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"The unexamined life is not worth living" [Thoughts on writing an effective performance review at Microsoft (or elsewhere)]

It's "Connect season" again at Microsoft and I thought it might be useful to address something managers see pretty regularly: reluctance by their direct reports to fill out the required "paperwork".

To start, it's important to understand what a Connect is. A Connect is a structured document that Microsoft employees are required to fill out every few months, submit to their manager for comment, then use as a basis for a career/performance discussion. The Connect was introduced as a way to provide employees with regular feedback on a flexible basis to accommodate each organization's timelines. Before Connects, people went through a similar process every six months on a rigid schedule; in practice, Connects happen twice a year on the same schedule as before. (Shrug.)

There are four sections in a Connect document, all open-ended text boxes. Each part has an area for the direct report which is filled out first and an area for the manager which is filled out second, often referencing the direct report's comments.

  1. The first section is for writing about what the person accomplished since last time. Depending on the level of detail, this section can get long. (Very long.) It's usually the biggest part because people have a chance to talk about all the great things they did. Ironically, if the individual is extremely thorough, their manager may not have much to add beyond "Yup, they did all that".
  2. The second section is about things that could have gone better since last time. Most people don't like to focus on negatives and this is often a short section. Managers usually have more to say and may go into depth depending on what happened and the opportunities they see (and how many hours they've already spent writing feedback that day).
  3. The third section is about what the person will do in the upcoming months. This is ostensibly an opportunity to set goals and provide clarity about future tasks. Unfortunately, planning hasn't usually been done at this point and, besides, good luck trying to define a schedule six months in advance for a dynamic environment. In my experience, managers don't hold people to commitments made here.
  4. The fourth section is about what the person will do to learn and grow in the coming months. This can be things like training, coursework, reading books, etc., and is driven by the direct report. The manager may have suggestions, but this section is about how the person is looking to improve themselves.

Some people seem to really struggle with the process of filling out a Connect. To be sure, it can be hard to write about yourself and some people aren't used to extolling their virtues. (While other people are comfortable doing so at length!) In my opinion, the greatest value in this process is for the individual, not the manager. Managers might be reminded of a few things that got done and it's a pleasure to share positive feedback, but managers probably are not learning a lot from the writing process nor getting much actionable feedback from the document. (The ensuing discussion is a more balanced exchange of ideas, but people don't seem to dread it as much.)

Some key benefits for the individual (who I'll refer to as "you" below):

  • This process contributes directly to a discussion between you and your manager. Regular one-on-one's are great for keeping up with daily and weekly progress, but they often don't get into deeper career-oriented topics without one of you making a specific effort to do so. Connects provide that opportunity and are a good forcing function.
  • Another benefit of Connects is documenting your accomplishments for future reference. There shouldn't be a lot your manager wasn't already aware of (or else you're not communicating effectively in email and 1:1's), but Connects are something future managers will look at as part of the hiring process. Being comprehensive about listing accomplishments is a good way to capture the things you've done in a place that's easy to review and gives a complete picture of your impact. It's also a great reference when updating your resume. (You do update your resume periodically, right?)
  • Connects are a great opportunity for self-reflection and feedback and this is where you skimping on the process is counter-productive. It may feel good to leave the "what could have gone better" section blank, but that's probably not honest and it puts the onus on your manager to do all the heavy lifting. Yes, it's their job to help you improve, but that's much more productive when you take an active role and provide a good starting point for the discussion. A common phrase at Microsoft is "growth mindset" and that requires acknowledging and identifying areas for growth. Your manager probably has some ideas about ways you could do things differently and it's much easier when they see that you acknowledge this also. That means they don't need spend time pointing out issues and can think more about coaching you through them.

In my opinion, Connects are very much a "the more you put into it, the more you get out of it" situation. But this is not to say you should write long multi-page essays! (Please don't.) Writing a Connect is about communicating concepts clearly and concisely. My preference is to use bulleted lists and sentence fragments, but short paragraphs can also work well if that's your style. Make your point, provide supporting evidence, then move on. Your manager may have a dozen Connects to read and respond to and will appreciate being able to focus on the content.

In summary, the Connect process is a valuable opportunity for you to think back on your accomplishments as well as ways to improve how you do things. Your manager will try their best to provide constructive, actionable feedback regardless of how deeply you invest, but the experience will be more rewarding if you take the time to reflect, are candid about where things could have gone better, and are open to feedback about what to do differently next time.

You may never love the act of self-analysis, but writing a performance review shouldn't be a source of fear or anxiety. I hope this post makes your next Connect a more positive experience!