Decoding Year-End Reviews: A Buddhist Approach to Career Pit Stops

Written by Sharon Soon
6 mins read
Published on Dec 20, 2023

TLDR: Join Sharon in mastering the SBI framework infused with Dhamma wisdom for delivering feedback, fostering understanding, and resolving differences mindfully.

Career Journey Checkpoints

As a leadership coach, I have been seeing clients who are anxious about the year-end performance reviews. 

It is common for both the individual contributors and the managers to feel anxiety, nervousness, confusion, wariness etc.

“How can I ask for a salary increment? A promotion?” 

“How can I talk about my achievements without sounding boastful?” 

“How can I give negative feedback to my direct report?” 

These are questions that we can tackle from a Dhamma perspective. 

Often, there are some HR guidelines to prepare one for the 1-1 performance reviews. For the individual contributor, it involves self-reflection, listing your achievements of the year, strengths you have applied to good effect, areas of development for next year, any career progression desire etc. 

I recommend giving yourself proper quiet time to do this reflection. Instead of feeling the burden of an official performance review, an official writeup, we might use this opportunity to check in with ourselves with compassion. 

Try not to be overly attached to the negatives, especially if there is “constructive feedback” from a 360 report. 

We might turn attention back to our bodies, noticing the tension arising, breath quickening, as we encounter some triggers and perhaps self-judgment. 

In the The Satipatthana Sutta-“Contemplation on Mental Objects – The Five Hindrances” , it is mentioned, 

When agitation and worry are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have agitation and worry,’ or when agitation and worry are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no agitation and worry.’ 

He understands how the arising of non-arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the abandoning of the arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned agitation and worry comes to be.”

We might reframe this one-time performance review as a single check-point in our broader career journey. It is not the final destination, nor a permanent verdict. 

We might notice the agitation and worry, but choose not to be attached to it. 

How the Dhamma can help you get promoted!

I had a client who wanted to ask her manager for a promotion with a change of title and salary increment. 

She felt that it was long overdue, having taken up projects outside her scope of work, always being proactive to help others out, showcasing her strengths and skills in the process. 

She swayed between feeling indignant with pent-up resentment, and feeling undeserving with crippling self-doubt. I asked her to pause for a moment, and honestly answer these questions. 

“Why do you spend extra time and energy taking up all these new projects?”

She answered, “Because I see the gaps and where I can contribute with my skills and knowledge.”

“What is the Impact of you doing all these?” 

She answered, “The team feels more confident to move forward quickly, we all felt a sense of accomplishment when the project is completed successfully! We then celebrate with good food and drinks together…I feel happy my ideas are accepted, and that I made a positive impact on the team.” 

“What is your current role, and how do you see yourself instead?”

She took a long pause, “Currently I am just an Admin executive, but I have in fact been playing the role of a Project Manager.” 

She knows her value, her contributions and her impact on the team and the organization. She had to first update her self-narrative in her mind, and find the words to articulate her intention to her manager. 

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It kick-started the development conversation, eventually it got escalated by her manager to HR, who then mapped her to a new title and grade.

She was successful not by using hard negotiation skills or trickery, but by speaking with clarity, from a place larger than her Self. Here are some tips to get you started: 

  • Use words and phrases that convey your point clearly and with confidence. Use “I want”, “I would like to”, “I can”, “I have successfully done…”, “I am confident to…”. Avoid words and phrases that take power away from you, or project self-doubt. Stay clear of phrases such as “I guess…”, “At least I might…”, “I am just a…”
  • Articulate the value you bring to the team and organization. Cite quantifiable evidence of the value and impact of your work. Be ready with your performance data, feedback collected, success stories, anything else that would support your claim for promotion. This is the ammunition that you can provide to your manager for him/her to justify your promotion to the management (if applicable). 
  • If you still feel the jitters, speak to a trusted mentor or wise friend. Get some advice from her/him, especially if she/he has navigated similar situations skillfully.
  • Some of my clients put in extra time to rehearse, or role play the conversation with someone. If you do not have a coach, a partner or a trusted friend, pets or stuffed animals would work too. If it helps, strike a power pose (think superman or wonderwoman), or put on imaginary armour (think ironman). This does not work for everyone though, but it is always worth a shot. I would be curious to know what worked for you! 

