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I have a direct report that I consider to be not only my best performer, but one of the best performers in my entire organization.

Recently, our organization decided to implement a detailed self-evaluation as part of our performance review cycle. I anticipated that my "star" direct report would submit a very strong self-evaluation, making it easy to justify a pay increase and an increase in title that has been a long time coming.

This employee submitted a very detailed and clearly thoughtful self-evaluation, of the level of quality I would expect.

However, this self-evaluation was incredibly self-critical.

  • This person listed out their achievements at length, but rather than identifying them as successes, they pointed out flaws in each one.
  • This person correctly identified their strengths and wrote short blurbs accurately describing them.
  • However, they identified many, many more weaknesses, and wrote about them at length. I don't even agree with most of the self-identified weaknesses.

They seemed to take the process very seriously, but were incredibly self-critical. I simply don't know how to process it as a manager and am looking for suggestions/advice.

As I noted, this person is my top performer and is seen by higher levels of management as one of the top performers in the entire organization. This person has also displayed very powerful mentorship of younger peers and is being considered for compensation bumps, title bumps, and management.

How would you respond to this?

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  • 20
    this is probably related: How can I help a coworker with a bad case of impostor syndrome?
    – gnat
    Oct 9, 2022 at 8:35
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    @GregoryCurrie - why would they not base pay on performance? I've never received a bonus in my life, that seems like such an American thing to me. Basically an employer throwing you a one time bone for breaking your back.
    – Davor
    Oct 9, 2022 at 10:56
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    @Davor Because pay is meant to reflect skills and worth to the business. You've already broken your back, you deserve the additional money now, rather than in the future. Oct 9, 2022 at 12:34
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    Does he come from a different culture ? How were his previous self-evaluation look like ? Oct 9, 2022 at 18:47
  • 11
    Have you considered that the person being highly self-critical may be part of the cause of them being a high performer? (So long as they properly identify weakness and take the proper steps to fix said weaknesses, at least.)
    – TLW
    Oct 11, 2022 at 2:29

19 Answers 19

106

Ask for two different self-evaluations, an official one that can be used to give them a raise and an unofficial one that can be used for self-improvement. Make sure they don't confuse the two. In the future, try to intercept their official self-evaluation if possible, just to make sure they understood you.

But don't try to deny their observations. They're probably correct. People who are at the top of their game are extremely critical of themselves. That's how they're able to improve their skills year after year.

And if your own boss, or if HR, has already seen their evaluation, try to walk it back and try fight for their raise as much as you can.

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    In many cases the promotion process and corresponding "promotion packet" may be separate to the self-evaluation anyway.
    – Adam Burke
    Oct 9, 2022 at 6:58
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    OP is basically describing me, and this is the best answer to go forward (from my POV). For OP to see the "why??": I have been given the task "List your strengths and weaknesses". I also will have to sign it, so I MUST NOT LIE! (that includes lying by omission, white lies, small lies, etc). Throw in a good measure of aspergers on my part. So, not having a good idea what others perceive as a weakness, I will write about what I perceive as my weaknesses, which is everything that can be improved -- at length, to exactly explain the situation and to show that I am working on it.
    – orithena
    Oct 10, 2022 at 17:48
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    @orithena " (that includes lying by omission, white lies, small lies, etc)." that's (sadly) not how pretty much any (western?) legal systems work.
    – Hobbamok
    Oct 11, 2022 at 11:36
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    @Hobbamok How does an overly self-critical person determine what aspects should be omitted? A problem is that they may see these flaws as real significant issues, and so omitting them would be lying by omission, and (to an overly self-critical person) omitting those "facts" could come back to bite them, or be morally unacceptable.
    – JMac
    Oct 11, 2022 at 12:59
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    @Hobbamok Legal stuff does not even play into my comment. I'm simply describing my inner dialog -- and if I'm convinced that I MUST NOT LIE, the term "lie" encompasses everything that could be construed as a lie. (Yes, that also makes it very hard for me to write job applications that look positive.)
    – orithena
    Oct 11, 2022 at 13:20
76

One thing about self-evaluations that many managers don't understand is that many folks dread the inauthenticity that comes along with the process. They also dread having to "prove" their worth again after having worked hard the whole year.

