‘Tis the season for yearly performance reviews, leaving some employees struggling to develop end-of-year career goals looking toward the future.

Despite the stress they can induce, performance reviews are critical for determining raises, bonuses, and promotions, said Brian Kropp, group vice president at Gartner. Further, “it’s a very important piece in terms of understanding who are the highest-potential employees of the organization, who are going to be the future leaders,” Kropp said. “It gives a sense of what the future is going to look like.”

For employees, these reviews impact pay, but also can help determine areas of improvement and the skills you might be able to learn to help your career move forward, Kropp said.

SEE: Accomplishment tracker (Tech Pro Research)

“People really want to know where they stand,” said Colleen Hughes, senior vice president for human relations at CompTIA. “They want to know, ‘Am I doing a good job? Am I on target? Is there something else I should be doing? Am I growing? Am I contributing?’ Performance reviews are very important to let people know the answer to all those questions and to acknowledge them.”

Creating goals

Employees tend to think about end-of-year goals only as the tasks they need to accomplish over the course of the year. While that is important, it’s beneficial to you as an employee to think longer term, Kropp said.

“If all that you do is focus on the tasks in front of you, you as an employee are doing yourself a really big disservice because you’re not doing the things to help you have a successful career,” Kropp said. “What you need to be doing as an employee is using this time to think about the longer term vision and desire that you have across your career.”

Employees should reflect on what they actually want to accomplish in the next three to five years, Kropp said. This doesn’t mean you have to accomplish all of these goals, but it’s important to have a vision and direction as to what you want to do, he added.

In terms of approaching your manager about these goals, avoid telling them that you want a different job, Kropp said. Instead, think about what sort of specific accomplishments you’d like to have on your resume three years from now. “If you know what you want it to look like, then you can start to think about the different jobs, roles, opportunities that you want to pursue to develop those skills and experience,” Kropp said.

SEE: Tips for getting the most from your performance reviews (free TechRepublic PDF)

Another way to contemplate your career goals as an employee is to do a thought experiment: What would happen if your company declared bankruptcy tomorrow but gave you a year of salary? What would you want to work on? What sort of job would you be looking for a year from now?

“Those are really good ways that employees can think about what they want their future career goals to look like, because that will give them insight about what to build, what to work on, what to get better at, and help them have a more successful career than they would otherwise,” Kropp said.

Employees who want to take on additional responsibilities or expand their role in some way need to initiate a conversation about it with their manager during their review and determine what would be needed to make it happen, Hughes said. This is also the time to address any gaps in performance, and how to improve in the next year, along with any necessary resources to do so, she added.

“It’s a really important time to level-set everything–where you’ve been and where you want to go,” Hughes said. “What you don’t do well, what you do well, and what is going to help you be a happier, more contributing employee.”

Making changes

Many employees struggle to actually put changes into effect in the new year, Kropp said. “You get into a situation where you say ‘I might want to do that, but where do I even begin?’ or ‘I don’t have time to think about what it is that I would like to do,'” Kropp said. “That inertia really prevents employees from thinking differently about their career.”

This is why a three-year or so window is the right timing to be thinking about these changes, because it gives you enough time to do something different, but is close enough to make you think of it as a reality, Kropp said.

“That is really the right time to be thinking about from the sort of career developments and career improvements that you want to potentially be pursuing,” he added.

Managers must work with employees throughout the year to help them stay on track to meet their goals, Hughes said.

“All employee goals should lead up to fulfillment of the corporate goal,” she added.