Ask LH: How Should I Deal With A Negative Performance Review?

Dear Lifehacker, I just got my annual performance review at work and let’s just say it didn’t go very well. Some of it was positive, but a lot of it took me by surprise, and now I’m worried for my job. How do I handle a not-so-great evaluation? I disagree with my boss, but he made some good points and seems to want me to improve. How can I make sure this doesn’t happen again? Thanks, Sinking Feeling

Photo remixed from an original by Andrey Popov/Shutterstock.

Dear Sinking Feeling,

A negative performance evaluation is definitely cause for concern, but it’s nothing to get too worked up over unless your manager has specified that they’re going to take some kind of action against you as a result. Consider it a very loud and clear warning that you’re job performance isn’t up to scratch, one that you’re going to take seriously if you want to stay at this job. Here are some ways you can turn this challenge into an opportunity.

Is This Personal Or Professional?

Before you put too much time and energy into making this situation better, you have to ask yourself whether the real issue at hand here is personal (it stems from some fundamental difficulty you and your boss have working together) or professional (there is some area where you’re lacking that your boss thinks is essential to your job or responsibilities).

If the matter is personal, there may not be very much you can do about it. If you and your boss butt heads over personal matters, or just don’t like each other, there isn’t much either of you can really do to fix that problem and become friendly or congenial, especially if it has escalated to the point where your boss is willing to air out those personal grievances in your performance evaluation.

If the matter is professional, you have more options. The fact that you were taken by surprise with the evaluation is the first sign of trouble. You should never walk into a performance evaluation and be surprised by what you’re hearing, especially if it’s negative. Ideally, your boss will give you feedback on your performance over the course of your employment, and you’ll know well in advance of a review if you haven’t been meeting his or her expectations. Since that’s not the case, that’s the first thing we need to fix, then you can move on to more specific ways you can improve your job performance.

Photo by snow0810.

Clear The Air With Your Boss

At the end of the performance review, you probably had to sign a statement saying you understood what was said, and since the review was negative, it’s possible you were even put on a performance plan or some kind of improvement plan where you have a specific period of time to get better before your boss does another mini-review to see if you’re on the right track. For some people, this kind of performance plan spells doom all by itself, but if you like your job and you really want to improve, now’s the best time to take this seriously.

Make sure you don’t just walk away from your performance review without comment. Let your boss know that you’re serious about improving your performance, that you’re honestly surprised by the review, and you don’t want to be caught blindsided again. It may sound painful, but a good way to get regular feedback from your boss on how you’re doing is to nag them for a one-on-one meeting on a regular basis. Depending on how closely you work with your boss, that meeting can be every two weeks, or weekly if necessary. The important thing is that you find a way to get regular feedback from your boss not just on your improvement, but on how things are going in general and what work is coming down the line.

Meeting with your boss regularly may also help clear up some of your personal disagreements as well, and offers you an opportunity to talk to your boss about what they think is important about your role, where you have to improve, and get direction on your priorities and how they think you can do better. Ultimately, those clues are going to be the biggest help to you.

Photo by bpsusf.

Get Constructive Feedback From Everyone

When you meet with your boss, you do want to take some time to just chat about how things are going, but you also want to come prepared with specific examples of how you’re handling things differently than before, and you want to put them in front of your boss to make sure they agree that you’re improving on the areas they dinged you on in your review. Now would be a great time to start keeping a work diary to document your successes and activities, and to embrace a weekly review to help you reflect on how the past week went, prep yourself for the next week, and document anything that needs to go down on paper.

Don’t stop with your boss when it comes to feedback though. Reach out to your customers, whether they’re internal groups that you work with or people outside the organisation, to find out how well you’re serving their interests, get their feedback on your strengths and weaknesses, and where you can help them. Being proactive can go a long way towards taking you from a dispensable, so-so employee to an irreplaceable one that everyone loves working with.

Finally, talk to your trusted colleagues about what they think. Get their feedback on your role, whether you’re suited for it, and what they’ve been hearing as well. You should take all of this with a grain of salt: don’t get too caught up in what other people think, but use them as a litmus test for the overall atmosphere. If several coworkers say the same thing, you know there may be something to it.

Photo by Brian Turner.

Put Yourself On A Performance Plan

Once you’ve established a regular method to get feedback from your boss, and you’ve reached out to others to get their thoughts and opinions, it’s time to put yourself on a performance plan. Even if your review didn’t end with one, or your boss didn’t even offer to help you improve your performance, if you want to keep your job you should do something for yourself.

Take note of the things your boss expressed concern with in your review. If you’re constantly late to work, check out check out our tips on how to fix chronic lateness and reboot your morning routine so you get to the office sooner. If that doesn’t work for you, maybe a schedule adjustment is in order so you work later and get to work at a time that works better for you. If your boss’s problem is your skill with a specific tool or skill required to do your job, it might be time to take a few classes or sign up for additional training if it’s available. See if your company offers reimbursement for job-related courses, other perks or benefits you can explore, or if your department has budget for training — even asking about it after a bad review shows that you’re serious about improving, and if all you need to do is brush up to get a better review next time, a training class is well worth the time you’ll put into it.

When you know what you can do to improve the things that you need to work on, all you have to do is put yourself on a timetable. Let your boss know that you’re working on fixing the problems that came up in the review, and let them know you want to follow up with them in a certain number of weeks or months to discuss how things are going. If your review said you’ll be re-evaluated in 60 days, you know you need to show demonstrable progress before then, so make that your goal. If your review was open-ended, give yourself 30, 60 and 90-day goals to get started. Whatever timetable you choose, make sure you make it challenging enough that you actually have to work to get there.

Photo by bpsusf.

Know When To Fold ‘Em

Unfortunately, putting time, energy, effort, communication, training, and personal-development into turning a negative performance review around still may not work. Depending on how touchy your company is about reviews and office politics, even one bad review can effectively spell the end of your job at that company. At one company I used to work for, a bad review was a somewhat coded message for “you have 6 months to find another job, during which we’ll look the other way if you spend half your day job hunting and doing the bare minimum here”. In other cases, even employees who really turned around couldn’t get past their manager’s negative perception of them once they got a bad review.

If you spend a lot of time and energy honestly trying to improve yourself and you don’t think your manager is buying it, or if you just don’t see the situation improving, it may be time to take your newfound skills, brushed-up productivity techniques, and rebooted mornings to a company that will appreciate you, or at least offer you a fresh start. Just make sure you leave the baggage behind — you don’t want to start a new job with the ghosts of the old one following you through the door.

Photo by lculig/Shutterstock.

Have you ever had a negative performance review? Did you turn things around or leave the company? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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