The Ultimate Guide to Your First Performance Review (When You Have Imposter Syndrome)

Two women talking to each other about work with a laptop in front of wooden stadium seating
Photo by Alexander Suhorucov

January kicks off one of the most stressful times of year: performance review season. If it’s your first-ever performance review, you’re most likely pretty nervous. This may be your first time receiving direct feedback, and you may not be sure what to expect.

If you’re a woman, person of color, or member of an underrepresented group, you might have additional concerns about bias in your review. And if you have imposter syndrome, you’re worried this is the moment someone will realize you don’t belong.

Fortunately, you can take steps to be prepared for this review and every one after. This prep work will help you excel in the review, get specific feedback, and be on the lookout for bias.

Performance reviews can feel like one-shot feedback sessions, but preparing with a mentor can help you go into the review with confidence. Meeting with a mentor on Merit is free. 

What are performance reviews?

Performance reviews are typically annual or bi-annual processes where employees receive direct feedback on their work. During a performance review, you and your manager discuss your strengths and areas for growth. Often, performance reviews are tied to bonuses, raises, and promotions—but each company may do things a little differently.

If you’re at a tech company,  the performance review process will most likely include a combination of a written self-assessment, manager assessment, and “360 feedback” gathered from your peers. Each one will probably include quantitative (like ratings on a scale) and qualitative (like open-ended questions) feedback.

Performance reviews can be time-consuming and stressful for everyone involved. Writing, sharing, and receiving feedback might take weeks. Especially if a review is not going to lead to a promotion or raise—you might wonder, “Why even have performance reviews?”

Performance reviews present an opportunity to look back on the past 6 to 12 months, level set with your manager, and set goals for the future. You can think of them as set checkpoints to talk about where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. Emilie Hsieh, co-founder and CEO of Allie, a diversity and inclusion-focused tech company, says, “Ideally, it’s a good point for your to reflect. What do you like about this [job]? What do you want to keep doing? What do you want the role to be?” In Hsieh’s view, it’s ideally a conversation: ”Hopefully it’s not just two people looking at each other, [saying], ‘How do you think I did?’ ‘How do you think you did?’”

Preparing for your performance review

One good thing about performance reviews is that you can begin preparing well in advance. Taking a few small steps will put you in a great position going into your review. Here are six tips to prepare for your performance review:

  1. Save your job description and use it as a benchmark when assessing your work.
  2. Learn the process (and ask for help).
  3. Keep a running list of accomplishments.
  4. Ask for feedback regularly (and not just from your manager).
  5. Know the metric(s) you’re being measured on.
  6. Regularly reflect on and recalibrate your goals.

Save your job description and use it as a benchmark when assessing your work. It’s always a good idea to save the job description you were hired for—it’s a reference point for why you were hired and to do what. For your performance review, your original job description can help you look back and remember what’s expected of you. Hsieh adds, “If it’s your first ever review, it’s nice because you have the job description when you started,” which will answer, “What are you supposed to do? What is going to be helpful for you to be successful in the role? Have that as a guideline of ‘Here’s what my employer wanted me to do.’”

The job description can be a good reminder of what success looks like for your role and the responsibilities you were originally asked to take on. 

Learn the process (and ask for help). Knowing what to expect can make a huge difference when approaching your performance review. You can even ask about performance reviews, like how frequently they occur and how they’re conducted, during the interview.

Many companies host a training or kick off to provide an overview of how the company’s process works. But it doesn’t hurt to ask more tenured employees about their experiences and what to expect.

Keep a running list of accomplishments and positive feedback. Six months to a year is a long time. It’s easy to forget the pull request that got glowing praise from your tech lead or the presentation your teammates loved.

So start a file (like a Google Doc) of every achievement or piece of positive feedback you receive—call it your “wins document.” Every time you hit a milestone or someone responds positively to your work, write it down! It’s easy to forget to do this, but once you get in the habit of recording everything, you’ll have a great record of all your wins since you started the job or your last performance review.

Jordan Sale, founder of 81 Cents, which recently joined forces with Rora, adds that most managers don’t have the bandwidth to keep track of all your accomplishments. “As much as you’re thinking about your performance, your manager has a lot of other things on their plate. They’re probably not remembering everything awesome you’ve done. It can be helpful to keep a running list: here’s great feedback I got, here’s milestones I helped reach, metrics I helped achieve.”

As much as you're thinking about your performance, your manager may not have the same bandwidth. Use a "wins doc" to track all achievements and positive feedback so it doesn't get lost or forgotten.

Ask for feedback regularly (and not just from your manager). One way to reduce the element of surprise in your performance review is to ask for feedback along the way. Hsieh explains, “Feedback should never be a surprise. Your performance review should not be a surprise. You should be getting check-ins and feedback throughout the course of whatever that timeline is, whether it’s biannually or annually.”

If you have a regular one-on-one with your manager, try to ask for feedback at least every other meeting and write down all the feedback you receive. Maintaining this running document will help you refer back during performance review season to pinpoint the areas for growth you and your manager have identified.

