Communicating In Performance Reviews

Performance reviews are a tricky time for everyone involved. As apprehensive as you may be preparing for one, your executive is likely twice as nervous. While we often don’t look at things from the vantage point of the evaluator, I’ll ask you to indulge me this once. 

When faced with even the threat of confrontation, our brains’ stress-response system takes action. When involved in an actual confrontation, it can turn into a full-blown mayday signal. Your manager or exec is likely deep in thought wondering how they’ll be able to speak from a place of authority given all of their own missteps throughout the year. Nervously anticipating the impending confrontation they may be doing their best to keep calm and don a brave face. 


The stated goal of most performance reviews is to provide employees an opportunity to “brag about themselves” and for managers to deliver “valuable feedback”. However, the outcome more often than not is something wholly different. Unfortunately for many of us, the fear leading up to the review gives way to a fog of confusion after these “talks”.

Our work is done in the shadows of impact, so we rarely receive an accurate accounting of our contribution

Assistants likely fare worse than most. Our work is done in the shadows of impact, so we rarely receive an accurate accounting of our contribution. The work we perform isn’t like finance, marketing, or even development. There aren’t numbers and tangibles to point back to. For assistants, the question always seems to be, “how do you measure what you can’t count?”. Our skillset is usually employed in areas like influence, energy management, and strategic flexibility. All are essential to making our organization function at its highest capacity. Yet the perception of our day-to-day work remains riddled with misconceptions.

Performance reviews are a good opportunity to clear up these misunderstandings. We can provide clarity about our workstreams and explicitly articulating the impact our work has had on the organization. 

Know Your Audience

Clear communication, especially during performance reviews, is more than just being able to read the words you wrote without stumbling. It isn’t speaking with just the right tone to come across as serious and invested. Communication isn’t just about words, it’s about speaking the language of your audience.

To build an effective review, you should:

  1. Consider the key terms and phrases used repeatedly in your organization
  2. Consider the professional parlance used in your broader industry
  3. Leverage the specific everyday work jargon you hear your executive use.

Using the language they speak means your work will not require translation. It will set the foundations for a productive dialogue. Without mastering this step, nothing below will have much of an impact on transforming your review into something more productive than previous experiences. 


Effective communication in performance reviews doesn’t just center on what you say. What you do can also be equally important. Active and strategic listening are a big part of what will make this review effective. To be clear, choosing to stay quiet because you’re afraid to upset anyone isn’t the same as listening. Sitting silently, all the while longing to interrupt and fire your opinions back isn’t the same as listening

Active listening is the choice to participate in the conversation as a listener rather than just waiting for your turn to talk. Participating as a listener means you are

  • Observing the speaker’s behavior and body language
  • Providing affirming feedback
  • Repeating key concepts back by incorporating them in your response

To go a step further, strategic listening is the art of detecting meaning and intent behind the speaker’s words. Strategic listening allows you to cut to the core of whether this feedback is truly relevant and helpful. Otherwise, it’s just opinion cloaking itself in the authority of feedback. When you’re listening strategically, you’ll seek clarity around phrases like, “I felt” and “It seems to me” or “a lot of people didn’t like”. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they don’t have a constructive place in reviews where the goal is professional growth.

Be Specific

In order to encourage the kind of conversation that will lead to meaningful results, specificity is key. This is true not just in your performance but also in your working relationship with your executive. It requires you to be specific in two key ways: (1) where and why things may have gone wrong and (2) seeking clarity from your executive on areas they call out.

From your vantage point, that looks like you pointing back to examples in your actions and reflecting on the thinking that led to those decisions. This is important because illuminating the thought process behind decision making is what will actually address the underlying issues. It’s rarely an individual mistake that is the problem. Much more likely is our misaligned thinking with our executive that leads to missteps. 

Your executives will likely spend a good portion of time sharing where they believe you’ve made missteps. What they often fail to be specific about is why and what specifically they’d like to see going forward. This is where you need to respectfully assert yourself. As mentioned above, listen genuinely and strategically to their concerns. Notice how they phrase their feedback. If it fails to provide actionable ways for you to move forward in a productive way, don’t be afraid to ask questions. In performance reviews, sometimes the questions are more important than answers. 

Value Yourself

Managing expectations is something that the best assistants are great at. We know that to truly prevent fallout from unforeseen problems, we need to manage the expectations of those around us – before they happen. This is usually an asset, however, sometimes it can be a liability. 

In an attempt to manage our own emotional expectations before going into performance reviews, we begin a toxic internal dialogue where we minimize our own value. We downplay the meaningful contributions we’ve made to our organizations. On the flip side, we tend to overemphasize our missteps. They seem to grow larger and more disastrous the closer our review gets. We imagine our bosses recounting our failings and resenting our very presence.


As assistants, no one is harder on us than we are on ourselves. While your boss is likely to address some of these issues, it’s never as negative as we work it up to be in our own heads. More importantly, sending ourselves down a spiral of negative self-talk will only deteriorate the quality of the dialogue in your review. Instead of asking the kind of strategic questions that lead to growth, you’ll dutifully agree to whatever is conveyed to escape the glare of the spotlight.

Try this instead:

  1. Consider your audience and write down a list of your major wins. (Saved that work trip from being a disaster, found a way to keep investors happy while your boss was stuck in traffic, etc.)
  2. Be specific about how they connect to company values and goals
  3. Reaffirm your worth with daily positive affirmations leading up to your review

Ultimately, communication is a two-way street. You will always be in control of what you contribute and how you choose to respond. Going into your next performance review cycle doesn’t have to be scary. Employing these strategic communication principles will equip you with the tools you need to ensure this is a constructive dialogue focused on your professional growth. It’s not easy, and like anything new, the first time will likely prove a bit tricky. The more you use these principles – like in your regular one on one feedback – the easier it will become. You’ll be on your way to creating performance conversations that are truly productive. After all, that’s really what we want out of these conversations anyway: a clear path toward growth where both parties walk away feeling more aligned and empowered to succeed.


I’m Ebony, I’ve been an Executive Assistant in San Francisco and Los Angeles for over 10 years. I’ve had the unique opportunity of supporting the CEO of Sephora, a globally loved cosmetics brand, working for Founder & CEOs in the tech space, including Twitch (an Amazon company), and currently working on the cutting edge of cryptocurrency. I’m passionate about innovative learning and growth centered development. The A List is a labour of love to share practical wisdom and tips on the trickiest parts of #LifeInAssistantLand


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