Of course, we know life is not perfect, there will be a dozen unsuccessful cases that come with each success story. There are simply other factors outside of our control. 

Arrows at work and in the heart

During or after the performance review, we may feel wronged, agitated, angry at the unfairness of it all.

There’s a story about suffering in the Sallatha Sutta, one of the oldest Buddhist texts. The story is often retold(with a touch of humour) like this: 

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student said duh. He then asked, ”If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?” Again, the student said yes, Duh!

The Buddha then explained, “In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.”

With mindfulness, we can become aware of the second arrow. I have a client who literally feels the impact of the second arrow in his body. It starts with tension in the neck, then shoulders, followed by a heaviness pressing on his chest. No, he did not have a heart attack, but he has clearly felt the self-amplified, paralysing weight of the second arrow.

The awareness that this is a second arrow means he has a choice now. He can choose how he wants to react to the first arrow. In his case it is usually an urgent notification escalating an issue at work, demanding his immediate attention and disrupting his work day.

Instead of immediately feeling stressed, he realised he can pause, discern the urgency of the escalation, and choose whether he needs to attend to it immediately.

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He started to feel that he can decide what to prioritise, and how he wants to react. Sometimes he physically stands up, stretches out his chest and arms, intentionally taking a deep breath, before reading the escalation email in detail again.

Becoming a better manager

If you are a manager (or one day might become one), the challenge might be to deliver negative feedback to your direct report. 

In official leadership training to new managers, I often teach the SBI framework – Situation, Behaviour, Impact. 

This is a great framework to give specific, actionable feedback for future improvement. I suggest to add a touch of Dhamma to it! 

In the Pasadika Sutta – “Resolving Differences in Opinion”, the teaching suggests “neither dismissing nor disparaging him, without dismissing him, without disparaging him, you should, with careful attention, make him comprehend only those wordings.” You can find a wonderful Sutta discussion on this by Venerable Canda on Youtube

The Sutta mentions there can be Disagreements on the Meaning, Disagreements on the Wording, or both. The key is to be mindful of our intention, and approach these differences with compassion. 

Our own mindset and emotions will already set the tone of the discussion. The words we use can be triggers for the other person, triggering strong emotions. 

When we hold on strongly to our views, it is almost like a verdict with no room for discussion and clarification, much less exploration or co-creation. 

Instead of going into a tough conversation trying to “win over” the other person, we might ask open-ended questions to engage in discussion.

Sometimes simply asking “How can I support you?” or “What do you need from me?” would work. We have to be mindful that strong words or phrases can trigger negative emotions. Try to stay objective and avoid attacking the person with “You are always so rude/lazy/slow” etc. 

Corporate & Compassion?

In the corporate setting we sometimes feel limited by unspoken boundaries. Do we share emotions? Talk about our fears? Say out loud the narratives or assumptions in our heads? 

Do we have the courage and skills to hold space for the person sharing these? Do we have the emotional vocabulary to label the emotion we are feeling? 

It is often a process to self-reflect, learn and experiment as we go along this journey. My ask of you is to meet people where they are, regardless of what stage they are at, with compassion for a fellow Sentient Being.

Once you have internalized these suttas & ways to approach tough conversations, performance reviews will feel more like a walk in the park.


Wise Steps:

  • Block time for self-reflection, update your self-narrative in your mind, and find the words to articulate your intention to your manager.
  • Stop stabbing yourself with the second arrow. Talk to a wise mentor or Kalyāṇa-mittatā (virtuous friend or admirable friend).
  • Meet people where they are, regardless of what stage they are at, with compassion for a fellow Sentient Being (Being that has senses). 

Author: Sharon Soon

Sharon is a curious traveller, who loves new adventures and meeting new people. She also gets emo and takes her me-time seriously. She is a certified life coach who works with clients on career transitions, leadership and personal development.

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