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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

We’re having a (stress) ball

Performance appraisals can be awkward. Jessica Elkin advises on how to deal with giving and receiving feedback diplomatically

stepping stones - student June 2014
©Phil Wrigglesworth

“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy... There’s vomit on his sweater already, Mom’s spaghetti… ” Eminem was ostensibly talking about a rap battle here, but part of me wonders if he didn’t write this during a two-way feedback conversation in the office. 

I would certainly be able to relate to how he feels. “He opens his mouth but the words won’t come out” sounds especially familiar.

Career development reviews, performance appraisals, or whatever your company may call them, can be difficult to stomach. Working out where you’d like to be in X years is challenging for many actuarial students – your default answer might be, “Er, qualified?” – and admitting to your own failings, or telling others about theirs, is not the most fun you can have in a day.

A praise-all?

Feedback in particular can be tough, whether delivered orally or in a written missive. Generally, though, the anticipation of negative feedback is far worse than most of the comments you receive. Usually it will be fair, and once the session is over that feeling of openness and honesty can allow you to feel more relaxed. 

Far worse to feel that someone may have stashed away some negativity than to know what it is; better to know there is a mosquito under the bedsheets with you so that you can find it and inflict a horrible grisly death.

Personally, I’d rather receive feedback than give it. Having your flaws laid out in front of you is one thing, but criticising somebody else in a way that will be helpful to them without causing offence can be just as worrisome. This may especially be true because, as a student, you’re usually giving feedback to a more senior person whom you may admire, or at least hope not to displease. And then there are those you probably don’t engage with all that much and therefore don’t want to say things that, however professionally you frame them, can be taken personally. This has to be approached with care.

Unfortunately there’s no escaping the fact that feedback sessions, however crushing, joyous or invigorating, are an essential part of many firms’ career development review processes. And, despite the trepidation most of us feel about the process – “I’d rather have my tongue beaten wafer-thin by a steak tenderiser, and then stapled to the floor with a croquet hoop,” as Blackadder once said on the matter – they can function to improve working relationships with others and up your confidence.

Subjective objectives

Once the feedback session is over, you should get a fuller picture of yourself and be able to think about the areas you could work on. Don’t forget to also give yourself a moment to bask in the glow of all the positive aspects of your style, charm and intellect. Good at the technical side, are you? Phenomenal spreadsheet wizard? Maybe you’re well-organised, or you manage expectations with aplomb. Do you always think of ways to improve processes and ask the right questions? Or perhaps you’re just a hoot to work with. Whatever it is, give yourself a pat on the back.

The question is then what to do with your new stash of information. Objectives can be tough to articulate, especially in terms of measurability. A methodical approach is to ascertain gaps in your development or ways you can get from where you are now, to where you’d like to be. While thinking about this abstractly can be challenging, if you look at your peers you may well see aspects you like, whether it’s the sort of work they are doing and could pass to you, or individual skills you would love to poach. What you really want is to be so good that you can elbow them out of your way. In the nicest possible way, of course.

The goal of all of this is to help you formulate objectives and, on a more granular level, goals (the stepping stones to achieving the objectives). You can then consider the skills you need to achieve your objectives, how you can gain those through new projects or training, and who can help you to acquire them. Directly acknowledging your objectives to colleagues may help them to help you.

Once it’s over, you can breathe a sigh of relief and know that you’ve got another nine months or so for self-improvement before it all starts again. At which point you can get revenge on all those people who badmouthed you.