Ideally, your boss will communicate with you over the course of a year to let you know what you're doing right, what you're doing wrong and where you need to improve. If they're not and you're blindsided at your performance review, here's how to recover.
Over at US News, Alison Green explains that the key to handling criticism you've never heard before when you're sitting in a performance review is to make sure your manager acknowledges that they have never brought it up, and that they should have. She notes:
... sometimes managers don't give as much feedback as they should. And sometimes evaluation time forces a manager to step back and reflect on how things are going, and prompts the realisation that there are problems in your realm. If that's the case, it's legitimate for your manager to raise those issues as part of your evaluation, even if they haven't come up previously. Of course, a thoughtful manager will acknowledge that and say something like, "I realise I haven't raised this previously, and I should have."
It's also reasonable for you to ask to receive feedback on a more ongoing basis in the future so that you aren't hearing about things for the first time in your evaluation.
Of course, you can't just stop the criticism and force them to remove it from your review, but you can force them to acknowledge that they shouldn't be bringing it up at this point, and you can ask them for more feedback in the future. Similarly, you should ask them for specific examples of where their criticism applies from the previous year, so you can be clear on whether it's something that they really think, or it's something they made up for the review. Speaking of specific examples of criticism:
It's frustrating to hear things like, "you need to take more initiative" or "you need to bring the quality of your presentations up" without being given any concrete specifics to help you understand what your manager is asking you to change. If this happens, don't be shy about asking for more clarification; in fact, it's important to do that because otherwise you're not likely to be able to make the changes your manager is requesting. You can say it this way: "I really appreciate getting this feedback. So that I'm able to understand the issue and what you'd like me to do differently, could you give me an example or two of where I haven't been hitting the mark and what it would look like if I was?"
Of course, that line is classic "written for a career blog and no one would say that in real life" language, but adjust it to your circumstance. For me, if someone just said, "Do you have a few times when I did that and should have done it differently?" would be enough and to the point. For more tips on how to survive that end-of-year performance review, hit the link below.