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Managing Your Boss

How to Respond

to a Bad Performance Review

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Getting a bad performance review can make you feel angry, unappreciated, defeated, and hopeless. But it’s not the end of the world. Remember that the way you respond to this appraisal can make all the difference in the next one. Even if you believe that the review is inaccurate and that your boss is completely wrong, you will benefit by reacting in a mature, adult manner. Here are some suggestions:

1. Assess your boss’s power to affect your life.
Getting a good review is essentially about pleasing your boss. Whether it’s important to please your boss depends upon your goals. If you want her to promote you or expand your responsibilities, then pleasing your manager is very important, even if she’s a complete idiot. But if you are planning to quit in the next few months, her opinion may not really matter (and you don’t need to read the rest of this). If your future is at stake, however, then you need to handle this interaction well.

2. Avoid knee-jerk emotional reactions.
Your manager probably expects you to become defensive, argumentative, or upset, so surprise him by remaining calm and reasonable. Getting angry or sobbing uncontrollably will accomplish nothing.

3. Listen to the reasons.
Even though you may not agree, you need to understand why your performance was viewed negatively. By understanding your manager’s view, you will be in a better position to change her perceptions in the future.

4. Ask questions to clarify.
You can't change your boss's opinion unless you understand exactly why he is unhappy. Therefore, you must explore any feedback that is not clear. However, the questions you ask must be phrased positively. Bad question: “How did you come to such a stupid conclusion?” Good question: “What could I have done to prevent the problem?”

5. Focus on the future.
Avoid getting sucked into pointless debates about past events. Discussing the past is only useful if it helps to clarify future expectations. Here’s a future-focused question that can short-circuit debates about past problems: “What specifically can I do differently this year to get a better review next year?”

6. Present your views calmly and logically.
You do not have to sit back and take criticism that you feel is undeserved. But you should offer dissenting opinions in a calm, adult manner, focusing on facts and observations. Angry, emotional reactions will only reinforce your boss’s negative view.

7. Agree on how success will be achieved.
Most importantly, at the end of this discussion you need a clear understanding of your manager’s expectations. Before leaving the meeting, summarize your understanding of what you must do to get a better review next time.

8. Request positive feedback.
Some bosses are better at criticizing than expressing appreciation. If you work for one of these discouraging managers, don’t hesitate to politely solicit some positive feedback. After discussing how you might improve, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “Now that we’ve agreed on my development plan, could you tell me what aspects of my work went well this year?”

9. Set a time to discuss progress.
Although the last thing you may want to do is have another discussion, you need to determine whether your manager’s perceptions are actually changing. If so, you’ll know that you’re on the right track. So ask your boss to put a follow-up meeting on the calendar. Continue these discussions until the problem appears to be solved.

10. Ask for a formal mid-year review.
If the follow-up meetings go well, consider requesting a formal mid-year review – that is, an official six-month appraisal that will go in your personnel file. That way, your improvement will be on the record before the next annual review cycle. Check with your HR department to see if this is permitted.

11. Assess risks and benefits of protesting.
If you deeply disagree with your boss’s assessment, you always have the right to protest. Most simply, you can write your views in the Employee Comments section of the appraisal form. To lodge a more serious protest, you can go to human resources or the next level of management. Before deciding to protest, however, carefully weigh the possible risks and benefits of doing so. It’s a safe bet that your manager won’t be happy about it.

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