Maybe just recognize, authentically and personally, what this person has done for you and your team and advise them to go along with the game of self-evaluations and reconsider what they wrote. Take what they wrote initially seriously but don't use it against them.

56

I'd recommend against using self-evaluation at all. This is related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where the more you know, the more you are aware of what you don't know. Added to this are numerous psychological effects and personally traits, which can severely skew self-perception (in both directions).

All in all, you are at a much better position to evaluate peoples relative performance, than they are.

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    It's possible to take DK into at least some account by using the self-criticality as a positive, and treating the lack of it as something to be improved. But the usefulness of that approach is probably annulled completely by the psychology you mention. Oct 9, 2022 at 8:57
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    Often the way performance reviews are done is standardized across the company, so saying “just don’t do it that way” might mot be feasible in all cases…
    – Josh
    Oct 10, 2022 at 12:40
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    In my organization, we use self-evaluations. We write up our accomplishments/activities for the year. In reality, this is used by management to confirm what they already know. Management has a bit of wiggle room on the raise (there is a strict formula that determines your raise) and can use the employee's own write up as a justification for the adjustment from the formula.
    – Scottie H
    Oct 10, 2022 at 14:45
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I anticipated that my "star" direct report would submit a very strong self-evaluation, making it easy to justify a pay increase and an increase in title that has been a long time coming.

That's easy to solve:

People often have a biased view of their own performance. Thus, pay increases and title increases should only be based on external evaluations (for example, how their manager, their peers or their customers evaluate their performance), not on self-evaluations.

Self-evaluations can be used, for example, to determine if people are sufficiently critical of themselves, and whether they can correctly identify areas for improvement. It sounds like your star performer excelled at this as well. Thus, everything is fine, and there is no problem that needs to be fixed.

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    Testing whether employees are "sufficiently self-critical" is basically low-key gaslighting. You are basically forcing the employee to thread the needle between showing enough self-criticism and giving their managers a list of reasons to give them a poor evaluation. Under NO circumstances should you do this. Ever. The only valid use of self-evaluation is to allow workers to advocate for themselves.
    – Nobody
    Oct 10, 2022 at 19:02
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    "The only valid use of self-evaluation is to allow workers to advocate for themselves." - arguably not even that. "Workers who are good at self-advocation" != "workers who are good at <job>", for almost all jobs.
    – TLW
    Oct 11, 2022 at 2:24
  • @Nobody: But that's exactly what I'm advocating against: As I wrote in my answer, "pay increases and title increases should [...] not [be based] on self-evaluations". Self-criticism is a point in favor of the employee, not, as you write, "reasons to give them a poor evaluation". I've had employees who presented themselves as the greatest software developers alive. They weren't. Any manager worth their money knows your weaknesses after working with you for some time. The self-evaluation is to find out whether you know it too (which is important, because otherwise, you can't improve.)
    – Heinzi
    Oct 11, 2022 at 7:02
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    @Heinzi If you aren't using your assessment of self-awareness in the employee's performance eval, then what are you using it for? You say you want to "find out if the employee knows [their weaknesses]", but what are you going to do with that knowledge? Wouldn't it be better to just tell them what you see as areas for improvement and not worry about whether they spotted those improvement opportunities without your help? And if they point out a weakness that you hadn't noticed, how do you ensure that it doesn't color your assessment? I'm very skeptical of any such process.
    – Nobody
    Oct 11, 2022 at 14:00
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    To reiterate, expecting employees to criticize themselves forces them into a sort of gamesmanship. It belongs in the same bucket as interview questions like "What is your greatest weakness?" Very few of the answers you get will be honest appraisals; mostly it will be people trying to guess what sort of answer will please you. And, of course, it leads directly to situations like the one that spawned this question. Just tell people what you want from them. Don't make them guess and then grade them on how close they get.
    – Nobody
    Oct 11, 2022 at 14:07
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Self-evaluations should never be used for performance appraisals. They should be reflective and primarily for self-development.

