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
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    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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    Your Comments

    • disqus_t7EEA2gvw6

      Sometimes you work at a place and that would be a kiss of death in terms of career. This is because the firm is required to fail a certain number of people and once you fall in that bucket it becomes much easier to give you another one than to someone who has never fallen into this bucket at all. The firm would only want to keep you in that bucket so that other people won’t be required to take a hit each year. In these situations your best option would be to pretend and actually do nothing at work, simply learn other skills for your own benefit at the expense of the company until you are ready to move on.

    • Not getting walked all over

      What do you recommend when the review is totally wrong, written by an incompetent supervisor, and the real motivation behind giving you a bad review has nothing to do with bad performance? A couple of reviews ago, under a supervisor that I directly told I would not work under her, left the meeting where she was telling me they were going ahead with a former VP’s plan to have her supervise me, went directly to the company president and was asked to stay with the company until more changes could be made as the new VP got settled in, and agreed to stay and even work under the supervisor for a short time, I got a scathing review, after years of advancement and higher raises then were given to other employees, and never one other negative review. Oh, did I mention this was all after I supported and backed up a manager who was being sexually harassed by the aforementioned former VP (who was only moved to another, newly created, just for him, department at that time.) We are permitted to respond to our reviews. After sitting through the meeting with the new VP and the incompetent manager, in which I apologized to the VP for “failing” to provide her with information for a project 8 months before, but never previously mentioned, I wrote my response and went through my old emails. I ended up providing a response disputing all but one negative item in the review. I also found a bonus in the old emails. Not only had I NOT “failed” to provide the VP with the necessary information 8 months earlier, I found her email acknowledging receiving my email with the info, some banter about one of the individuals mentioned having no bio, but the same name as an actress in a popular movie of the time. I also found her acknowledgement email of the addition of the missing bio. The only thing that held up was about turning in credit card receipts to the treasurer. Since there was never a set date for this, I always turned in my receipts at the end of the month. Upon finding out that the treasurer wanted them earlier than that to match the billing cycle, I agreed to turn the receipts in in a more timely manner. I could go on with the things that were wrong, but basically I turned in a 19 page rebuttal with 60 pages of accompanying emails to dispute 99.9% of a review that would have qualified me as one of the worst employees in company history after over a decade of stellar performance. The end result, response read reviewed and understood and we were going to turn it into HR and move forward from there. And never an apology from the new VP for being mistaken on what I apologized to her for not doing, as I told her at the time, “”if I somehow missed it” even though I knew I must have done it and turns out I did.

    • Jimbo999

      I got a bad performance review one year and received a 5% raise.  I buckled down the next year and improved all of my matrixes.  In my next year, I received a good review and a 1.2% raise.  I asked why this happened and was told that because I had improved, I now was “meeting expectations” and the raise for that was 1.2%. This taught me a valuable lesson…don’t do anything extra.  When another company called me and offered me a better position, I walked out (with my client list) and never looked back.

    • Anonymous

      If  you get a bad review, remember, the boss may be giving you a heads up to help, instead of just laying you off.  Also, the boss may be just having an ego trip by getting critical, so try to weigh the facts.  It may be time to look for another job, but even so, shape up and try to take the criticism constructively, work on the problems and after a few weeks or months, sit down and talk to the boss, how am I doing?  If it is not going well, best to do something about it, and, try not to burn the bridges.  It may be a good thing to be able to use the boss as a reference, some companies take the time to check on you with your former boss.

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