How To Do A Proper Self-Review Of Your Career

Annual reviews at work are rarely an enjoyable process. Enhance the experience by performing your own self-review in advance. That will give you all the ammunition you need to respond to criticism and suggest improvements long before your boss confronts you. Here’s how to make that self-review less painful and more useful — not just for this year, but for your whole career.

Annual performance reviews often include a self-review component, which in itself is often a cause for complaint. You’re already busy, and now you have to sit down and take time out to fill out a document where you don’t want to be too boastful and you don’t want to identify mistakes no-one else may have noticed. However, self-reviews only suck because you know they can (and probably will) be used against you when it comes time to sit down with your boss.

Let’s take the self-review process and turn it into something really useful. In this post, we’ll walk you through doing a real, private self-review, identifying your professional pain points and irritations, and then coming up with solutions that you can bring to the table when you meet with your boss.

Step One: The Three Elements Of What You Do

The first thing you need to do is be clear about what it is you actually do every day, and compare that with what your job description says you should do. Take some time one afternoon — maybe on a Friday when you’re doing your weekly review — to write down what you think your regular responsibilities are. Include all of the things that make your position what it is, but don’t forget to include all of those other things your boss or colleagues saddle you with. You know, “other duties as assigned” — either because someone else doesn’t feel like doing it, or you have unique skills that make you the best for the job. Photo by Denisenko. (Shutterstock)

Once you have a complete picture of all of the things you do at work, make a separate list of the things that are actually part of your job as advertised. Use a copy of the job ad you originally applied for, or for any similar position your company has advertised since. Doing this can be illuminating because you usually stumble on something that you probably should be doing, but don’t. Often it’s harmless, outdated or corporate-speak that doesn’t translate into day-to-day tasks, but keep your eye on it.

Once you’ve finished your two lists, arrange them so your most important and job-critical responsibilities are at the top. Now, assign each two separate letter grades (using an A to F scale). The first is how important and interesting the responsibility is to you. The second is how important you think the task is to your boss. If you see anything you hate doing but know is important to your company, make a note of it. If you see anything you love doing but you know is not fundamentally important to your role, make a note of that as well.

Step Two: Review From Your And Your Boss’s Perspectives

Next, it’s time to fill out those dreaded self-review forms. Don’t worry: what makes our forms different is that firstly, we’re going to keep the results private, and second, we’re going to adopt forms that are actually useful. You’ll perform three quick critiques of yourself: how well you think you’re doing from your perspective, how well you think you’re doing from your boss’ perspective, and how engaged you are with your work. Photo by Jacob Bøtter.

Review Yourself From Your Perspective: Your employer probably has a self-review form they use for this purpose. If they do, use that — it’s the best tool to get yourself in the mindset that you need to be in for the real thing. Just make two copies: one you can fill out and review on your own, and one you can return to your boss. We both know that the answers you give your boss will be massaged so they’re guarded but honest, so you want a copy where you can really tear into yourself (or toot your own horn without worrying about sounding vain). At its core, whatever your form says, you should ask yourself these basic questions:

  • How well do you feel you’ve performed this year? It’s an irritating question, but remember, the only person seeing your answer this time is you. Be honest, and get your thoughts out about your overall performance. Have you been coasting? Why? Are you more energetic now that you’re free from one project that kept you on-call on weekends?
  • What were some of your biggest accomplishments this year? List them all, and don’t be shy. Think hard about this — these will eventually be some of the things you take to your real review and use as ammunition to show how valuable you are to your boss and to the company overall.
  • What areas or skills do you want to develop over the next year? This often-asked question is usually interpreted as “how do you want to improve?”, but it should also cover “what parts of your job do you want to streamline or eliminate next year?” Think of it in terms of how you can grow and what skills you can learn, but also how you can improve your job and spend more time doing the things that drew you to the job in the first place.
  • What are your goals for the coming year? Much like the previous question, this one should be more about moves you want to make, things you want to focus on, and in your case, since this is just between you and you, it can include things like switching departments, moving to a new job in (or outside) of the company, and how you’re going to lay the groundwork to get there.

Review Yourself from Your Boss’s Perspective: This one will take as much objectivity as you can muster. Put yourself in your boss’s shoes and review yourself from his or her perspective, using the prioritised responsibilities we mentioned earlier. Start with the responsibilities you have that are most important to your boss, and write down how well you do those things, and how frequently you do them. Photo by Robyn Mackenzie (Shutterstock).

Again, use the actual evaluation form that your boss uses if you can. If not, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has some great template forms that you can use for this exercise.