There are three main reasons for this:

  1. People are naturally going to want to bump their own performance evaluation to try and secure a pay-rise. There's a fundamental conflict of interest there.

  2. The Dunning Kreuger effect means that you witness exactly this. The people who know the least, think they know the most and vice-versa. It's a terrible way to actually assess performance objectively.

Dunning Kruger Graph

  1. This is a sure-fire way to introduce racial/cultural disparity in pay. Some cultures are naturally more comfortable praising themselves than others. If you take your average American and your average Brit of similar performance, you can bet the Brit will rate their own performance as worse than their American peer would.

Pay rises should only be based on: inflation and objective, measurable performance metrics.

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    Also, also... You don't want to give people at the peak of "mount stupid" better raises/performance evaluations then people in the "Valley of Despair" or on the "Slope of Enlightenment"
    – Questor
    Oct 10, 2022 at 16:23
  • The problem with saying only inflation and objective measurable performance metrics is defining those metrics can be incredibly challenging. Many metrics either encourage behaviors that are counterproductive, can be easily gamed, or are mostly out of an individual employees control. Oct 10, 2022 at 22:36
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    Absolutely @user1937198 - I entirely agree with you. That being hard though isn't a reason to not try Oct 10, 2022 at 22:41
  • @ScottishTapWater I'm curious if you've seen any practical metrics for software developers for example. Because without a usable metric it basically becomes inflation and new hiring. Oct 10, 2022 at 22:44
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    Regarding Brits vs Americans in point 3, do you have data to back your assertion, other than stereotype?
    – kmort
    Oct 12, 2022 at 3:12
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Your process is flawed if you only rely on self-evaluation. You can easily imagine the opposite where a poor performer gives themselves a very positive evaluation. How you would overcome this. It must be a cross-validation with their manager.

You should add your positive opinion and actually praise their self-criticism there, as much officially as you can for traceability.

13

Short answer: Some people are like this.

Longer answer - I know someone who sounds very much like this - massive Over-Achiever - crushes everything they do - and yet when asked, they are often very humble and extremely self-critical of their performance.

It can be quite jarring at first when you encounter this - that you see on the outside their victories and all their hard work and you cannot wrap your head around how someone could see themselves like this.

In their mind, they are aiming at perfection and everything less than perfection (even if it more than satisfied all the business requirements) is a Failure.

Onto how to handle this - there are really 2 possibilties:

1: Manager Veto - in your assessment, you will have the Employee rating/grade (whatever you call it) and the Manager one and then after a discussion one gets set - the simplest solution is to pull rank and use your ranking as the one that gets put forward - incorporate elements of their review - set some goals etc. but ultimately use the view from the Company

2: Depending on how much lee-way you have with your Performance process - you may want to change it so that there is less scope shall we say for someone who has a perfectionist mindset to be overly self-critical - such as limiting field length for negative views or simply excluding them altogether.

9

Employees should never be expected to criticize themselves in self-evaluations, and they should be told as much from the outset.

The only valid use of a self-evaluation in a performance review is as a place for employees to advocate for themselves and to try to ensure that their contributions are not being overlooked. There should never be any expectation that employees provide a balanced review or point out their weaknesses. If their weaknesses are important, they will be mentioned in peer reviews or management reviews.

