Are You Sabotaging Your Career – The Performance Review Mailbag

The response from the initial mailbag was fantastic. Among the emails I received:

“Apparently, you only read tweets and questions to your blog, so I’m sending this as a mailbag question. Could you please approve my expense report?” Anonymous Team Member.

“I read all your blogs and I haven’t gotten promoted. Your [sic] not good at advice.” KL, Ohio.

“Did you know Walt Whitman wrote and published reviews of ‘Leaves of Grass’ under fake names to boost sales? I’m just part of a grand literary tradition.” SPAM from a book author I’ve never heard of who apparently wrote his own Amazon reviews.

In other words, it’s an ideal time to do another one!

Q: I just had my performance review and things got very intense. There has to be a better way to handle this. If I’m just silent, then there is not much value, but my way didn’t work either. Engineer, Beijing, China.

A: You could fill a library with books about performance reviews – how to conduct them, how to receive them, why they’re terrible, why they’re important, etc. Many of these books are written by experts in psychology, sociology, and organizational behavior. I, on the other hand, spent most of my life writing code, before suddenly becoming a manager. In other words, I have no idea what I’m doing… which means I’m probably a lot like your manager.

First, you’ll almost never get an honest critique of your abilities.

  • Performance reviews reflect your boss’s priorities and perceptions more than your actual abilities and execution.
  • Performance reviews skew positive. Most managers don’t give negative feedback because it creates conflict, and they are conflict averse. In fact, many engineers never have a performance review meeting. They just get vaguely-worded written feedback. If there is a meeting, then it’s filled with fuzzy platitudes. (Note: If you don’t get a face-to-face performance review and your peers do, be worried; your boss can’t even fake some positive comments. Yes, I’ve done this.)
  • Financial compensation is the most accurate measure of your manager’s perspective on your performance. Words are cheaper than salary and bonus. NOTE: Even financial compensation doesn’t give you an accurate picture of your boss’s perspective on your performance. Due to conflict-aversion, managers will give a small raise just to avoid a more difficult conversation. Thus, even if you get a raise, find out if it’s below or above average. (Yep, I did this one, too.)

mailbag pic 1

Second, if you want to influence your performance review (which, I assume is code for “your raise”):

  1. Set and manage expectations early – First, find out what your manager values. Ask him/her what’s important and observe who the manager rewards (sometimes a manager doesn’t notice the difference between what they say and how they behave). Next, share your goal with your manager early (e.g. 9 months before a yearly performance review). Finally, jointly create a plan, so your manager feels ownership for your progress, as well.
  2. Keep in touch frequently – By staying close to your manager you can more easily course correct. You’ll also stay top of mind. Since pay raises are usually a yearly event, you want to constantly reinforce that you’re making progress.
  3. Don’t react during the performance review – Whatever happens, you’re going to be emotional. If you’re not – your boss will be (again, managers generally stress about reviews). Moreover, your boss will assume you’re being emotional. Wait a couple of weeks, and then follow Step 1.

In each of these cases, I’m expecting you to take the lead. “Isn’t that the manager’s job?” You’re uncomfortable trying to connect with your manager because engineers are generally introverted. Unfortunately, most engineering managers started as engineers, so they’re introverts, too! Therefore, they’re no more comfortable connecting than you are. Since you have the greater incentive, it’s up to you to drive the process.

(Two examples about how your manager is as introverted as you:

  • mailbag pic 2When I joined EMC, it was the first time I ever had an admin. I quickly realized that she addressed my biggest weaknesses. She was social, had free candy, and sat right outside my office. As a result, when engineers came by to chat with her and eat candy, it was an easy opportunity for me to connect and chat with them, too.
  • When the office setup changed, I lost that connection. As a result, I added– “Walk around and just chat with people” to the daily goals I write for myself. I’ve written that goal over 1000 times. I’ve failed on that goal over 1000 times. Engineering managers are just introverts that took a wrong turn in their careers.)


Third, if you want to actually want to improve your performance, that’s the easiest question to address. As you make progress on a project, ask your manager, your mentor, and your peers – “What could I have done to make this better?” That question makes it safe for them to respond, since it’s about accelerating improvement rather than critiquing. You’ll also get practical feedback because the project will be fresh in their minds.

As with everything else in a big company – first understand what performance reviews really mean. Second, decide what your goals are. Finally, take ownership because your manager is just as scared of you as you are of him/her.

Q: Are we ever going to schedule my performance review? Member of your teammailbag pic 3

A: Ummm… I’ll see if I can set something up… for some time. But, in the interim, just know that I’m really impressed with how hard you’re working on … whatever you’re working on. As for your raise, well, it was a really tight year, but I want you to know how much I value you, even if I can’t express it financially. High five!

Q: I keep getting great performance reviews, but I never get promoted. What am I doing wrong? Engineer, Hopkinton, MA

A: First, let’s assume that you’re not getting the performance review run-around, where you get the “high five” but the manager doesn’t mean it. In other words, you’re getting good raises and bonus. If not, read the answer to the first question.

Thus, you’re confusing doing well at your existing job with positioning yourself for your next job. Most organizations expect you to operate at the next job level before promoting you. Thus, I’d follow the advice from the first question – set that goal for promotion with your manager, create a plan to achieve it, and keep in touch with your manager.

Don’t confuse performance reviews with career path advancement. You need to show you can operate at the next level, not just excel at the existing one.

Q: I hate doing performance reviews with my team. It feels like a huge waste of time, trying to offer feedback based on things that happened as much as 11 months ago. I want to help my team grow and advance. How should I do it? S. Manley, Santa Clara, CA

A: Try to ask this question at least once a week – “How can I help?” Your team will open up to you with their challenges and you can provide guidance to them. It will open a conversation that can go into other areas, which is even better. Regardless, you’ll be involved, connected, and helpful rather than distant, disconnected, and judgmental.

You could make a daily goal that you should “Walk around and just chat with people.” Who knows, maybe the 1345th time will be the charm. And stop sending mailbag questions to yourself. It makes you look desperate.



Performance reviews are stressful for everybody – employee and manager alike. By default, they’re generally unproductive and potentially harmful. However, if we focus on staying constantly connected to help our teams grow, we can dramatically reduce the pain and agony. Until next time, I’ll leave you with one last question:

I met Joe Tucci once at an event. We took a picture together in front of a canoe. I attached the picture. [Ed. Note: It was not attached] I had fun that night because Joe and everybody from EMC was so nice to me and I really liked the food and there were free drinks. Joe said I could call him if I ever needed anything but I forgot to ask him for his phone number. I want to invite him to come to my wedding because I think we’d have fun. Could you send his cell phone number to me?” Stalker, NJ.

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

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