Annual performance reviews have, for me at least, been largely useless over the last 10 years. I can't recall a single good piece of feedback I've received in these. There may very well have been good suggestions; I just don't remember any, like I do the good advice I've received elsewhere and blogged about on this site. This year, however, my annual review will be memorable but it's not for the reasons I expected.
Reviews have the unfortunate bias of being linked to compensation changes and that makes the process uncomfortable, both when I've been the reviewer and reviewee. Many organizations try hard to make this better - making reviews shorter and simpler, or more frequent, or making them "360" to get feedback from peers and subordinates. All good ideas but none that has made a sufficient impact on me becoming a better employee or a manager.
Most review scales have some variant of "below expectations", "meets expectations", "exceeds expectations." What is making this year's review memorable is that I finally understand whose expectations I'm comparing against. Mine. And for the first time I can recall I am giving myself a "meets expectations" rating (and even a "below expectations" in some places). Now this will sound self-absorbed but I've always given myself some sort of "above expectations" rating in every previous review and have received confirmation from my boss as so. Maybe I genuinely believed my self-evaluation each time. Regardless, this is the first review where I feel I've been 100% honest about my performance because I know I'll be better next year having learned from it. And if there's a compensation impact due to my average performance so be it.
So, what does it feel like to admit you're not exceeding expectations when you're among top performers and are used to being a top performer (or at least being told that you are)? Not bad actually - if you have confidence that you can learn from your errors and get better. I think the reason I may have been hesitant in the past to admit my failings in a review is because I worried that if I did then how could my boss trust me in future. Wouldn't s/he think less of me if they knew I admitted various mistakes? Ironic given all the workplace rhetoric on "taking big risks" and "celebrating failures" yet few, myself included till now, are bold enough to point this out on their performance appraisals.
The primary motivator for me to do well now is me - because I know I'm good - not great - but good, and I need not prove it to anyone. This may be the closest thing to work/life nirvana (and perhaps I have sales coaching - or maybe it's really life coaching - to thank for that)! So as I review myself, and gather feeedback from others, it's not about what goes on record and what compensation impact it may have, and entirely to do with how I get better.
I anticipate that I will get tougher on myself every year in reviews. Not in a punishing and unfair sort of way but with an eye towards truly reviewing where things went well and didn't and why. Indeed, I suspect that "Meets Expectations" will become the norm for my self-assessment as it's akin to saying "I did my job well". In a high-performance environment that seems like a healthy and sustainable goal.