Asking employees to write balanced self-assessment of themselves is basically asking them to make statements against their own interests. People writing such reviews have to perform a balancing act between sharing enough negative information to get credit for "self awareness", while not sharing so much as to talk a manager who was previously satisfied with their performance into being unsatisfied. Not only is it unfair, but it also makes reviews almost impossible to calibrate because not only do people vary in their intrinsic self-awareness, they vary in their understanding of how brutally honest they are expected to be, as well as in their ability to spin the negatives as being not all that bad. You can and should sidestep all of this by telling employees at the start of the process that there is no expectation that their self-evaluations be unbiased and that they should make an effort to present their accomplishments in the best light possible.

For similar reasons you should never ask employees to provide a suggested rating for themselves. Usually the rating the employee provides winds up being an upper bound on the rating that will eventually be given. Self-rating therefore forces employees to try to guess the highest rating that will not provoke a negative reaction for being "unrealistic". It's hard on top performers, who are more likely to be aware of their shortcomings, and it's hard on people who are not performing well, as it essentially forces them to flagellate themselves in front of their bosses. Most of the time it is arrant cruelty for no tangible gain. Don't do it.

In your particular situation, if your process allows it, you should send the self-evaluation back to the employee with a note explaining that although you appreciate their honesty, the purpose of the evaluation is for them to advocate for themselves, and they should rewrite it to highlight their accomplishments and note the places where they have improved over the evaluation period. Remind them that the self-evaluation is only a part of the performance management process, and if they have any significant flaws, those will come up in the peer and management evaluations. Conversely, if the flaws don't come up in other people's reviews, then they probably aren't that important after all. At your option, you might also add that if they truly feel that they have so many areas for improvement, they should talk with you about it informally, outside of the performance review process, to work on some ideas and strategies for growth and development.

7

How would you respond to this?

Start by internalizing the fact that this employee’s critical self evaluation is strongly correlated with their stellar performance. Thus, the cognitive dissonance you are experiencing is misplaced: it’s not “he is a stellar performer BUT is very self critical”; rather, it’s “he is a stellar performer AND, as you’d often expect in such cases, he is very self critical”. @StephanBranczyk nailed it in his answer:

But don't try to deny his observations. They're probably correct. People who are at the top of their game are extremely critical of themselves. That's how they're able to improve their skills year after year.

Consider also that this employee’s attitude also reveals a healthy level of self-confidence and a sense of ease with who they are and with the work they are doing. They do not feel a need to make excuses or attempt to make their achievements look better than they are. You ask them for the good and the bad of what they did, and they give you an honest answer (likely knowing full well that their review outcome will still blow it out of the park). In other words, what may seem like the employee’s lack of confidence in their own abilities to you can actually be the exact opposite. (I say this because I believe I have some personal experience that gives me some insight into this person’s mindset — see the anecdote below.)

As for what to do: if your organization has a healthy culture and the ranks of leadership are staffed with sensible people who have a modicum of understanding of human psychology (admittedly, that’s a fairly sizable if), you would simply send along the self-evaluation up the ladder, along with your own evaluation that explains why this employee is so amazing, and spends a bit of time discussing the person’s self-critical mindset, and explaining (as I have attempted to do above) why it says good things about them rather than bad things.

Finally, a small anecdote: I have myself several times been the lone employee in my organization (an academic university department) who dares to criticize himself in his self-review. I did this for reasons that I think are somewhat similar to your employee (although I can’t claim to match his level of superstardom, nor perhaps the intensity of his self-criticism). I was also somewhat motivated by a desire to foster a slightly healthier culture in my department where people hold themselves up to higher standard than was true at the time. I actually remember the vice chair of my department coming to my office on one of those occasions, slightly alarmed, to ask if I was serious about this self-criticism and would I perhaps want to change it… But I didn’t, and the review ended very well, with an outcome placing me among the top performers in the department.

Now, whether this sort of gambit would work in a non-academic setting, or in different organizations with vastly different cultures, I have no idea, but I thought I would share my experience for what it’s worth.

5

I anticipated that my "star" direct report would submit a very strong self-evaluation, making it easy to justify a pay increase and an increase in title that has been a long time coming.

