This annual check-in can often feel fraught—after all, it's one day to discuss the past 364. Here's how to lead the conversation, no matter what situation you're in.

By Kathleen M. Harris
Updated October 31, 2017
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Illustration of superstar employee
Credit: Pietari Posti

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Illustration of superstar employee
Credit: Pietari Posti

1 You want to set the stage for a raise or promotion.

First, find out when these decisions are made. Often it’s when budgets are decided, which doesn’t always correlate with review season. You want to get clear on exactly what your boss expects you to do to prime yourself for a promotion. Ask for specifics, says Jodi Glickman, founder of the leadership development and communication training firm Great on the Job and author of the book by the same name. Say, “I’m proud of my contributions this past year and feel I’ve grown and developed in these ways. I’d love to be in a position to talk about a promotion in the next six months. What needs to happen for me to get there?” Be prepared to speak about your successes and areas for development. Emphasize your team contributions to convey that the company benefits from your work, too. “Remember, no one can knock you for having the desire to grow,” says Glickman.

2 You’re stuck in a rut or want to explore new opportunities.

When you’re not in line for a promotion but want new challenges, take the initiative to ask for them. Don’t frame it as a complaint, says Glickman. Instead, ask your boss for help reaching some personal goals, whether it’s being exposed to more senior-level execs, learning to code, or improving your public speaking. She recommends saying, “I like what I do and feel I have more to contribute. I’d love an opportunity to stretch and take on a new project or work with other people to continue to challenge myself.”

3 You have a new boss or want to improve your relationship.

A review is a great opportunity to discuss work styles and expectations—topics that aren’t always easy to broach during a hectic workday, says Glickman. Ask, “How can I make your life easier?” or “How can I help you achieve your goals?” Use the time to understand your boss’s idiosyncrasies, says Joseph Grenny, coauthor of Crucial Conversations. Ask if she prefers to be updated constantly or only when there’s a problem, and if she could give examples of employees she loved and hated working with—and explain why.

4 You’re anticipating negative feedback.

Self-awareness is key. “The worst thing you can do is be surprised. It gives the impression that you don’t know what’s going on with you or your work,” says Glickman. The second worst? Being defensive. Own it and say, “Here’s how I’m trying to make it better.” Then sit patiently and listen. “Give your boss a chance to explain the problem from her point of view so she feels heard,” says Grenny. Digest the info and paraphrase it back. “It shows your boss that fixing the issue is more important than your ego,” he says.

5 You plan on quitting or retiring.

Job hunting? Unless you have an offer in hand, stay mum. You don’t want to cloud your review—and run the risk of being replaced before you want to be. If you have a trusting relationship with your boss, Grenny suggests saying, “I’m looking at a variety of options for my future, but I’m interested in your feedback and finding out if there’s a path for me here that aligns with my career goals.” She may be able to open doors you’ve never considered. As for retirement, if you’re sure of your plans, explain that your goal is a smooth transition. Express your affection for the company and ask to meet again to discuss next steps.