What’s the sweet spot for a self-evaluation?

First, what’s your goal as an employee in a self-evaluation? Let’s separate out idealism from reality first off.

Of course it would be nice if a self-evaluation were a chance for you to honestly reflect on your work for the past year, be proud of your achievements and set yourself improvement goals for the coming year with the support of your boss.

Hard fact #1: If the self-evaluation is the only avenue for performance raises in your company, you will be motivated to present a near perfect picture of yourself.

Hard fact #2: Many companies use systems in which high ratings are restricted or the department is required to be rated along a “normal” bell curve – so your boss may be trying to make your rating fit to a framework she didn’t come up with or necessarily agrees with.

Hard fact #3: There are company environments where showing any weakness will put you at a disadvantage later.

Hard fact #4: Sometimes the self-evaluation is done because “we should do it” but the results have no influence on the ratings assigned to you by your boss and nobody really cares what you’ve written.

So your first task before you fill out your self-evaluation is to know your environment. If you’re new to the company, ask some colleagues how the process usually works. Ask your boss, if you have a good rapport. Figure out how much effort and honesty you need to spend on this. If your company values this process as an avenue for evaluating your performance and offering support to improve, you might be more honest about your weak spots. If they put the results in a drawer and never talk about them, maybe you don’t need to write a 1000 word essay when 200 will do.

Your second task is one you should start right away: Keep a kudos folder. Every time you have evidence that you’ve done a good job, put it in there. This can be thanks from coworkers, numbers showing that your work had a measurable impact, or a quick summary of a successful project. When it’s evaluation time, you now have some evidence to support your self-evaluation. This is especially helpful if, like me, you have an awful memory and six months ago may as well be three years.

So you’re ready to start. If you can, pick a good time to do this. Did you have a good day with some work successes? Maybe that’s your time. Are you most full of optimism in the morning? There you go. Do you need a drink to relax enough to do this? Not gonna judge. If you tend to put this off until the last minute, try this tactic: Make a pact with a coworker to do them together, either in person or via video chat with the sound turned off. A coworker and I once took our laptops to lunch and spent a couple hours on the restaurant’s patio filling out peer evaluations.

How do you now fill out a reasonably honest self-evaluation?

You don’t want to give yourself a score that is massively higher than your company’s evaluation of you, but you definitely don’t want to let imposter syndrome get the better of you and turn in an evaluation that makes it look like you don’t value yourself or your own work. The sweet spot is rating yourself slightly higher and being able to back up your assertions with evidence.

Aside: When I was a fairly new manager, I had a direct report rate themself at 95 out of 100; their evaluation from the company was 5. The enormity of this disconnect doesn't reflect well on either side, frankly, but the one who looked out of touch with reality in the situation was the employee, because they were a) not in a position of power and b) in the minority with their opinion.
This is just about the worst-case scenario, but it shouldn't happen often. Most employees are more self-aware. Most employers would have fired someone they genuinely thought was performing that badly long before. Possibly I was terrible at giving constructive criticism early enough back then, I wouldn't rule that out either.

If you know you tend to rate yourself lower than others see you, try to evaluate yourself as if you were your own coworker. Would “you as your own coworker” get a 4 out 5 objectively, even if you feel like you should give yourself a 3? Look at the facts, and if in doubt go with the higher number. Why? Read up on the anchoring effect.

What if you think you had a shitty year? Here you need a sanity check: how was your performance objectively? How did you compare to others in the same role? Did you let multiple deadlines slip or turn in terrible results, or were you slower than usual but on the ball communicating about it?

Have you had feedback from your peers or boss during the year reflecting lower performance than usual? In a good company, you won’t be blindsided by anything which comes up in your performance review; if you haven’t heard negative feedback, don’t assume you’re doing a bad job before you’re told it. If it comes up for the first time in your review it’s entirely fair to ask why you weren’t told earlier.

Sometimes holding the ship steady is as much as really is needed and as long as you didn’t let it sink, you’re still meeting expectations. It can be useful to remind your boss that it was a tough time; you can do this without getting into private details. Consider phrasing like “Despite challenges in my personal life, I met 95% of deadlines” and check if you can back that up with something like “which meets the department’s average.”

Aside: "I kept the ship afloat 95% of the time" would still be doing a terrible job. Don't use that.

Are you sure you had a terrible year and the evidence backs you up? Go in ready to acknowledge it and focus on what you can do this year to make improvements. As above, know your environment: I personally would be impressed with someone who asked for support from me in specific ways; others might find it presumptuous.

Good luck to you, no matter what category of self-evaluation-filler-outer you fall into. I don’t know anyone who enjoys this process, so at least you can always take comfort in knowing you’re not alone.

Remember: Your best advocate is always going to be yourself. Even if you have a great boss in your corner, bosses aren’t omniscient, don’t have the full picture of your daily work, may also have terrible memories and multiple direct reports to keep track of on top of that. It’s worth it to put in the work to be able to judge your own performance fairly and objectively.

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