Did you the manager tell them the goal of the assignment. If you wanted me to give an honest self-assessment so we could discuss what I could do better, that would look 100% different from write a couple of paragraphs that you can use to get get me a raise.

I have written many annual reviews about myself. they real rules fell into several different categories:

  • The decision regarding my rating was decided months ago, after I turn in the self-assessment we then spend the annual review meeting tweaking the words to match the already determined raise.
  • They have no idea what I do despite the weekly, and monthly reports, so the self-assessment is the only way to not end up with a below average raise.
  • The goals for the just completed year are going to be written now so I have to write goals and then write what I did. Then I am told I need to make up a goal I failed to achieve because they already told their manager I wasn't good at meeting goals.

I don't miss this exercise in futility. Next time just tell them the purpose of the assignment.

You could also take what they wrote and make it less negative, and present that to your boss to justify the raise everybody knows they deserve.

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    Exercise in futility indeed. About the second point though "the self-assessment is the only way to not end up with a below average raise" needs a modification: "A successfully written self-assessment". I've submitted bad evaluations in the past (didn't know any better) when I had done good work that year but ended up with below average salary raise with bad managers. Good ones have at least some idea of what I'm doing and override my evaluation.
    – Jessie
    Oct 9, 2022 at 14:59
2

You can tell him what you really have in mind:

  1. He is a super STAR employee in your team and will be promoted.
  2. The weaknesses he listed on the self-evaluation form are not really serious weaknesses. They won't affect his future advancement. Everyone has some room for improvements, and that is normal.
  3. You and upper management greatly appreciate his strength and his contributions to the
    team.
  4. He should not be too self-critical about his performance. He should relax as he has already done a great job.
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  • SO you are asking him to lie about his performance as he sees it.
    – mmmmmm
    Oct 9, 2022 at 20:28
  • That is the point. To me it is not a strong word it is a fact. The point of self evaluation is to be exact and true. If there is an issue then make it clear and don't cover up. Cover up is for conmen and cheats.
    – mmmmmm
    Oct 10, 2022 at 7:09
  • @mmmmmm, On the contrary. If the OP follows my advice, it means he encourages the worker to be more accurate in the self-evaluation. Why ? Because the OP wrote "I don't even agree with most of the self-identified weaknesses", which means he thinks the worker is not being fair to himself. So, if the OP tells the worker not to be too harsh on himself, it means the OP wants to voice his own truthful opinion based on his own evaluations of the worker. The worker and the OP may have 2 different views, but that does NOT mean the OP were encouraging the worker to lie. OP is helping the worker. Oct 11, 2022 at 5:08
  • @mmmmmm, More example: suppose a manager has the worst worker with the worst performance in his team. This worst worker writes in his self-evaluation "I have no weakness. I am the BEST STAR worker in this company. I want 700% salary rise". Clearly, the manager does NOT agree with this self-evaluation. Does it mean the manager encourages the worst worker to lie if the manager tells the worst worker that he disagrees with self-evaluation ? No, Absolutely Not. I'll say that the manager encourages the worker to tell the truth in this case. Oct 11, 2022 at 5:15
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    No that shows that self assessment does not work. That worst worker will end up giving a better assessment than a self depreciating truthh seeking self asser. Both employess will be pissed off and think you are asking them to lie.
    – mmmmmm
    Oct 11, 2022 at 6:48
2

There is two possibilities:

  1. The employee has unrealistic standards for their current role or is too critical of themselves.

  2. The employee evaluates themselves against higher standards than you are, because they are ambitious and look at more than their current role.

It is hard to tell from the outside which case might apply. There have already answers written for the first case, so I will give one for the second scenario.

Imagine an ambitious employee that is really doing well in their current role, and keeps getting positive feedback throughout. At the same time, they haven't been promoted to the next level yet. The person in question would have to ask themselves: "There is something I am missing to make that jump to the next level, but I haven't gotten any constructive feedback to get there."

