The Secret Life of Your Quarterly Performance Review

There’s a secret about the quarterly performance review process they don’t tell new managers.

You learn how to cheat the system.

A new manager made this observation to me after completing his first performance review. And you know what?

It’s true.

The knowledge of how quarterly performance reviews work is unavoidable for managers.

So how can we use this information to help others?

Disclosure: This article includes affiliate links to any books I reference. I may receive compensation when you click on links to these products.

How do Quarterly Performance Reviews Work for Managers?

To understand how managers can cheat, we need to learn how performance reviews work. Regardless of the cadence, this is what happens behind the scenes:

  1. Your manager collects feedback and reviews your contributions.
  2. They determine how each contribution applies to your company’s career framework.
  3. Your performance review rating is decided.
  4. Your boss explains their ratings with other managers. Feedback is provided about your performance rating.
  5. Reviews are shared. Promotions and raises given. Managers take some time off after an emotionally exhausting process.

Writing a performance review is intense. Your manager crafts a chapter of your career’s story and weaves it into the language of the company.

They defend your story’s details against a panel whose goal it not aligned with you. This panel’s purpose is to ensure fair ratings across all performance reviews.

What’s the side effect of this work? Managers learn how the performance review system works.

Let’s dig into how performance reviews are seen from a manager’s eyes.

What is a Career Framework?

A quick aside – what do I mean by a “career framework”?

A career framework outlines the expectations and career paths of an employee at a company. Career frameworks show how one progresses in their current title and gets promoted to the next. 

Some companies even tie raises to one’s growth within a career band. The idea is to incentivize the development of one’s skills.

I recommend checking out progression.fyi if you want examples.

How Managers Think About a Quarterly Performance Review

Great performance reviews have two components:

  • Clear feedback on what an individual did well and where they need to grow.
  • How this individual is performing within the company’s career framework.

Giving feedback in a performance review is straightforward. Check out my guides on how to give positive feedback and constructive feedback to learn more.

The challenge is attributing an individual’s contributions to a company’s career framework. Managers need to understand how the words of the career framework are interpreted. 

  • Are the words interpreted literally or “spiritually”?
  • What past examples represent high performance for an expectation?

Answering these questions defines how a company determines raises. They define who gets promoted and when.

Let’s look at an example of what I mean.

Example of How A Manager Rates Performance

Looking at Square’s Career Ladder, let’s use a behavior for a Senior Engineer (Level 5 Individual Contributor):

Improves code structure and architecture in service of testability and maintainability.

The questions I have for this behavior are:

  • Does Square take interpret behavior literally or not? 
  • What examples exemplify this behavior at Square? Who is considered to be a high performer of this behavior?
  • What is the expected behavior for someone just promoted to Senior Engineer? What about someone who has been in the role for a few years?

Reading this behavior, I see growth depend on the impact of one’s contributions. 

For a new Senior Engineer, I would expect the following:

  • Be able to refactor code as part of their daily work.
  • Define testing goals with Quality Assurance (QA) for a project.
  • Build towards the long-term architectural goals of the team. 

My expectations change for a more experienced Senior Engineer. I expect them to solve more complex problems that multiply the effectiveness of the team. While they may not see the some problems in a system’s architecture, they can address them once known. Some examples of what I mean are:

  • Defining or contributing a plan to update the foundational pieces of critical systems.
  • Leading projects that require coordination across two or three teams.
  • Work QA to evaluate and mitigate risks early in a project.

Here’s the thing though – these are all assumptions based on my own experiences. I won’t know Square’s actual expectations until I experience their performance review process. 

The performance review process is where managers learn how to pull the levers of the organization.

Why Do Managers Get Frequent Promotions?

Coming back to the thesis of this post – how managers learn to cheat at quarterly performance reviews…

Managers need to know how career development works at your company. They must understand the subtext of the expectations for your title level. They are in the room where promotions get made. They see what it means to be a high performer. They learn how others rate their employees.

They learn how to pull the levers of the organization to grow careers.

Managers can’t escape this knowledge. They have to know how performance reviews work to teach the process to others.

What matters is how managers use this information.

Managers: How Can You Help Your Employees Write a Better Quarterly Performance Review?

