6 Tips to Overcome a Negative Performance Review

6 Tips to Overcome a Negative Performance Review

Q: What should I do if I get a negative performance review?

A: Its performance review season and this is the second blog in a series on how to manage them. If you didn’t see the first one, check it out here. It’s important to be prepared for your annual review whether it’s good, bad or somewhere in between.

I should start by saying that if you work for long enough, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll eventually get a negative performance review … it happens. Negative reviews are not reserved for the dregs of the workforce. There are lots of reasons why it can happen:

  1. Your personal life went to crap last year and you were distracted
  2. Your boss never explains what she wants so you just missed the mark
  3. The company is struggling and your performance was hurt by that
  4. You’ve been frustrated at work and didn’t give your best effort this year
  5. There were a bunch of changes last year and you lost focus on the objectives

Whatever the reason for your negative review, the most important thing to focus on now is how to turn it around quickly. Even if you hate your boss. Even if you have every intention of quitting next month. You still need to leave on good terms – you need to leave a positive legacy everywhere you work. It’s critical to moving up in your career. What this means is that you can’t dwell on the negatives no matter how you’re feeling. You also can’t sit around and stew over all the things you wish you could say to your manager if you had the courage. It’s no use replaying all the things you should have done. You can’t back in time. You can’t gripe with your colleagues about what an idiot your boss is and how he wouldn’t know good performance if it hit him in the face. Negativity and denial are counterproductive. You need to turn things around … now.

So if you’ve had a bad year and a not-so-great performance review, your best course of action at this point is to manage the process as effectively as possible. You need to earn yourself a chance at getting your career back on track. You need to convince your boss that with a fresh start and her help, you’ll be able to execute better next year. All your energy needs to shift away from your frustration and towards all the good things you’re going to do in the year to come.

Let me take one step back before I give you some tips on how to manage this unfortunate situation. I want to offer some insight into what your manager is thinking right now. Having been a manager myself for many years I feel like I have a pretty good sense for what he or she is feeling. This is an important perspective to understand so you can take the optimal approach to limit the damage and get back on course. Most managers, whether it’s always apparent or not, do not like handing out negative performance reviews. I personally dread it. Nobody wants to sit across the table from another human being and tell them they’re not measuring up. A negative review can have major implications on a person’s emotional and financial wellbeing. It hurts. So the one thing to know right off the start is that your manager is almost certainly not taking this lightly. He has been worrying about how to break this to you. The next thing to point out is that the only thing worse than giving someone a negative review, is having to let someone go. And, any manager who tells you they don’t mind terminating people is either lying or evil. So keep this in mind as we discuss the optimal approach for managing a negative review. Your boss hates having to tell you that you’re not performing well and she’s probably even more worried that at some point she might have to let you go. We can use this to our advantage.

So how does your manager’s mindset impact what you should do when you’re handed a negative review? First off, you need to know that deep down inside your boss is looking for a reason to believe in you. He almost certainly wants this awkward, difficult situation to be resolved as quickly as possible. It’s just so much easier to manage people when they’re doing well – no manager wants to have to deal with this kind of negativity. Nine times out of ten, your boss is looking for a reason to get back on your side – and it’s your job now to show her what that is.

Here are 6 tips to make the best out of a tough situation, to get your boss to believe in you again, and to get your career back on track.

Don’t get defensive or emotional. Our natural reaction when we get criticized is to defend. And when that criticism comes in a formal performance review, it can feel pretty dire and cause us to lose emotional control. The most important thing to do in this scenario is to stay composed. I realize that’s easier said than done but you must. There is no value in having a big argument with your boss – it’s a zero upside proposition – there is nothing to win from being defensive. As soon as you start hearing the negative feedback, you need to remind yourself to stay calm, listen earnestly and focus on understanding your manager’s perspective.

Don’t overreact, give up or check out. If getting defensive is the most common reaction to a negative review, the second most common reaction is to throw your hands in the air and give up. It can feel like the end of the world, like there is no point in even attempting to repair the damage. In the moment it can all feel so irreparable … pointless even. It isn’t – you can fix this – it will just take a little time. Even if you have made up your mind to go and look for a new job tomorrow, you still need to stay focused until the end. Do not check out after a negative review.

Ask enough questions to fully understand the problem. This one is important because many times the reason you got a bad review in the first place is because you didn’t fully appreciate what your boss was expecting. You heard one thing and she was thinking something else. It’s important to turn up the empathy meter at this point, and really try to understand things from your manager’s perspective. He or she needs to know you are hearing them and you need to be crystal clear on what it’s going to take to get back into the good books. The temptation in this type of high stress situation is going to be to focus inwardly – resist that temptation – your job now is to get into your manager’s head and really understand what she’s feeling now and expecting from the future.

Accept the criticism and reiterate your desire to be great. One of the best outcomes you can hope for from a negative review meeting is that you manage to convince your boss that you truly want to be great. Maybe you’re not there yet. Maybe you haven’t been aligned enough to his goals. But you certainly want to be a top performing employee. You need to convince your boss of this. That’s step one to turning things around. Your manager needs to believe you both want the same thing.

Transition as quickly as possible to talk about a brighter future. You don’t want to dwell on the negative feedback any longer than is absolutely necessary. You definitely need to discuss it, understand it, and acknowledge it. But as quickly as you can, you need to transition the conversation to be about how you will get back on track. And not just to be an ok employee – but to be truly great. Your boss may not see your potential in this moment, but most of the time, she will want to believe – that’s just how people work. So you want to manage the meeting so it ends on a high note – a discussion of all the things you’re going to do to ensure a brighter future.

Follow up with a recovery plan. You can’t do this in the review meeting itself, but once you’ve had a chance to process everything, you need to follow up with a formal plan. A recovery plan is very much like a 30 60 90 day plan, with a slightly different context – the objective is you being awesome again. Check out my blog and template for the 30 60 90 day plan and customize it for this situation. You should spend a week or two building a plan that identifies key deliverables, areas for development and performance metrics for your turnaround. Then book time with your boss and work her through your plan. This is a great way to build momentum and reinforce why your manager should believe in you again.

Send me your stories about performance reviews – negative or positive. Share in the comments or send me an email from the contact page.

Get the Weekly Reid

Join the 40,000+ who have signed up for free weekly career tips and tools