What I would do in this situation would be a highly self-critical evaluation, in which I identify the skills I need to improve to get to that next level (either at the current company, or another) and systematically work on it. I would share that self-evaluation with my manager in the hope to confirm improvement points and work with me to improve them, to help me to get to that next position.

considered for compensation bumps, title bumps

To be frank, these two points sound like a mixed bag. A "title bump" is something different than a real promotion with new responsibilities and a "compensation bump" often is a small increment, compared to what you would get if you truly get to the same level. Is your employee really set up for success or at a dead end?

To me it sounds like you are at the risk of losing that person.

The worst message you can give an ambitious employee is that there is nothing they can improve, because that would basically be saying: "You achieved everything you can achieve. You have reached your ceiling at this company".

What you can do, is to have a conversation with this person about their career trajectory in the company, and what would be the next career step for this person in your company. Go through the self-evaluation together and identify which weaknesses are relevant improvement-points and which are not this time.

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There are plenty of other answers discussing the short-term situation, and I agree with the general message there - e.g. Stephan's answer advising a separate one for the record.

If that's not possible, I would aim to put his comments into perspective in my own report, e.g.:

Bob has identified a number of perceived weaknesses in his own work. These should be understood in the context of a high-performing employee who sets very high standards for himself. Most staff at this level would not even consider these to be significant weaknesses.

blah blah let me list all the good things Bob did look how modest he is blah blah.

What I haven't seen addressed in the other answers was the important long-term principle:

Performance feedback needs to be frequent, not just at the end of a performance cycle.

It can be very hard to assess one's own performance. I've gone into reviews where I felt I was struggling and letting my co-workers down, only to be told "we're very pleased with how you're doing". In my case I have an atypical skill profile - I'm very strong in some areas, not so strong in others, and it's hard to know how heavily to weigh the pluses against the minuses.

For that reason, it's important to get into the habit of frequently giving feedback on performance. This doesn't have to be a formal process, just an occasional "That presentation went really well, I'm really happy with how this is going" can work wonders.

You might also encourage him to do something that I do: any time I get a nice email about something I did well, I save it in a special folder. I rarely go into that folder to read the old messages, but just the act of doing that and knowing that those messages are there helps me keep a little more grounded and put my failings into proportion.

2

The problem here is not the self-evaluation. The problem is that a self-evaluation is confused with an evaluation what benefit an employee brings to the business.

A self-evaluation is for improvement of the employee. Any employee can improve, nobody is perfect. The better you are the more potential you will see to grow.

Giving raises however should typically be driven by measures such as:

  • contribution to the company
  • improvement over last evaluation period
  • engagement of the employee

The actual contribution to the company cannot be measured by the self-evaluation. At least it's not a direct relationship where someone who cannot see their own flaws automatically provides more to the company than someone who does. Someone might be terribly sloppy or need a secretary to write their mails because they would be full of typos otherwise and still sell the most cars, because they are a total charmer.

For the improvement over the last period the self-evaluation can be a measure, but it's a pretty unreliable one. Whether an employee has improved by working on their flaws is again not directly related to their benefit to the company. Perhaps they managed to learn the complicated math they wanted to understand,but it turns out they never need to use it, nearly burnt out in months of workshops they did in overtime and are now less productive than before. Still, if they are very self-critical one year, it is likely they are the next year, so a relative improvement can well be visible not matter whether they don't have the same scale regarding how much to push their successes as you have.

Lastly, sometimes a raise is "just" a sign that an employer respects and values an employee trying to improve, trying to help the business whether they actually do bring in money or not. Someone doing overtime, always doing the work the others don't want to do, teaching themselves on the side etc. might be rewarded for their effort - so others are encouraged to also invest effort, perhaps then with better effects. Whether or not they find flaws in themselves doesn't tell you much either. They might be a perfectionist and aim at resolving all these flaws or they might just be depressed, find all the flaws but ignore them. (In your case it seems your employee is motivated and probably also invests effort, but the point is that even if you could present a shining self-evaluation it wouldn't necessarily be better or worse, it's always the context that matters.)

