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Ask an expert: Performance anxiety

My annual performance review is coming up and I’m worried. I never had problems with my old boss, but my new boss is always criticizing my work. I’m sure my review will go badly. Help!

It’s natural to feel a bit nervous about a performance review, but if you prepare properly and act professionally, you can make it a positive experience that may accelerate your career.

Before

If you have a written job description, review it line by line to see if you’ve met your goals and expectations. If expectations were not formally defined, think back on conversations over the year and isolate topics that your boss seemed to get excited about. (No matter what your job is, the three issues on most managers’ minds are good customer service, finding ways to save money and positive working relationships.) Try to complete the following sentence: “I don’t agree with my boss but I can see that she might see me falling short because I….” If you feel that you didn’t get enough support, ask for more help and guidance.

On the positive side, write down what you believe were your three greatest accomplishments. Have concrete examples – it’s not enough to just say that you were great at meeting deadlines. Finally, be clear on the specific messages that you want to get across to your boss. Bring your notes along to the interview.

During

If you find yourself shaky or emotional at the start of the review, remember that acknowledging your feelings will actually help you deal with them. Say “I find it difficult to talk about myself.” Then lead with your accomplishments, providing examples of why you feel proud, and mention one or two areas you would like to improve upon. Bosses appreciate when you acknowledge shortcomings because it makes it easier for them to broach a tough subject.

It’s a good idea to pause after the first five minutes and ask “Do you agree with me so far?” Pay attention to your boss’s body language. Do you sense discomfort or agreement? If you are on the right track, continue. If not, take control by saying something like “It feels as if we have different views of my performance. It would help me if you could give me some feedback before I continue.”

What if your boss is as critical as you’d feared? If you agree with her, explain how you plan on improving for the coming year. If you feel the criticism is coming from left field, be direct and say “I don’t agree with your assessment” and then calmly explain why. It’s important to be assertive, even if it’s uncomfortable. In my experience, bosses almost always have more respect for employees who stand up for themselves.

If the conversation is going very poorly, ask to reschedule the meeting. At the next meeting, aim for common ground even if you have to give more than you get. In extreme cases, you can also refuse to sign the review (but the boss still gets the final word).

After

If you ended the review on good terms, send an e-mail to thank your boss for her time and feedback. Then write down the skills and experience you hope to gain in the next year and how you plan to do it. If the review really did seem like a disaster, turn your focus to changing your boss’s mind or even moving to another job. Your workplace may also have an appeals process.

Although you can’t control every aspect of your performance review, you can control your attitude toward it. So, no matter what the outcome, act professionally and maintain your grace and dignity.

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