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Self-Appraisals: Actions vs. Feelings

Two managers recently shared their semiannual performance appraisals with me. These were self-appraisals, documents in which the managers described how well they had met their performance goals.

Let's call the first manager "Victoria." Victoria's self-appraisal was filled with feeling words: happy, gratified, satisfied, proud, pleased, and privileged.

The second manager, "James," used no feeling words. James used action verbs such as accomplished, achieved, won, earned, increased, and succeeded.

Both managers had met their performance goals. However, one of the self-appraisals came across as stronger. Can you guess which one?

The performance appraisal prompt stated something like this: "Describe how well you met your performance goals." In response to that prompt, the action verbs accomplished, achieved, etc., described James's performance powerfully. When I read his response, I got an instant impression that he had been very successful in the first half of the year.

Victoria's feeling language bogged down my understanding of how well she had done. Clearly she was pleased. Yet the prompt did not ask for her feelings. It begged for action verbs.

I admit that Victoria did use action verbs such as completed and launched. But those verbs had to compete for attention with her many feeling words and phrases.

Suggestion: When you are answering questions or responding to prompts in a self-appraisal, an application form, or an interview, pay attention to what the audience is seeking. These questions require different answers:

  • Describe what you did to meet a difficult challenge. (Briefly describe the challenge. Then tell what you did.)
  • Describe a situation in which you went above and beyond what was required. (Tell a story, and tell what you did.)
  • How did you contribute to the team's effort? (Describe what you did, the results achieved, and your feelings about getting results with the team.)
  • Would you rather be part of a team or a sole contributor? (Share feelings and accomplishments.)

If you are more of a feeler than an achiever when it comes to communication, it's fine to include some feeling words. But be careful not to answer accomplishment questions with feelings answers.

At the same time, if you are communicating with someone who is focusing on feelings, do not pile on your accomplishments in your responses. For instance, when a job interviewer asks, "How do you feel about moving to the Southeast?" this is the wrong answer: "This was my sales territory from 2006 to 2010. I exceeded my goals . . . ."

Sometimes people use feeling words when describing accomplishments because they do not want to come across as bragging. Nevertheless, bragging belongs in self-appraisals and similar communications, as long as it is truthful and is sought by the audience.

Do you find it easy to describe your performance with strong action verbs? How do you feel about the way others express their accomplishments? I welcome your thoughts (and feelings!) on this topic.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “Self-Appraisals: Actions vs. Feelings”

  • Lynn,

    All good points. There is an additional dynamic going on in this situation. A lot of people don’t know how to answer questions (or are unwilling to).

    It seems like a simple skill, answering a question. However, when I have had the opportunity to review grant and contest applications, I saw scores of intelligent people answering a straightforward question with the answer for a quite different question or with totally irrelevant information.

    Part of it is inattention. Another part is not appreciating how important it is to answer the question asked. And another part is wanting to convey different information than what was asked for.

    Maybe also it’s that in so many situations, we get away with not answering exactly what was asked that many of us find it hard to do this when it’s important to do so.

  • Great points, Marcia. Regarding not answering the question asked, people have repeatedly told me they did not hire a vendor or consultant because the individual did not answer the questions asked on the RFP (request for proposals). That is, they did not provide what the question asked.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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