Career Planning – Winning the Performance Review Game

Q. My performance review was disappointing, although I've had two promotions in the last four years. My boss said I needed to work on showing more leadership skills when I'm working on a team. When I try to pin him down for a discussion, he brushes me aside.

A. As you move up the ladder, you'll be expected to work on your own, with less and less feedback and direction.

A lack of feedback can be a sign that you're trusted and respected. You're expected to read between the lines and interpret unwritten signals.

Start with these three questions:

Q1. What is your company's culture around performance reviews?

In some cultures, you're expected to take a negative review in stride. Responding will be viewed as defensive and insecure behavior. Other cultures value discussion and at least the appearance of openness.

Q2. What signals are you sending?

Your boss needs to know that you're willing to talk tough. You can say something like, "Do not worry about hurting my feelings. Then act on your promise.

You may say, "I'm happy with my review – just trying to learn. Can you give me some specific examples of situations where I could have demonstrated more leadership?

Q3. What's the unwritten message?

Your boss may be absolutely delided with your performance, but the rules (formal or informal) require him to include negative along with positive feedback. So he thread in some comments about leadership, which does not amount to much.

The key is to take your performance review in context. If you're receiving tangible recognition – increased responsibility, invitations to key meetings, attention from major players – you'll appear insecure if you worry about your performance review. But if you're getting warning signals – missed meetings, weaker assignments – you need to understand what's really going on.