How to Write the Dreaded Performance Appraisal: 5 Focused Steps

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published December 16, 2014, updated December 18, 2014
How to Write the Dreaded Performance Appraisal: 5 Focused Steps


It's that time of year. While a performance appraisal really can be an opportunity to shine, many professionals dread writing them. It is very hard to judge our own performance, yet managers need and require this input.

This article will performance_appraisal_imageexplain how to write a performance appraisal that will get you promoted and also how to help employees better summarize their work performance.

Many companies use simple templates, with limited space, to gather performance appraisals. If this is the case in your company, ask for more information from your direct reports or share more information in a separate document about your own work performance. This will help employees and managers focus on goals, articulate specific achievements, and provide the information to communicate your team's progress to senior management.

Step 1: Focus on Your Audience

What does your boss most care about? How will your boss use this performance appraisal? This should be the focus of your performance appraisal. For example, let's imagine you are software sales professional in a specific industry. Your boss likely cares most about:

  • Your ability to position and articulate your software solution so it's favorably understood in your industry
  • Your sales volume
  • Possibly, any new initiatives that your company is implementing. 

As another example, years back I taught writing at a college. Clearly, my primary responsibilities were to students, so I knew my boss most cared about my student evaluations, the grades my students earned, their outcome in subsequent writing courses, and my research. However, back when I was teaching at the university level, there was a big emphasis on integrating technology into the curriculum. I've always loved technology and easily saw ways to improve teaching with technology. Even though technology integration and insights weren't part of my core job description, I would absolutely include this in my evaluations because it mattered greatly to my audience.

Your first step is to pause carefully and consider what is most important to your audience. The famous management dictum, "What counts is what is counted," should help with your focus. But, remember to include any related initiatives where you really contribute.

Managers: You can help your employees provide better performance appraisals if you tell them what indices factors are most important to you, senior management, and the company.

Step 2: Present the Content Your Audience Cares About, Not Your Perspective or Interests

Now that you understand what you audience (i.e. your boss and all senior management) cares most about, be certain that is what you address in your performance appraisal. 

Let's return to the example of the software sales professional. If you have identified that your boss most cares about your ability to communicate the value of your software solution to your industry and your sales, you absolutely must stay focused on these points. 

It's very easy to sway off point, and dwell too much on topics of interest to you. Perhaps you have spent much time, and made great progress, introducing this software to a new market. You may know that there is massive potential and next year this market will break open. Great. But, you must address the core interest of your boss and upper management before introducing any ancillary content. 

Let your audience focus in step one fully guide you in presenting the right content.

Managers: Be certain to share with your employees what information or metrics you want addressed.

Step 3: Compile Your Achievements Throughout the Year

This step will apply more to next year than right now, but it's important to create place where you can electronically add achievements throughout the year. Many performance appraisal guides recommend scanning your email to discover commendations or kudos you reviewed throughout the year, but I disagree with this technique. You're very likely to miss things and it's time consuming 

Instead, create a concept map that lists the indices that most matter to management. (Note: creating a compilation concept map is another article, but this skill is taught in all business writing courses.) Whenever anything happens during the year that affirms your work, add it to that map. This way, it's all organized and writing your performance appraisal will be simple. Be sure to include:

  • Customer or colleague emails thanking you for work related to goals
  • Any training you completed, and notes how you directly applied this to your work
  • An insight you brought to a work project that resulted in real improvement
  • A new template that improved team productivity
  • Etc.

Managers: This same principle applies to your division or team's achievements. 

Step 4: Show. Don't Tell

Whenever possible, quantify your achievements. Instead of stating that you "had a very successful sales year," state that you "exceeded your sales quota by 38%."

Instead of writing that you successfully integrated technology into a college writing program, state that you "integrated writing software XYZ into Course ABC, allowing students to do THIS and THAT." Extra points for linking THIS and THAT with the goals your boss most cares about.

Emphasize accomplishments, primarily. Also, acknowledge your mistakes, but do so very carefully. Remember, this document will likely become part of your permanent employee record so don't provide any ammunition for any shifting allegiances to penalize your work. Put the best possible spin on problem areas. Use developmental language. Don't write, ‘Here’s where I really didn't achieve." Instead, write 'Here’s an area I want to work on. This is what I’ve learned. This is what we should do going forward."

Be sure to show how your specific skills added to group achievements. Strong business writers are very valued, but it can be hard to quantify this very desirable skill of strong business writing. "I was the primary writer for the Client XYZ proposal, which brought in X revenue. Or, "Our company was able to shift liability of the software failure to a vendor insurance policy because my status reports fully documented full compliance on our part and proved the software failure was caused by the vendor code error."

Managers: During the discussion of this document, be certain to verify the quantitative benefits. This information is gold to you because it allows you to then quantify the benefits of your team's work to senior management.

Step 5: Use Conversational Tone and Specific Verbs

Don't fall into meaningless business-speak when describing your achievements, which is easy to do. It's hard to write about ourselves. It's especially hard to write about ourselves when we are tooting our own horn. We often use beaten to death phrases such as "in addition to capturing the low hanging fruit from sales efforts last year, I also added substantial upsells with value added sales." 

Use specific, evocative business verbs that accurately summarize what you did:

  • Surpassed
  • Sustained
  • Vitalized
  • Revitalized
  • Saved
  • Recruited
  • Pioneered
  • Etc.
  • Note: conversational tone and specific verbs are addressed in detail in our business writing courses.

The Reward: Close with Your Insights and Requests

Seize this moment to shine. By taking your performance appraisal seriously, you send a very strong message that your work matters to you. Managers must let employees know that these performance appraisals matter to them.

If your company uses a short template that doesn't allow you to convey your full value, break the template! Write a performance evaluation that follows these guidelines and ask for the outcome you want:

  • A meeting to discuss your work and assignments upcoming
  • Funding for professional training
  • Request for a new project

Don't dread the performance appraisal. This is your moment to shine. Seize the opportunity.



Are you blocked or frustrated writing your performance appraisal? Or, is your team failing to accurately summarize their work accomplishments?

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Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published December 16, 2014, updated December 18, 2014
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.