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10 Questions to Ask at Your Performance Review

It’s that time of year again, a time when we all revert to being rebellious teenagers, rolling our eyes about having to go through our annual performance review.

AAGAMIA | Iconica | Getty Images

“It does trigger that whole parent-child dynamic. That somebody has power over you,” said Marie McIntyre, a career coach and author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.”

The rest of the year, you get to be independent, maybe go to your boss for direction or collaboration. But for that 15 minutes, you are acutely aware of who’s in charge and he’s about to tell you if you’ve been naughty or nice.

Well, just like you’d tell a pouting teen to knock it off, get over it and grow up, it’s time for all of us to get over it and grow up — and realize the opportunity that a performance review presents.

“I think the biggest mistake people make with performance reviews is going into it as a passive participant,” McIntyre said. “With a performance review, your boss is running the show but that doesn’t mean that you have to sit there and listen to whatever your boss may have to say and then go ‘OK, whatever,’” she said.

“That’s the one time that’s structured for you to sit down with your manager and talk about your job — You want to take advantage of that,” McIntyre said.

Some bosses are good at performance reviews but more often than not, they hate them as much as you do and you won’t get as much out of it as you should. McIntyre breaks these “problem bosses” into three main categories: There are the cowards, who hate reviews and just want to shuffle you out of there with a “Good job, here’s your 3-percent raise.” Then there are the critics, who only focus on the negative, and the peacekeepers, who are so worried about everyone being happy that even when they’re offering a criticism, it sounds like a positive.

So your job is to do your homework — go in there with your own assessment of how the year went, what your goals are for the coming year and any questions you have for the boss. If you’re prepared, you won’t have to dread your annual performance review – you’ll welcome the opportunity!

No matter what type of boss you have — a coward, critic, peacekeeper or one who gets it — here are 10 questions you should ask at your performance review.

1. What do you think went well this year?
A good boss will not only offer criticism of areas she thinks you could improve in but also praise for the things you’ve done right. If that doesn’t happen, Don’t sit there like a moody teenager with your arms crossed and lips pursed and then run to your co-workers to complain afterward. Instead, try this simple tip — Just ask her what she thought went well last year.

Rob McGovern, founder of JobFox.com and CareerBuilder.com, cautions not to spend too much time focusing on the praise — focus on what you’re going to do next. “Too many people go into those meetings trying to hear the good stuff,” he said. “I would say only spend about 10 minutes on that and then move on. Unless you’re dumb, you already know what you’re good at,” he said. “Look at performance reviews as action plans — find out what you can do better.”

2. What do you think I should do differently next year?
“It’s important that you think of it this way — what should I do differently next year — instead of asking what did I screw up last year?” McIntyre says. “Even though the review is about your past performance, you want to focus on the future … that’s much more constructive than what went wrong last year.”

3. What can I do to improve my rating in this area next year?
If you work for a company that uses a ratings system, it’s easy to get hung up on the number or grade you received. In reality, McIntyre explains, there are a lot of factors that go into those ratings. Maybe they’re on a quota system and they only give out a certain number of the top ratings. Maybe they have a system for how they give out the top ratings — maybe to people who’ve been there the longest, etc. And arguing that you deserve a better rating is pretty much futile. It just makes you look juvenile and often results in passive-aggressive behavior like calling in sick when you’re not. When a boss gives you a criticism, McIntyre says, one of the most important things is to let your boss know that you’ve gotten the message and that you’re working on whatever it is they said you need to improve. A good way to get your game plan going is to ask simply, “What can I do to improve my rating in this area next year?”

4. What can I do to be more helpful to people on the team?
There are very, very few jobs where you’re completely independent, and team dynamics are often dynamic — and not in a good way! Your boss gets it all dumped on him. Sally doesn’t listen to me when I ask her to do something! Seriously, how clueless is Joe? Instead of being part of this charming complaint chorus, take the opportunity to ask your boss if he has any suggestions for how you can be a better team player. Maybe there’s something people are saying about you that you’re unaware of or maybe there’s just something he’d like someone to do to help the team — and by asking, you’ve now just stepped up to the plate.

