Your performance review might actually be about your boss, says psychotherapist—here's the No. 1 way to tell

Farah Harris, psychotherapist and CEO/Founder of Working Well Daily.
Farah Harris

Do you need to work on your time management skills, or does your boss need to give you adequate time to complete your tasks? Your poor performance review may be more reflective of your boss than of you, says Farah Harris, a Flossmoor, Illinois-based psychotherapist and author.

"We have to be careful [because] sometimes we get reviews, and [they're] just the projection of our leaders," Harris tells CNBC Make It. "They'll claim it's feedback when it's really just them projecting on you."

Figuring out whether you're getting real feedback or not comes down to one question for your boss, she says: Can you please give me an example? If they can't offer one, that's a dead giveaway, "because how are you supposed to improve if you don't know what you're supposed to be working on?" Harris asks.

Uncredible performance reviews are surprisingly common, Marcus Buckingham, head of people and performance research at the Roseland, N.J.-based ADP Research Institute told the Society for Human Resource Management in March.

"Every single human alive today is a horribly unreliable rater of other human beings," he said, calling it the "idiosyncratic rating effect."

Only 33% of employees feel like their performance at work is evaluated fairly, consulting firm WTW's 2022 Performance Reset Survey found. The consulting firm analyzed 837 companies, including 150 in North America, and found that only 26% of employees think performance reviews are effective.

Say your boss calls you a poor communicator, for example. "If you ask them, 'Can you give me an example of when my communication was poor?' and they're just being general, maybe you're actually very direct and they don't like that, so they're going to say you have poor communication skills," Harris says.

Know when to adapt, speak out or quit

You may be able to solve the dilemma by identifying trends in your boss's behavior and mirroring them, Oxford professor Paulo Savaget told Make It in March.

If you know they prefer communication via email, for example, make it a point to send questions or important information in writing. That way, communication is less likely to be a pain point in future performance reviews.

Or, if you bring your issue up with them directly, stay polite and talk to them about how actionable feedback and clear examples are "essential for improvement" in the workplace, Harris says. Be careful to not sound disrespectful or accusatory, she adds.

If all else fails, and the inadequate feedback takes a toll on your job performance or mental health, it may be time to depart from the company, Robyn L. Garrett — CEO of leadership coaching firm Beamably — told the Harvard Business Review's "New Here" podcast in September.

"It's important to protect yourself at all times," Garrett said. "Make sure you're taking care of you because they're not always going to, unfortunately."

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