The best questions to ask at a performance review

It's that time of year when offices indulge in their annual rituals of Secret Santa gift exchanges and awkward holiday parties. But the biggest stress inducer is something more serious: the annual performance review. There's a wide variety of literature about how badly these are often done, but we do them all the same. They're an excuse to finally get the feedback most employees crave and yet seldom receive.

One of the biggest problems with performance reviews is that what is done is done. If a team member did something problematic in May, the time to address it was back in May. But here are questions you can ask your direct reports that will make a review more forward looking: "When we sit here in December 2012, what would you like to be saying? What do you hope we will have done together by the end of next year?"

This is a great way to think about long-term professional goals. But the most important thing about these questions is that you shouldn't just put them to the people you're reviewing. You should ask them of yourself, too. What do you hope your career will look like at the end of 2012? What would you say in a performance review that you gave yourself?

Even if you're perfectly happy with your current organization, there may be new skills you'd like to learn -- possibly by doing volunteer work or taking a course online. You may have different ideas of how you'd like to advance at your organization, and at what pace. Thinking about next year's performance review now increases the chances that whatever you envision will become reality by the time December rolls around again.