4 Steps to Acing Your Next Performance Review

Deborah Swerdlow

A page in a notebook that says, "My plan."

For many, an annual performance review can be the most anxiety-inducing event of your professional year. But with a little bit of reframing, it doesn’t have to be.

Try thinking of it this way: A performance review is a great opportunity to sit down with your boss, reflect on the year, and craft a vision for what the coming year could look like.

It can be hard to find time to do any of those things—let alone all three—in your day-to-day, so when your annual review shows up on the calendar, be sure to prepare so you can fully take advantage of the opportunity.

These four steps can help you ace your next performance review, whether it’s one week—or 51 weeks—away.

Tell the story of your accomplishments

Your performance is the focus of your annual review, and hopefully you have a lot of accomplishments to share. Your review will be more effective if you present your accomplishments as a coherent story of the value you’ve added to the organization over the last year, as opposed to a laundry list of things you did well.

The key to telling a story about your accomplishments is to focus on outcomes from your work, as opposed to activities you completed.

Pro Tip: Much of this information can go in a self-assessment. If your organization doesn’t require a self-assessment, you can still complete one. Just send it to your manager at least a week before your review and say something like: “In advance of my review, I have reflected on my accomplishments and progress toward my goals over the last year. I wanted to share my reflections with you to inform our conversation next week.”

To build your story, first review your accomplishments over the last year and choose the ones you want to highlight. This part will be much easier if you’ve been tracking your accomplishments in real time.

As you reflect, focus on enduring accomplishments with notable outcomes. Here are some examples:

  • Notable outcome (recommended): Implemented new donor management system that allows us to more easily identify donors who could be upgraded, resulting in an average of $X more in donations per month.
  • Fleeting outcome (discouraged): Planned a successful meeting for 40 people.

If you and your boss set annual goals in your last review, make sure to highlight if you achieved—or exceeded—those goals and then note the outcomes.

Prepare to give and receive feedback

The two kinds of feedback you are likely to receive are supportive feedback (what your boss wants you to keep doing) and constructive feedback (what your boss wants you to improve).

In practice, this could look like:

  • Supportive feedback: “The weekly reports you prepare have been indispensable to our team. I’ve used the information in reports to our funders and to the management team, and everyone has expressed their appreciation for your thorough work.”
  • Constructive (or corrective) feedback: “I want to discuss your management of the volunteer recruitment program. Six months ago, we talked about how to rework the program to recruit volunteers from different age ranges and backgrounds, but I haven’t seen any progress on that front. Can you help me understand what’s going on?”

Whichever type of feedback you receive, a simple “thank you” is a good first response. If you receive corrective feedback that you don’t understand, you can ask for clarification or a suggestion of what your boss would like you to do instead.

Receiving constructive feedback can be challenging, so it’s a good idea to mentally prepare.

Remember: No one is perfect. You want to be the best you can be at your job, right? Receiving feedback—and applying it the next time you face a similar situation—can help you do that.

Your manager may also ask you to provide feedback on his performance so he can better support you in the coming year. This is the space to focus on big-picture things that affect your ability to do your job, such as:

  • "It was really helpful to hear your feedback on [X project or skill] today. Could you give me feedback like that on a more regular basis so I can continue to improve throughout the year?”
  • “Sometimes I struggle to complete a project because I lack key information, such as a budget or details on who needs to sign off on the materials. It would help me if you could provide this information (to the extent we know it) when we’re first talking about the project.”

If your manager doesn’t ask for feedback and you want to provide some, you can say something like: “It would help me complete my goals for this year if you could… [insert the thing you would like him to improve].”

Prepare for what you want to negotiate

As long as your performance review is positive overall, it can be a good time to ask for a raise or additional perks because you’ve just noted all the ways you added value to your team in the last year.

Any successful negotiation requires preparation. First, think about what you want to ask for. What would make you a more productive or satisfied employee in the coming year? Is it more vacation time? The option to work remotely? A raise? Then, build your case.

When asking for a raise, promotion, or title change, always focus on how you’ve earned it, not how much you need or want it. When asking to work remotely, focus on how it will improve your work—for example, if your organization’s open-office plan is distracting, explain to your boss how working in solitude at home can help you to be more productive.


Part of why performance reviews feel so stressful is because we only have them once a year. The unfamiliar can be frightening—but practicing can make it more familiar.

The best way to practice is to role-play the situation with a friend. You play yourself, and ask your friend to play your boss.

Pro Tip: Try to practice with a friend who works in a similar social impact environment as you so she will understand your context.

Practice telling the story of your accomplishments and receiving supportive or corrective feedback from your “boss.” Ask your friend to give you pointers after the role-play and then try again with her advice in mind.

If you don’t feel comfortable practicing with a friend or don’t have time for a role-play, you can take a video of yourself or practice while looking in a mirror.

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Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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