How managers use their knowledge of the performance review process is why management can be ethically demanding. 

You need to be honest with yourself. You must understand your values. You make decisions that affect the actual livelihoods of others. 

What you do with the information in this article can’t be decided by me.

How you share this knowledge is decided by you.

The most I can do is share my viewpoint in hopes that it will push you to help others.

To me, great people managers are measured by how much the people around them grow. They put others before themselves because that’s what brings them joy. Performance reviews are an important part of this.

When it comes to performance reviews, here are my tips to put together better assessments:

  • Be clear in what the organization expects of a given role. Overexplain how the performance review process works. Transparency will build trust in the review process.
  • If you use a career framework, explain the actual expectations of a given behavior.
  • Pay attention to the examples that represent high performance. Use them to identify opportunities for your direct reports.
  • Be specific in your written assessments. I like to highlight behaviors that one grew and underperformed in. This gives clarity on where employees should focus their efforts.
  • Don’t wait until performance review season to check in on progress. Give feedback early and often.

Individual Contributors: How can I Write a Better Quarterly Performance Review for Myself?

Knowing how performance reviews work for managers, what can you do as an individual contributor? 

To write a great self-assessment for yourself, work like your manager. Track your contributions, learn examples, and tie this information to your career framework.

Start a Brag Sheet

Start making a brag sheet today. 

A brag sheet is a document that outlines every contribution you are proud of making over time. Reflect on your work every week or two and add at least 1-3 items you’re proud of. 

Don’t hold back – anything that has made a positive impact on your project, team, or company, is acceptable. Some examples are:

  • Leading a team meeting
  • Owning a feature or project from inception to release.
  • Helping others with a solve a bug
  • Onboarding new employees

This list will make writing your self-assessment and performance review a LOT easier.

Learn Examples of Exemplary Behavior in Performance Reviews

Ask your manager how performance reviews work behind the scenes. They won’t be able to tell you everything, but it will be more than where you started. This is only the start though.

The goal is to have your manager share examples of high performance.

Say you’re told to focus on developing your skills in a specific behavior. Ask what people have done in the past. Managers should have multiple examples to give you. You can use this information to focus your skill development.

With promotions, it’s a similar approach, but on a larger scale. You need to show that your contributions represent performance the next level. 

To reframe the discussion for promotions, use this great question that a report asked me:

Who is considered to be a high performer at the next title level?

Your manager will point you to people you can learn from. They represent what your company sees as a high-performing contributor.

Tie Your Work to the Career Framework

With a list of your contributions and examples of behavior in hand, it’s time for the last step.

Tying your contributions to your company’s career framework.

This step is what managers do when writing your performance review. They take your contributions and determine which behaviors they applies to. This is how your boss translates your work into the language of the career framework. 

Your manager can help with this work. Once a month bring your brag sheet to them. Work together to tie your contributions to each behavior in your career framework. You will get a deeper understanding of how performance is evaluated. This work will get you the promotions and raises you are looking for.

Wrapping Up

Managers must have a deep understanding of the quarterly performance review process. They need to learn what every word in a career framework means. They must build a library of examples that represent a given behavior. The result of this knowledge is important – they are your guide on the career path of your company.

Unfortunately, this information can be leveraged it for one’s own gain. This is why people management is an ethically demanding job. HOW we use this knowledge has direct impact the lives of others. 

I challenge you to decide how you will use this information to help others.

That’s why we got into this job, right?

I’d love to learn how you think about your performance reviews. How do you approach your employees’ assessments? What do you think about when making your own? Let me know on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Further Reading

Before you go

The purpose of Build the Stage is teaching YOU how to be a successful leader
If you learned something new from this essay, I’d appreciate it if you’d complete one of the following actions:

  • Share this essay: By sharing, you help others grow their skills. Save a click with the buttons below.
  • Join the Discussion: What’s one thing you learned from this essay? Let me know on Twitter or Email.
  • Give Feedback: Candid feedback is the most effective way to develop one’s skills. Send me an email to let me know how to improve Build the Stage.
  • Subscribe! If you’re not a part of the Build the Stage community, it’s never too late.