So all in all, your metrics are wrong or too one-sided if you find this self-evaluation is a major road block to get the person a raise.

It is totally natural to be self-critical to a certain degree (and your description doesn't sound like your employee is talking themselves totally down), it's in the name: evaluation. The question sounds like you were looking for a self-promotion.

P.S. Personally I find successes totally boring and also keep them short and succinct in any report. There is nothing actionable about them. Flaws and mistakes are what you can learn and improve from - or at least those pose challenges. To learn from successes all you need to do is keep doing what you did how you did it (simplified). If they are an engineer, they might think similarly: "Give me problems to solve". Psychologically, if you rate yourself as top performer, there is nothing you can improve, so why would you rate yourself with the highest grade - you can only fall down from that. Bonus problem: Most self-evaluations are incredibly vague, so everyone needs to come up with their own grading scheme. Ergo, no two self evaluations of different people are comparable. Typically not even two of the same person as they might not remember their grading scheme from last year...

1

Maybe he is just polite or restrained. Or he is overly self-critical.

Either way, you should mentor him, that is your job! You should provide him regular feedback how much more he performs, how much he recognizes his own weaknesses, and what he deserves.

He can gain self-content and self-confidence, trust his judgement more, and become a even more valuable employee.

1

This is not an answer for what to do in this instant at this moment but maybe for future evaluations: I was recently in an annual review committee recently and observed this behavior among some of my coworkers, including myself. We simply didn't know how to write a good self-evaluation that the committee can use to give us a positive evaluation. Some people that I know personally who are doing really good work made it sound like they had a lot to improve, and some people who are doing bare minimum work made it sound like they were just about average. I myself thought I was doing about average work (I don't know exactly what others do as our main work is mostly solo) and that's the way I had portrayed myself, and that was far from true. This is also a bit related to the culture I grew up in, which is not individualistic and you are expected to be humble. (There are other reasons too and a few of the answers above already mentioned those possibilities.) The other people were also immigrants. I suggested to the committee that sharing some full examples of self-evaluations (fake ones) or workshops before we submit these in the future would help since I didn't know how to write one before I served on the committee (which is late in my career). Your mentors might give you examples but they give you examples from when they're mid-career and when I compared myself to them early in my career, I definitely looked like I needed to do a lot more. I now give my mentees my resume from when I was at their place in my career so they can have a better comparison.

1

I've done this quite a bit myself, and to be honest I didn't know writing a critical self-evaluation has this kind of effect until I read this question.

I think ultimately the question comes down to what exactly the self-evaluation is for. If as you write it's used to justify pay increases, promotions, etc, then that sounds weird to me because it's very common to have an inflated opinion of yourself (see illusory superiority). It's how almost everyone thinks they are above-average drivers when that is mathematically impossible. Logical result: self-evaluations are not the things to use when deciding who gets promoted. You need to use evaluations from someone else (the manager). In fact, I thought prior to reading this question that the main purpose of self-evaluations is so the manager can see if their opinion of the employee aligns with the employee's own, to see if the employee is aware of their own weaknesses and to arrange for remedies if not.

If your company really does use self-evaluations as the main driver of promotions, then I suggest calling the employee in for a private chat. Discuss the details of their self-evaluation, point out why their perceived weaknesses aren't weaknesses, etc. Be aware that your employee got where they are in part because they are self-critical. After having discussed what is in the current evaluation, tell them you need a good self-evaluation to get them a raise, get them promoted, etc., and ask them to write a new self-evaluation. They should be able to handle the rest.

