Depending on your company’s culture, performance reviews are often viewed as either annoying chores or fearful ordeals. We all either have personal horror stories or have heard firsthand about nightmare review sessions.

But reviews don’t need to be the career equivalent to regularly scheduled tooth extractions. I’m not saying that your performance reviews will necessarily make you look like the star everyone wants on the team; however, you can make your review help advance your career. Let’s take a look at a few ways to make performance reviews work for you.

Where do you want to be?
Ok, I don’t want to start with the completely obvious, but knowing where you want your career to go is a critical first step in shaping a performance review. Evaluate where you are now compared to where you want to be one year, two years, five years, and 10 years from now. This can start some serious soul-searching about what you really want to be doing. Once you feel comfortable with your plan, write it down. Periodically review your career goals list and refine it as needed.

Your goals are personal and not based on your current employer’s defined career path. Often, a company’s career path will not sync to your own career goals, which should be flexible enough to allow for new horizons you can’t imagine right now.

Reviews don’t have to be formal to work
Regular performance reviews are integral to helping you manage your career. Performance reviews help identify growth areas that may be inhibiting you from attaining your goals, and they are the primary method to assure you are meeting your manager’s expectations.

What if your company doesn’t have regular performance reviews? Take the initiative and ask your manager to set up a session. You don’t even need to call it a performance review. When I worked for a company that didn’t have a formal review process, I asked my manager to meet with me at the end of a major project to discuss my performance. I had specific questions in mind:

  • How well did I meet the manager’s expectations during the project?
  • What new things did the manager learn about me?
  • What one thing stood out as excellent work?
  • What one thing stood out as a mistake?
  • What are a few professional attributes (such as communication or team work) that I should work on during my next project?

Just as you would in a formal performance review, write down the answers to these questions. Notice how the questions focus on areas of personal and professional development. Personally, I have found that constructive feedback in areas that I need to work on goes much further toward my professional development than a list of the things I did well.

Don’t be an idle listener during the performance review. Actively ask for examples for points of improvement or negative statements your manager may make; use common sense and don’t challenge everything your manager writes or says. You should carefully watch your tone as you pose questions, but you need to come away with an understanding of why he or she sees the need for growth.

Also, carefully note which characteristics your manager emphasizes during the review. Is he or she focusing on technical or managerial attributes? This distinction is important in light of your career goals. A manager’s focus usually matches how they perceive your career growth. If your manager focuses on leadership and business attributes and you want to be a developer for the majority of your career, you may need to address this disconnect.

After the review
Once the performance review is over, don’t just go straight back to work. Take some time to internalize the feedback. If you disagree with some statements, think about why people may feel that way. Also, if you have a close friend or trusted peer, ask him or her if they have similar thoughts on particular attributes your manager identified as shortcomings. For example, on two consecutive reviews my manager commented that some of my teammates felt uncomfortable approaching me when I was busy because I tended to act annoyed. I thought I had been improving in that area. So, I asked a close friend on the team how she felt when she tried to approach me at those times. What she said surprised me; she told me that when I was busy my demeanor shouted, “Don’t bother me.” I quickly thought of ways to make myself approachable no matter how busy I was.

As you may have noticed, I compared my review with previous reviews. This exercise is important to see if you are improving in growth attributes that were identified earlier. If the same comments are appearing on review after review, you should pay particular attention in that area of growth.

Another important task after a review is to decide how to make suggested improvements. Again, based on your career goals, you should prioritize attributes that will help you grow in the direction you want. For example, if your career goal is to be a leading developer in your company, you probably want to focus on technical attributes. Now be sure to maintain some balance in your personal growth; even developers are sometimes asked to lead teams and be a mentor. So be sure to not neglect the “soft skills.”

Between reviews, don’t let your performance review hide in your drawer. Bring it out occasionally and check up on your growth areas to make sure you are progressing. As the time for your next review approaches, read through your last review again. Make sure that you’ve made strides in the areas you identified as the attributes you most needed to work on.

Performance reviews don’t have to be painful
Ultimately, performance reviews don’t have to be a painful ordeal. By turning the review process into a tool in your career development, you can leverage reviews to help you identify ways to grow personally and measure your progress.