  • The Narrative Form (MS Word) gives you a more conversational, essay-style form to fill out. It asks some basic questions about your overall performance, areas of exceptional performance that you think your boss will note (or that they’ve already praised you for), areas of improvement, and your expectations for the coming year.
  • The Descriptive Scale Form (MS Word) is best for companies where the review process actually uses a score, or if your review form has bubbles on it for “exceeds expectations”, “meets expectations” and the like. It’s a bit longer, but it asks specifically targeted questions that are easier for you to answer from your boss’s perspective. For example: “Holds self accountable for assigned responsibilities; sees through tasks to completion in a timely manner” has responses ranging from “exceptional” to “proficient” to “unsatisfactory”. There’s room under each topic for brief elaboration.

This may seem rough, but it’s actually really useful. When it comes time for your actual review, think back to this exercise and figure out exactly how close you and your boss are on each of these areas. Ideally, your boss would answer these questions the same way you would. If you’re not on the same page, or if you have no idea how your boss might think about a specific question, you may not be communicating enough with them. If you’re worried about one of the questions, you may have stumbled on something you can bring up as something you’d like to improve, or get rid of entirely.

Find Out How Engaged You Are at Work: Reviewing your performance is important, but it’s only part of the overall picture of you as an employee. You also want to take a step back and think about how engaged you are with your work and your company. Are you doing what you want to do or that you think you’re good at, or are you just doing what you know how to do so you can draw a paycheque? Photo by Telekhovskyi (Shutterstock).

Gallup has 12 questions that measure this, published in the book First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Some may sound silly, but they’re worth thinking about:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. In this last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

Shoot from the hip here and draw from your gut to ensure you get truthful answers. For example, you should know if you’ve been praised in the past week, or if you have someone at work you look forward to seeing every day, or someone you’d invite over for dinner. Similarly, you should know instantly whether you think your opinions matter, or if you have a chance to do work that you’re really good at.

When you’re finished, you’ll have a remarkable picture of your personal morale. HR experts call it “employee engagement”, but you can use it as a powerful self-evaluation tool. At the very least, your answers will reveal if you’re happy at work (and what you’re happy with,) whether you’re unhappy but things are worth trying to salvage, or if you’re so jaded it’s time to leave. You can use your responses to identify those professional pain points that hold you back — not just in your job, but your career as a whole.

Step Three: Identify Your Pain Points

You’ve reviewed what you do well, what you don’t do well, and matched it all up to your expectations and job description. Now, write down those things that you hate about your job. We’re not talking about the fact that the coffee machine never seems to get cleaned; we’re talking about the fact that you’re on call more than your colleagues are, or the fact that you’re working with an old and ailing platform with no manufacturer support. These are functional issues that you and your manager should sort out. Photo by Pressmaster (Shutterstock).

You also want to note the bigger career pain points that you have. If you’re a software developer but you just don’t have time to learn new languages or new technologies, that’s not just a job problem, it’s a career problem. If you’re a project manager and want to get your PMP, bring it up to your manager — getting certified can only add to your value to the company. Think about your career growth overall and what may be limiting you about your current job. Bring them up to your manager, but come with solutions in mind that you can propose. Your boss may be willing to help, but having a solution to the problem in hand at the same time will go a long way towards getting what you need to be a better, stronger, more skilful you.

Keep a Work Diary and Get Regular Feedback

We know this is a lot of work for a performance review. Here’s the secret though: you only have to do most of it if you’ve never done any of it before, or if you know there’s a risk that you and your boss may not be on the same page about everything. For example, if you and your manager communicate often, there’s no reason to do a review from their perspective — you know the two of you will see eye-to-eye anyway. Photo by ventdusud.

If you don’t keep a work diary, now is a great time to start. Even journaling a day or week up to your review can give you a slice of your own life on paper. You can review it at a distance, feel energised by the things you accomplished, and reflect on whether the conflicts and irritations you have are big problems or little stuff. You’ll get a dose of objectivity that you can apply to your job, and easily identify the things you love or hate about it.

Similarly, if you and your boss don’t communicate often enough, see if you can schedule one-on-ones with them to get regular feedback and clarify your responsibilities. If you two don’t agree on what’s important and what you should spend your time doing, you’ll never be successful. It may sound painful, but a half-hour every week or two can go a long way towards better reviews, bigger raises, and great references when you do move on to a better gig.

Finally, use your review exercises as a tool to build a real career plan you can follow. Don’t just go to work every day and let it be something that passively happens to you between 8am and 6pm — take control of your professional life and give it some direction. Sometimes, knowing where you’re going and what you’re doing is the difference between having a “job” and a “career”.

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