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Speaking as someone who has written multiple calibers of self-evaluation document, I would, for one, concur with the other answers that the employee may simply be self-critical, and that this is a quality to be praised and supplemented with your own positive review when submitted to management. (I would also agree that self-evaluations should not be the basis of raises - that should primarily be determined by management and business results, with self-evaluations used to help identify key contributors if anything at all).

However, I also believe there is a possibility that the employee, despite their high performance, is feeling dissatisfied with the job, and this belief that they are not a good fit is manifesting in their self-evaluation. Obviously, you know that their performance is great and not a problem at all, but this sort of dissatisfied feeling can originate from anywhere, and according to the left-brain interpreter theory, the left halves of our brains are a bit over-eager to create rationalizations for feelings, patterns, and decisions, even if they're not what's actually going on and the right halves of our brains know the truth.

So, when you sit down with this employee to talk about their performance evaluation, I would also ask, to the extent you feel comfortable, if they're doing OK, and if there's anything about their work that's bugging them. You may not get much of an answer out of them, but if they trust you, they may bring something to you that you can help resolve, and even just asking the question can help them direct their personal attention to what's actually going on.

Some problems you may end up finding this way:

  • An ephemeral personal or work issue (i.e. they just had a really bad day when they wrote the evaluation). Simply talking about the self-evaluation together should help with this, since they've had more time to think about it and might want to change how things are worded or focused.
  • A more persistent mental health issue. Only a trained mental health counselor or therapist should try to crack this open, but either the company or your insurance provider will have a directory of people they can see - direct them to that.
  • Not getting enough pay/not having enough job responsibilities (and/or an opportunity that does pay better). Since this is exactly what you have in mind for them, just tell them that. If you're concerned about your words being taken as edicts when they aren't yet, you can couch it in terms of how you personally feel (e.g. "I was really surprised when I read your self-evaluation and seeing how critical you were of your achievements and how many weaknesses you listed - to be completely honest, we're really impressed with your performance and we wanted to give you a raise").
  • Dissatisfaction with you as a manager. Managers can make or break a person's experience at a company, so if there's anything that you can do to improve your work, this is a good opportunity to discuss it. (This also ties into the sentiment in other answers that you should discuss performance a lot more often than at just performance evaluations - this includes both their performance and yours).
  • Performance issues with peers. If they're having frustrating experiences working with other employees, you can discuss those things with them (or their managers, if you don't directly manage them). This one's especially good to watch out for, as a more humble, agreeable employee might take the blame for issues mostly caused by others.
  • Interpersonal issues with peers, including any form of bullying or abuse. These should be taken much more seriously and referred to HR (or perhaps to criminal justice if they're bad enough). Something that can make these particularly tricky is that the abuse may include gaslighting or blackmail, which may prevent them from perceiving the situation correctly or discussing it with someone who can help.
  • Disbelieving in the company mission (and/or an opportunity with a mission they believe in). Unfortunately, this is probably the one you'd be least likely to be able to help with - you could talk about your own relationship to the company and its mission, but how they perceive it is ultimately up to them, and a better mission at a different company could indeed inspire them to take a pay cut. (Though, of course, if the employee is simply neutral to the mission, a pay raise could help them stay - see previous bullet point).
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  • Is excessive self-criticism a quality to be praised, really? Would you want the employee to be that critical of other people? If not, then why the double standard? C.S. Lewis argued that false modesty is actually a form of pride. One is in a sense saying, "This may be good enough for other people, but I'm way better than that." I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I do think that double standards should be discouraged.
    – Nobody
    Oct 11, 2022 at 14:15
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The simple answer to this is that this is the result of having been in a toxic environment. It could be at home, school, college or a prior employer. The person knows that tooting their own horn will invite negative actions. I've been a top performer, and had to do this during my performance appraisals with a toxic boss. If I graded myself high, he'd lower it. If I graded myself low, he'd give me the highest scores.

What you need to do, is slowly convince your top performer that you aren't a toxic boss. But to do that, you'd need to change organizational processes. The other answers here give a lot of insight into what to do.

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