5. What are your most important goals for next year?
You may be patting yourself on the back for simply setting goals for the coming year, but if you’re really taking this seriously, you’ll go one better and ask your boss what her goals are for next year. McIntyre said in all the employee surveys she’s done, people tend to score high on understanding their own goals, and even the goals of the organization but many score low in understanding the boss’s goals. “Talk to your boss. If you know what your boss’s priorities are, you may be able to think of ways your boss hasn’t thought of to make things better. Or, you may come across information that you can pass on to your boss,” McIntyre said.

Matthew Rothenberg, the editor-in-chief at TheLadders.com and co-author of “You’re Better Than Your Job Search,”adds that you should also ask about what your boss wants the team to do to achieve those goals.

Ask, “What are the two most important factors that you want to improve in our organization over the next six to ten months?” and “What are the most important things we need to do to improve those two factors?”

6. How can I make your job easier?
Go one better and ask your boss, “How can I make your job easier?” Most of us have no idea how many things, both big or small, that our bosses have to manage, from why we lost that multi-million-dollar account to why the order for paper clips never got filled. And bosses often have thoughts about things their employees do that are irritating or inefficient but for one reason or another, they don’t share those thoughts. Stop being part of the problem — and start being part of the solution. A question like this can go a long way. “Your boss might say, ‘If you could get those expense reports in a few days earlier that would help me,’ or ‘If you used the same format Fred uses for your monthly report, that would really help,’” McIntyre explained. “The question will really impress your boss because people don’t think of that,” she said. “No one ever asks that question!”

7. How do you think our business is going to change in the future? What challenges is our company facing?
This type of question has two main benefits: It will help you understand why your boss and other executives make some of the decisions that they do plus, it sends a message to your boss that you are not only thinking of your job — but also the big picture. And, if you understand the big picture, that can help you make some smart choices for the team and even recommendations to the boss.

8. What knowledge or skills do you think I may need to develop to meet my goals in this job?
This type of question is crucial to your advancement in the company. You can’t just wait until a promotion is announced, fume over why you didn’t get it and then go to the boss arguing “What does he have that I don’t?” If you’d stopped rolling your eyes in your review long enough to ask what skills your boss thought you needed to advance in your job, you would now be heading out to celebratory drinks over your new promotion — and not choking on your own rage.

9. What career opportunities do you think there are here for a person with my background?
This type of question sends a great message to your boss that you are committed to this company and building your career here. In some cases you know what you want to do, but you may not know what all the paths are for someone with your skills or what changes might be afoot that could offer you opportunities for advancement. By asking this question in your review, you’ve tossed your hat in the ring and put yourself on the boss’s radar, before the first email even went out about changes or promotions!

10. What do you find to be the most difficult thing about doing performance reviews?!
OK, only ask this one if you have a good relationship with your boss and she has a sense of humor. You may only have to do one of these exhausting reviews but remember, your boss has to go through this for every employee! She hears all the bragging, all the complaints, all the questions. So, once you’ve finished with all the you-you-you, just take a quick minute to ask her something about how she feels — what she’s frustrated about. It’s a little burst of relief amid all the intensity of reviews — and almost a guaranteed that your review will end on a smile!

Remember: This performance review isn’t your boss’s way of torturing you. It’s a way for your boss to go over your accomplishments and set goals for next year.

Don’t just think of yourself, think of the company. Remember, a lot of companies are struggling financially right now, so go in there prepared to list examples of why you’re worth your salary.

“You want to reaffirm your commitment to adding value to the company by generating more money or creating greater efficiencies,” Rothenberg said. “And specifically, you want to demonstrate an interest in what it will take to make the person reviewing you (your boss) more valuable to the company.”

If you generate revenue for the company, be prepared to list specific gains to which you’ve contributed, he said. And, if you aren’t part of the revenue-generating part of the business, be prepared to at least list a few ways that you’ve saved the company money — and how you plan to save more next year.

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