub-company, or part of a small but scrappy business? Where do you fit in all that?
  • If you work for a place that tracks organizational goals, how’d things turn out? If you don’t, what’s the vibe? And, if catching the vibe isn’t your thing, find an ally and discuss. (In sketchy places where things are going wrong, this is called gossiping. In healthy places, it’s called planning.)
  • What avenues do you see for yourself in the coming year or two? Don’t just think of what you wish might happen, consider the likeliest possibilities based on what you know.


You can have empathy for someone and still not like what they’re up to, or even them, but if you’re thinking of skipping this section because your boss is the actual worst and deserves no empathy, try this reframe. First, imagine yourself as a third party observer, like a reporter or investigator, and think of understanding how a person may feel and what they might be thinking as a way to read between the lines.

Once you decide to better understand the other person in your review scenario, consider these tips.

  • Whether you are the reviewer or the reviewee, take a little time to think about the person on the other side of the table, not just who they are at work but who they are as a whole person, including what motivates them.
  • They are playing out their own story, with their own personal lives and goals and possibly a nemesis you don’t know about. Apply humanity and compassion.
  • Unless they are the boss of all bosses without a board or anyone above them, the person you report to reports to someone else. Generally, the higher up a person is, the more closely connected they are to the bottom line. Consider what pressure is being put on them that’s getting handed down to you.
  • Remember that you are also not a perfect communicator or perfectly emotionally intelligent and give some grace.


One of the most important parts of successful communication is understanding your audience in the context of your goals. Now that you’ve considered the lay of the land, and had an empathetic moment for the person you’re reviewing or being reviewed by, think about what you actually want to accomplish during this conversation and why. Then determine the most appropriate way to tell the truth.

  • If, for example, you’re the reviewer and think the whole process is bullshit and want your employee to think you’re awesome, and know your boss will never find out, you might say, “I’m going to walk through the stuff we have to do or they won’t stop bothering us, and then I’m going to switch gears into being a human, but no matter what, this whole conversation is you telling me how to better help you.”
  • On the other hand, if you know you’re about to face 30 minutes of total inappropriateness, and your only goal is to get through it without yelling, practice saying, “Thank you for your feedback,” while taking mental notes to add to your written record. (This also provides the added benefit of not giving your jerk boss any fuel.)
  • Or, if you have a boss that wants to do a good job, and you’re ready to ask for more money or a promotion, invite them to guide you through how it works at your organization.

I have yet to experience or hear of a review process that wasn’t somehow at least a little messed up, so the most important thing is to remember that what you’re being asked to engage in is not natural, so knowing how to manage it instinctively and doing so perfectly shouldn’t be your expectation. Instead, aim for doing your best with minimal damage if you’re in a bad spot, and forming a closer connection if you’re in a pretty good one. Then when it’s over, take a deep breath, set a goal for how you want to feel during whatever happens next, and keep growing your awareness, empathy and communication skills for next year.

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