One of the worst things a manager can do in an annual review is spring a surprise on you. But, sadly, some managers wait until the end of the year to tell people about a problem that's festered for months.
If this happens to you, acknowledge your manager's point of view and the importance he puts on the situation. You won't be able to bring your best thinking to the situation when you are caught off guard. Ask for a follow-up meeting within the next week, so that it's clear you aren't trying to brush off the concern.
Bearing secondhand feedback is a sure way to erode trust. But, some so-called performance-management systems rely on it, and some managers fall into the trap.
Vague or puzzling secondhand feedback presents a problem similar to vague labels—you don't have enough information to make a choice about what to change. Use a similar opening: "I'd like to learn more about that perception. Can you arrange for me to have a follow-up conversation with the person who gave that feedback?"
If that fails, ask if your boss shares the assessment from the anonymous source, and seek clarification from him.
If the secondhand feedback is a complaint about the way you do your job, ask your boss to arrange a meeting so that you can repair the working relationship.
Most people are open to feedback when they believe that the source is reliable, the receiver trusts the giver's intentions, the receiver has a chance to clarify, and the process—both how the feedback is developed and how it's delivered—is fair.
Too many annual reviews violate some or all of these principles, but if you use the strategies in this column, you can restore some of the balance and gain helpful information.