If you’re not getting regular feedback from your manager, Hsieh suggests asking directly by saying something like, “’I’ve been in the role for six months, a month, three months. I would love to check in on how I’m doing. Can we grab 15 to 20 minutes to talk through this?’ You can ask for that meeting and come prepared with a few concrete questions, like, ‘What do I need to do to get to the next level?’ or ‘What developmental skills do I need to work on?’”

Also reach out to the people you work with regularly to get their feedback, too. They may see your work product more regularly or directly than your manager does, and if your company uses 360 feedback, their thoughts might be included in your review, too! Sale says, “I always tell people: don’t wait until the performance review to talk about your performance. You should really always be talking about it with your manager or anyone you’re working closely with. Monthly is a great cadence to check in about it. It gives you a chance to get learnings and act on them.”

Performance feedback shouldn't be a surprise! Ask for feedback early and often from your manager, your teammates, and your peers. 

Know the metric(s) you’re being measured on. Typically, your success is based on one to two factors. If you’re a product manager, it may be how well you delivered products and on what timeframe. If you’re an engineer, it may be your ability to write code and debug problems.

Make sure you know what those areas are and focus on them. At startups, it’s easy to get distracted with tasks outside your job description, because you’re encouraged to wear lots of hats and be a team player. Sale adds that that kind of startup mindset “communicates that your value is in doing lots of things, but at the end of the day, you’re going to be evaluated on what impact you’re driving for the company.” It can be especially hard to say no if you’re new and you’re worried about being seen as negative, aggressive, unhelpful, or any other biased term that might be applied to you.

For women in particular, it can be tempting to take on these “non-promotable tasks” that may end up detracting from the work you’re being evaluated on. Sale explains, “Research shows that women tend to take on more types of work that are outside their core function, like sending around a card for a send-off—or work that’s adjacent to their core job, but with someone else on the team. It can sometimes be challenging for a manager to see the full scope of someone’s job and the work they’re doing—and then use that to advocate on your behalf.”

To avoid doing too many non-promotable tasks, you may end up having to say “no” or explain that spending time on a certain task would detract from your core work. Sale emphasizes, “The learning for the employee is to get clear on what’s the metric your manager cares about and really focus on that. It’s tempting early on to want to say yes to every request people are making of you. You do reach a certain point where saying yes to something takes your time away from the work you’re being evaluated on. Being clear on how you’re being measured so you can work on that metric first and foremost is really important.“

Avoid non-promotable tasks that aren't related to your core function. These kinds of work take up time but don't affect how you're being measured and assessed. 

Regularly reflect on and recalibrate your goals. A performance review isn’t just being told what you did well and where you could improve. It’s also a forum for you to talk to your manager about your career goals and growth at the company.

Write down skills you’d like to master and milestones you’d like to hit in your career path, and once a month assess yourself on those skills. Have you become more comfortable with React? Are you getting better insights during user interviews?

Also take some time to think about what you’re enjoying, disliking, and wanting to do more of in your work. If you’re regularly finding that you want to spend more time working with designers or you really enjoy collaborating across teams, let your manager know. They may be able to find opportunities for you to do more of the work you really enjoy.

For more guidance on setting career goals, check out Merit’s guide to Navigating Your Career.

Performance reviews aren't just about what you could be doing differently or better—they're also about setting goals and your career path.

Writing a self-assessment for your performance review

Chances are that you’ll have some form of self-assessment as part of your performance review. You may be asked to rate yourself on certain metrics as well as answer questions about your strengths, weaknesses, and accomplishments.

Use your wins doc and feedback from your manager and peers. Writing your self-assessment becomes a little bit easier if you’ve maintained a list of accomplishments as well as recorded feedback you’ve received from your manager and peers along the way. This way, your self-assessment is based on solid examples from your wins document

Looking at a blank page and wondering how to fill out the empty space can be terrifying, especially if you have imposter syndrome.

Tackling imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is common among folks from underrepresented groups in tech. Imposter syndrome is the belief that you do not belong and are not “worthy” of your role/position, regardless of your qualifications or achievements. It’s accompanied by a fear of being “found out”—that someone will realize you shouldn’t be there.

Hsieh has a checklist of questions to ask to identify if you might have imposter syndrome:

  • Do you have a tendency to be super critical about yourself?
  • Do you tend to not recognize your wins?
  • Do you have a tendency, when people give you good feedback of how excited they are about your work, to dismiss it or think it’s luck?

Hsieh explains, “Those are a few facts that might point to the fact that you have imposter syndrome. It tends to strike more in folks who are young in their career and don’t necessarily have folks who look like them on their team or network.”

