Remember that now-iconic scene in Rush Hour when Chris Rock’s character asks the detective played by Jackie Chan: “Do you understand the words that coming out of my mouth?” Of course you do. It’s become part of pop culture. And, if you are like many Americans, when it comes to your annual performance review, the answer so often is: “No. No I really don’t.”

Done well, performance reviews are a great opportunity for open dialogue and personal growth. But when we’re left with more questions than answers, what do we do?
Over the years, I’ve both given and received performance reviews – and I can admit that, yes, there is a manager-code that supervisors have developed after years of attending politically correct coaching seminars.

Just like it’s a manager’s job to provide feedback, it’s an employee’s job to receive it gracefully and apply it appropriately. Sometimes, yes, that means reading between the lines. But here is a primer on management-speak that should help reduce some of the confusion and anxiety.

You hear: “You have a tendency to get lost in the weeds.”
What your boss is really saying: “I asked you the status of the new hire. I don’t need to know every detail of the search. I have 500 other things to do besides this conversation. For heaven’s sake, get to the point – and quickly.”

What to do: Keep your communications – on email, phone or face-to-face – precise, concise and direct. Give a brief update, and focus on the key decision points that your boss needs to know and/or approve. If she wants more information, then she will tell you. In the future, try:
“I have three excellent candidates. I would like to begin scheduling final interviews now. The top candidate, who has the most relevant experience, is asking for $5,000 above our budgeted salary. What are your thoughts?”

You hear: “I’d love to see you take more initiative.”
What your boss is really saying: Plainly put, this is an invitation to shine. Start taking on more accountability and authority, and show that you have what it takes to move up to the next level.

What to do: Start sharing more ideas in meetings and volunteering to take on more responsibilities. Ask your boss if you can go to a training, and outline the benefits to the team if you go and apply the knowledge gained. You may be taking on more work, yes, but you also need to see this as an opportunity to prove your value. No pain, no gain.

You hear: “You are too emotional.”
What your boss is really saying: “In our last meeting, I asked you for an update on your project. You responded defensively with an increased pitch in your tone, going on and on about how you even skipped lunch because this project means so much to you. You gestured wildly. You talked about how tired you are. All of this implies that you aren’t in control of your emotions. If I can’t trust you to respond on a direct level to a simple inquiry, you certainly aren’t promotable.”

What to do: Take a deep breath when asked or challenged about something that feels personal. Thank (yes, really) thank your supervisor or colleague for posing their question or voicing their concerns, then give a brief update. If it is appropriate to share your justifications, do so – but leave emotional responses out of it. When sharing bad news, don’t make excuses. Give an updated projection. Keep your tone steady and use simple verbiage. In the future, try:
“I have completed about two-thirds of this report. Originally, I was projecting to give you the update by morning but am now realizing I need some more time to ensure my work is correct. I plan to work through lunch to provide you with the final draft. You should have it by 3:00.”

You hear: “Remember, you are an external representative of the company.”
What your boss is really saying: This is one of those statements that can go several different ways, depending on the context of the situation she is thinking about. The bottom line, however, is this: your image and/or actions aren’t measuring up. Ouch.

What to do: Time to take a hard look at your wardrobe, your makeup and your hairstyle. The old adage: “Dress for the job you want applies here.” Invest in some key wardrobe pieces: a suit, tailored blouse, classic accessories. Keep your makeup and hair simple and chic. Maybe it’s not your outward appearance, but your lack of preparation and follow-up. Do you respond to outside calls and emails in a timely manner? Do you have your business card ready at networking opportunities? Above all, keep any promises that you make. What you are is – regardless of your title – a Public Relations Manager for your company.

You hear: “Please check in with me before you…”
What your boss is really saying: Red alert time. Your boss may be feeling like you have the tendency to charge in without thinking, and this can create an awkward situation for her.

What to do: Whether your actions are warranted or not, remember that part of your job is to make your boss look good. If you are cowboying it up a lot, bring her into the loop. Ask your boss for specific parameters of when she wants you to come to you.

In the end, if you aren’t sure what your boss is saying, ask. Ask for examples, ask for suggestions. Thank her for the feedback, and make a list of what she says. Incorporate her suggestions into your goals for 2013. Good luck, and let us know how it works!