Companies & Industries

Self-Assessment: Tell It Like It Is


The benefits of—gasp!—being brutally honest about your strengths and flaws at performance-review time

Last winter, when I filled out the self-assessment portion of my annual performance review, I decided to try something radically different: honesty.

It's not that I'd been dishonest in these exercises in the past. I had, however, largely viewed the performance-measurement process as a hassle that needed to be dispensed with as quickly as possible—and sugar-coated, at the very least. I didn't take it seriously, and I didn't see any reason to be self-incriminating.

But this time, either I was in a particularly reflective mood or I just let my perfectionist streak get the best of me, so I spent real time and effort laying out my strengths and weaknesses.

Here's one passage in which I laid out a few areas where I saw room for improvement: "I occasionally drift off point, talk too long, or try to throw out too many things at once, and I will actively work on these tendencies because I find when I am consciously aware of them I can be quite succinct and effective. The greater issue is a failure to engage in the first place, which I already touched upon above. I need to be more consistent and organized in laying things out and sticking to a stricter schedule with more set guidelines."

Savvy or Suicidal?

While I was initially afraid insights like these this would hurt my overall performance rating—and influence the comments (and overall rating) by my higher-ups—I was pleasantly surprised when my direct supervisor actually complimented me on knowing myself so well (even if that did mean I was more on-the-money than I would have liked in my admission of disorganization and time-management woes).

He even joked that I'd "stolen his thunder" and, if anything, he possibly went a bit easier on me because of my own warts-and-all self examination.

I decided to consult a few outside experts though to see if they thought my gamble was savvy…or suicidal. I was pleasantly surprised when they generally lauded the brutal-honesty approach.

"People think there are all those tricks," says career columnist Penelope Trunk, author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, of the numerous workplace-etiquette guides and how-to tools workers often consult in an attempt to craft a good reputation. Instead, it's better to remember one key fact: "Every career is about having good self-knowledge."

Swinging Between Extremes

Employees shouldn't be so afraid of how they come across that they forget that success is about delivering the goods—often by learning from one's mistakes and consistently improving—rather than devoting the majority of one's time and energy to polishing and promoting a pristine image.

Not that employees, and young women in particular, should be afraid that writing a balanced and fair self-assessment necessarily sends a bad message to their employers, says New Girl on the Job author Hannah Seligson: "I think getting over a perfection stigma is the biggest trip up for any young woman in the workplace," Young female employees she's spoken with, she says, often alternate between the extremes of feeling they need to come across as perfect or being entirely self-deprecating.

I should point out, however, that it would have been far more difficult to put myself on the line if I didn't have a few years of experience under my belt (and the successes that come with that), as well as two supervisors with whom I'd worked closely and were open and communicative about their expectations.

For workers who feel a bit more in the dark, Trunk recommends being specific when it comes to laying out where you excel and where you could improve. "Very few people can identify their character flaws, so what might work is, you tell the boss the projects you did poorly on, and the boss might tell you: 'Here's where you can change.'"

Remember, though, when you lay everything out there, you may impress with your honesty, but you hold yourself more accountable. After all, when I write my next self-assessment, it's going to look a little suspicious if I haven't found any ways to improve on things like organizational skills and time management.

Gerdes is a staff editor for BusinessWeek in New York.

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