If you’re battling imposter syndrome, you can try a few tactics to manage those feelings:

  • Use frameworks like STAR to gather and establish evidence about your work and performance.
  • Acknowledge your feelings as valid and notice when you’re feeling like an imposter. For example, this might be when you receive positive feedback and you immediately want to counter it.
  • Ask for help and share your feelings, like with a mentor.
Imposter syndrome tends to strike more in folks who are earlier in their careers and don’t necessarily have folks who look like them on their team or network. Gathering evidence around your accomplishments, acknowledging your feelings, and asking for help are three steps you can take to tackle imposter syndrome.

Performance review bias

Performance reviews are notorious for including bias. Managers may unwittingly layer in their own biases when evaluating their employees’ performance. These biases tend to affect women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community disproportionately.  (According to Hsieh, these effects have been studied more often specifically around gender bias, because achieving a large enough sample size is easier.)

Members of these groups are more likely to receive subjective feedback based on personality traits or behavior rather than skills and accomplishments. Hsieh adds, “They tend to have their success attributed to luck or hard work, not necessarily skills. And men tend to get more objective feedback and more developmental feedback as well.” Rather than receiving feedback on hard skills to improve or build, women and members of other underrepresented groups may be more likely to hear about their communication style, workplace attire, or demeanor than their work product.

As a result, your performance review may include some biases:

  • Primacy and recency: It’s easier for people to remember what happened first (primacy) and last (recency) over everything that happened in between. With primacy and recency biases, your manager will emphasize events that happened early on in the performance review window and right before the review itself—but they may forget events that happened over the total time period.

     Battle this bias by maintaining your wins doc and writing down all the      feedback you receive from your manager, teammates, and peers.
  • Halo/horns effect: With the halo and horns effect, managers accidentally allow one positive (halo) or negative (horns) trait to overshadow all other skills or achievements. With the halo effect, a manger may overlook poor communication skills because of the employee’s excellent technical abilities. Conversely, with horns, a manager may overemphasize an employee’s lack of strategic thinking while overlooking the employee’s strong organizational skills.

     Battle this bias by talking with your manager about multiple aspects of your  performance. Come to the review with examples of times you demonstrated  specific strengths as well as certain weaknesses.
  • Similar-to-me: The similar-to-me bias occurs when a manager is more likely to give a positive review to people who share similar interests, skills, or backgrounds. The similar-to-me bias is also common in hiring, where existing employees are more likely to hire other people like them.

     Battle this bias by bringing concrete examples about your work. Your wins   doc and running feedback list will help you talk in specifics rather than   generic statements about your work and performance.

For more on types of bias in performance reviews, Culture Amp’s guide defines more types of bias with strategies to combat them. For an engineering manager’s perspective, The Pragmatic Engineer’s guide focuses specifically on performance reviews for software engineers.

Additionally, feedback can be specific, generic, or speculative. Generic feedback tends to be vague and covers trends that are hard to prove or pin down, like “Your feedback on pull requests could be more helpful” or “You could be more strategic.” Speculative feedback, meanwhile, focuses on what you could have done: “You could have conducted more user interviews” or “You could have done more pair programming.” Members of underrepresented groups are more likely to receive generic or speculative feedback.

Bring examples of multiple aspects of your performance (both positive and negative) to your review. Having concrete instances can help you battle bias and receive specific feedback.

Receiving and responding to feedback during your review

Sometimes, you’ll receive a written copy of your manager’s assessment in advance, and your meeting with your manager is a chance to discuss it in more detail. Other times, you will be receiving the feedback during the meeting itself.

The meeting itself is a chance to dig deeper into the feedback you receive as well as to establish next steps based on the feedback. It’s also a great time to dig deeper into your goals and how your work at the company might help you achieve them.

Either way, approach the feedback with openness and receptivity. Even if you don’t at first agree with or understand the feedback, take the time to ask questions and learn more about your manager’s perspective. Sale advises, “If you receive some feedback that’s challenging, respond with curiosity to see if you can get it to feel clearer or understand where the other person’s coming from.”

If you feel like you’re getting generic or speculative feedback, regardless of any bias you think you may be experiencing, ask for examples of what happened and what you could do. Sale elaborates, “You can ask for specific examples in the past, and you can ask for specific guidance for the future. ‘Can you walk me through, when this comes up again, the best way to respond? Or the best way for me to move forward?’ ‘How can I do this differently next time so that I don’t get this sort of feedback and so that you feel I’m doing x, y, and z?’”

If you feel like you’re getting generic or speculative feedback, regardless of any bias you think you may be experiencing, ask for specific examples in the past and specific guidance for the future.

Ideally, you will leave the performance review with a plan for

  • areas to improve
  • what success looks like in each area, with milestones
  • next steps for your goals in your role and/or at the company

After the review

Depending on what happened during the review, you may be wondering, “What now?” If you and your manager were able to formulate a plan with milestones and next steps, you may feel confident that you know how to act on the feedback you received. But if your performance review was less than what you’d hoped—and you’re not sure what to do next—talking to a mentor can help you process the feedback and generate an action plan.

Signing up for Merit gives you free access to mentors in product management, engineering, and design. They can help you work through imposter syndrome, giving and receiving feedback, and negotiation.

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