How to Survive a Bad Performance Review

Don't stew, complain or plot revenge: Here's how to react to the bad news so you can move onward and upward.

from Reader's Digest | November 2011

1. Take a deep breath

While your instinct may be to cry or lash out, maintain your composure and your professionalism, at least until the review is over and you are outside the office. You can let your boss know you are surprised or disappointed, but don't get emotional or defensive. Put yourself in your boss's shoes, writes Jodi Glickman in Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It. The Secrets of Getting Ahead (Griffin, $15.99). From her perspective, "the goal of the meeting is not to make you feel good. The goal is to make you better at your job."

2. Ask for specific ways you can improve.

Consider saying more than "What can I do to boost my performance?" Glickman suggests, "I appreciate your candor. How would you recommend getting the R-and-D team on board earlier in the process next time?" If pressing for concrete information puts your boss on the spot, ask, "Is there someone here you think does a particularly good job at that? I'd love to get some ideas from him."

3. Listen for feelings, not just words.

"People want to be heard and understood, not just logically but also emotionally," writes Rick Kirschner in How to Click with People: The Secret to Better Relationships in Business and in Life (Hyperion, $24.99). When giving you the bad news, does your boss appear disappointed? Uncomfortable? Angry? Sympathetic? Bored? Take her mood as much as the content of the review into account.

4. "Say "Thank you."

Yes, really. If you don't agree with her assessment, say, "Thanks so much for taking time to sit down with me. I really appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts," writes Glickman. Or "I'm not sure I completely understand or agree with all of your points, but I do appreciate your taking the time to sit down with me." If you think she's made a good case, try "I absolutely understand your points, and I'm going to spend some time thinking about ways to improve in the areas you mentioned. Thank you."

5. Ask to revisit the situation.

Glickman says you should always follow up — whether to ask for clarification, to argue your case, or to smooth over any disagreement. Before you leave, say something like "You've given me a lot to think about, and I'd like to continue the conversation after I have some more time to reflect on all of this."

6. See this as the glass half full.

It may sound as corny as a needlepoint pillow emblazoned with "When life gives you lemons …," but according to Tali Sharot in The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain (Pantheon, $25.95), perceiving setbacks as opportunities actually helps make them so. "Predictions not only alter our perceptions but also modify action," writes Sharot. If you think of your boss's assessment as a catalyst for positive change and not a kick in the teeth, you'll more likely work toward that change.

7. Make new goals — and stick to them.

The key, write Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin Press, $27.95), is to determine both a long-term objective (say, boost your sales by 20 percent) and intermediate goals (book lunches with five clients a month). "Have an idea of what you want to accomplish in a month and how you want to get there," advise Baumeister, who directs the social psychology program at Florida State, and Tierney, a New York Times reporter. "Leave some flexibility and anticipate setbacks." Baumeister's research has shown that willpower is like a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

Start with small housekeeping tasks each day, advise the authors. "You may not care about whether your bed is made or your desk is clean, but these environmental cues subtly influence your brain and your behavior, making it ultimately less of a strain to maintain self-discipline. Order seems to be contagious."

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