It's performance review season again and you're feeling defensive. Perhaps you don't feel that great about the work you delivered last year. Or you feel like your peers were far more productive. Or maybe you had some uncomfortable conversations with your manager. So you're going to be honest and write that you "met some expectations" in your self review. Stop, don't do it!
First, take a step back and realize what the performance review process is about. This is an official HR document that will live in "your file" for as long as you are employed at your current company. Your manager, their managers, leadership, and future managers should you consider transferring to a new team, all will be able to read it. You need to make that document as fabulous as it can possibly be. But how do you do that if you don't feel like you earned it?
Believe it or not, you are a rockstar. If I could listen to you for 5 minutes I would be able to find any number of gems to include in your performance review to support that. Your performance review is marketing material, so you've got to think like a marketer, and the product you're selling is yourself. No matter how you honestly feel about your performance, I can guarantee that there was something you did that you were proud of, where you shined, where you cracked a hard problem, learned some new insight about the business, or helped a peer on a tough project when they needed it. You may have to think hard to find those shining examples, but they're there, trust me.
Early in my career performance reviews were either not done at all or were not taken seriously. But in those days, people were often promoted, given raises, or fired without any hard justification or paper trail to show cause. This led to favoritism, nepotism, a lot of politics, the "old boy network", and this wasn't a healthy environment for workers or for companies. The performance review has gained traction as an attempt to address this by providing an objective account of employee performance, assigning quantitative metrics instead of personal judgment to reduce the subjective biases of managers. While the intention was positive, the performance review has failed miserably at its task. Instead, we have worse favoritism, worse politics, and on top of it all we have to waste valuable work time writing our performance reviews to paint ourselves in the most positive light.
Remember I said you are a rockstar? And that after 5 minutes I could write your performance review to justify that you "Exceed Expectations"? I could also write your performance review to justify the opposite end of the spectrum: "Does not meet"! Show me the most valuable employee you know and I could make a defensible argument that they consistently fail to perform essential job functions and should be PIP'd. How is this possible? Because humans are not robots and the quality of our work cannot be distilled down to a convenient quantitative 5-point scale. The narrative of your performance reviews, written by you, your manager, and your peers, is used to justify a number that you have absolutely no control over. And it might be decided for purely political reasons that have nothing to do with your performance. Your manager will simply find the right quotes they need to make an argument to justify that number.
This is why it's so important that no matter how you feel, you write your performance review as Exceeding Expectations. Find those gems to support when you shined, write passionately, express "gratitude that leadership trusted you with such an important and exciting challenge", be thankful, give shout-outs to your peers, and don't ever, ever sell yourself short. I'm not telling you to flat-out lie. Everything you say needs to be backed up with a defensible argument. But even the most glowing performance review can be taken out of context and twisted around to justify a low rating. Your job is to make it all the more difficult for them to find that ammunition, should you land in the unfortunate situation of having politics be used against you.
This advice applies equally well to any peer reviews that you write. Remember, these reviews can affect people's compensation or even their very job. Even if you have something negative that you could say in a peer review, don't do it. Don't give management the ammunition to use this against people. If you agree to write a peer review, make it a good one even if it strains you to find good things to say. If you have problems with a peer's performance, talk to them one on one or start a coaching session with other teammates so they won't feel singled out. Find some constructive way to solve the problem and help them without making it a part of their official HR record.
Whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of thinking "my work speaks for itself." If that's your attitude, you'll soon find that you're not getting raises and may even get "managed out."
Now at this point you may be feeling utterly depressed by this bleak state of the adversarial nature of the performance review system, so let me conclude by finding some inspirational twist in all this. I don't want you to come away from this thinking "no matter what I do it doesn't matter, so I might as well just slack off and still write that I exceeded expectations!" You still want to be the best you can be. Your life is about learning and progressing on your own course. You should still be honest with yourself, critique your own performance so you can improve, learn from mistakes, strive to do better, find what inspires you and where you can excel. Don't compare yourself to others, your number one competitor is yourself. But when it comes to your career, you've got to be careful how you represent yourself, especially in official HR documents. Don't miss an opportunity because you were too uncertain or too humble to strategically celebrate all your accomplishments. Fortunately, review season is just once or twice a year. But do take it seriously. You don't have to become a cynic, but you definitely want to be a survivor.