An employee's head surrounded by an array of confusing images

Is 2020 over yet? Well, for many of us, this year won’t be officially over until we talk about performance reviews. We know, we know – cue the groans and eye rolls.

Even in the best of times, performance reviews are generally, well, loathed by most people. Research reported by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 66% of employees think performance reviews interfere with their productivity. Managers aren’t singing the praises of review season either, with 95% saying they’re dissatisfied with the way reviews are conducted. 

And it’s definitely fair to say that this year has added a new layer of anxiety to the performance appraisal process. Our original research here at Atlassian revealed that many employees fear that being distanced from others (particularly those in influential positions) could threaten their visibility – and ultimately their career progression. 

These tumultuous times have inspired some companies to take action. Facebook canceled reviews for the first half of the year, handing every employee the same “exceeds expectations” review (and an extra $1,000). Atlassian paid each employee 100% of their bonus target for the year, recognizing that the pandemic has impacted everyone’s performance in one way or another.

Writing your self-assessment for 2020

Maybe your company has decided to stick to “normal” as much as possible, and now you’re staring at your blank self-assessment with nothing but dread in your gut and crickets in your brain. 

If that’s the case, here are some ways to take an honest look at your job performance – in a year where career progression was probably not the first thing on your mind.

1. Adjust your mindset

Bottom line: Your performance in past years is an unfair yardstick to measure yourself against. Now more than ever, you need to approach your self-evaluation with a mindset of self-compassion.

It’s been a rough year for everybody and most of us haven’t been performing at peak capacity. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes that the pandemic has led to increased stress, with people experiencing symptoms like changes in sleeping and eating patterns and difficulty concentrating. 

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We all fear for our health and the health of our loved ones. Most of us feel more lonely and isolated than usual. Some of us are providing care for vulnerable or at-risk family members or dealing with ever-evolving childcare needs. The list goes on. 

In past years, maybe your career was near the top of your priority list. It’s entirely understandable if you’ve had to shift your focus in recent months. Show yourself some grace.

2. Stay focused on the positives

Rather than making a laundry list of things that could’ve gone better, focus on what you were able to accomplish this year, despite the distractions and disruptions.

Keep in mind that these wins don’t need to be the Herculean, quantifiable type. Maybe you’re proud of the way you were able to transition to remote work. Or, perhaps you found a creative way to adjust and keep a project running even though your supply chain was impacted and you had to transition to new software.

Those accomplishments that kept the engines churning are things you should be proud of – and they deserve to make it into your self-assessment.  

3. Ask for feedback

Part of what makes self-reviews so challenging is that we’re notoriously bad judges of our own performance. Even under regular conditions, we all have a negativity bias that makes us more likely to notice and dwell on negative things.

That could explain why you beat yourself up for missing a scheduled meeting, but you forgot about the time you stepped up to help a colleague who had two kiddos at home and couldn’t finish preparing a presentation.

Get out of your own head and ask your team members for some feedback on your performance. Were there times when they were struggling and you totally saved their bacon? Did your insights help the team get past a roadblock? Those impartial observations can help you turn down the volume on your inner critic and give you some valuable examples to incorporate into your review. 

Setting new goals in light of … well, everything else

Performance reviews aren’t just about looking back, they’re also about setting new goals for the coming year. Under normal circumstances, career growth matters to most of us, so much so that 80% of employees admit they’d quit their jobs for positions that offered better professional development opportunities. 

But 2020 has forced many of us to adjust our expectations. We need to remember that career development doesn’t have to mean chasing a promotion or finding a new job. Here are a few simple things you can do to stay on track without burning yourself out.

Be realistic

Maybe you used to set really aggressive career goals in the pre-2020 world. But right now, it’s important to be realistic (both with yourself and your manager) about how much energy you’re willing and able to pour into career advancement in the present circumstances.

If keeping your head above water feels like a superhuman feat, it’s not the time to fill your 2021 goal list with lofty targets. Be candid about what you’re capable of accomplishing. Of course, you want to push yourself – but you don’t want to set yourself up for failure. And remember, you can always feel free to over-shoot your targets if your circumstances change.

Find a mentor

If you don’t already have a mentor relationship with someone, now is a great time to start one. Your mentor can provide career-related guidance and honest feedback about your performance.

Even better? They can be your lighthouse as you continue to navigate the ongoing professional and personal challenges we’re all facing. A good mentor can help you make advances in your career while also bringing your “full self” to work.

Keep in mind that a valuable mentor doesn’t need to work in your same type of position or even your industry. They could be someone you admire in a different department within your company or a professional contact a friend recommended to you. You can also find potential mentors on LinkedIn or a dedicated website like

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Be honest with your manager 

Now is not the time to paste on a smile and pretend that everything is peachy. Your career is important to you, but you need to be forthright with your manager about what you need from them. This includes:

  • Using your one-on-ones to share career ambitions and ask for guidance in taking on projects that support those objectives
  • Sharing any struggles and challenges you’re facing
  • Proactively communicating when you need to adjust your goals or even put them on hold

Remember, your manager won’t know the best way to support you if you don’t communicate about how you want to advance and grow in this tough season. 

For managers: 5 tips for employee performance reviews

You want to provide valuable feedback and continue to foster a high-performing team, but with everything this year has thrown at your direct reports, you don’t want to be unnecessarily hard on them. Here are a few tips to find that balance.

1. Clarify expectations

A lot shifted when companies made the immediate shift to remote work –including your expectations. If you haven’t already clearly communicated those to your employees, do so now. Document them and store them somewhere accessible. Gallup research shows that over half of employees don’t know what’s expected of them at work, so it’s critical to make goals and requirements as obvious as possible.

2. Consider personal circumstances

Before you mark somebody as an “under-performer” this year, take stock of what they’ve got going on personally – especially if they were stellar contributors pre-pandemic.

Seek first to understand the factors impacting their performance right now, and how you can offer support.

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3. Focus on results and outcomes

This is no time to be a clock watcher. If your employee delivered strong outcomes while working fewer hours (due to childcare, mental health, and sanitizing every last item that enters their home), that’s a win. Recognize people for what they contribute, not the hours they put in.

4. Be honest about your struggles

You may be the manager, but you aren’t immune to personal challenges. Openly share what you’re struggling with. That authenticity can cultivate a sense of psychological safety, meaning that employees will be more inclined to bring issues to you, without fear of judgment or repercussions. 

5. Recognize “soft” contributions

We love measurable goals as much as anyone, but don’t neglect the less-tangible things your team members brought to the table. Did someone emerge as an unofficial team captain this year? Did one person go out of their way to help teammates? Those efforts deserve to be recognized, too. 

Remember, we’re all human

While things look different this year, there are silver linings to the mayhem. For one, we’ve had a chance to see everybody we work with – from our colleagues to our managers – as humans who share the same struggles.

Even more than that, we’ve been forced to focus on what’s most important to us, in both our professional and personal lives.

Regardless of how weird this year has been, we hope this advice helps you tackle your performance review with confidence – and a hefty dose of compassion and understanding. You (and everybody you work with) deserve it.  

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