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July 12, 2024

What to Do if You Get a Bad Performance Review: Part 1

The specific criteria for measuring job performance are often unclear. For instance, how does one measure if an employee “collaborates well with other team members” or “has strong communication skills?” The nitty-gritty of these expectations might not be top of mind for employees and supervisors on a day-to-day basis. But these standards will suddenly take on great importance when it comes to your annual review. These fuzzy expectations can even have repercussions for whether you keep your job. It is not uncommon for employees to think that they were doing fine and suddenly be told, in the parlance of performance reviews, that they have “not met expectations.” In some cases, people are then put on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) and are eventually asked to leave.

So, let’s imagine you are in your boss’s office and your heart is sinking as she is listing all the things that you did wrong or that you need to improve on. Your heart may be beating fast, you may be sweating, and you may be feeling anger threatening to burst out of you. You may be in panic mode, worried that you are on the road to being fired. What is the best way to act or respond in this all-too-common work scenario?

Rational thinking and impulse control take a backseat when our feelings flare up. Hence, the first thing to do, at this point, is to not do anything. This may sound strange, but it is vital that you first take control of your emotions as opposed to reacting in them. You may feel like you should say something right away, but resist the urge to argue back or blame your boss, the company, or your co-workers.

When we are attacked physically or verbally, our brains are wired to recognize any perceived threat and react instinctively. However, lashing back at your boss will be a losing strategy. What you need to do is to buy time to calm down, collect your thoughts, and then respond. Here is what you can do under attack: Note what you are feeling in your body in the moment, e.g. your heart racing, your face feeling hot, your fists clenching. Do some slow cleansing breaths before you speak so you can gain control of your tone and words.

Next, ask for more time to process the review. You could say something along the lines of, “I’d like to have some time to think about your feedback. How about we schedule a follow-up in three days?”

Do not then rush to your buddy’s cubicle to vent. Again, it is natural and normal to need to talk to someone. But walls have ears – especially cubicle walls! You should also remind yourself that your buddy might not keep your confidentiality.

Instead, let your feelings out when you are home or in a private space. Cry, scream, shake your fists – do whatever you need to express your feelings and release them.

When you are in a calmer, less reactive frame of mind, get perspectives from trusted friends, mentors, career coaches, and previous colleagues. (I would recommend that you do not vent to current colleagues. No matter how much you believe they are on your side, you cannot be 100% sure that your confidentiality will be preserved.) It is important that you talk to people who will give you a balanced view and be honest about your strengths and weaknesses.

A bad performance review isn’t the end of the world – there are ways to respond to an appraisal that still uphold your dignity and professionalism. You are not completely helpless in the face of a performance review. How you respond to your review can change your boss’s perceptions of you and even garner his respect, believe it or not. Next month, I will cover what you can do to take control of the process and feel empowered.

Anne Chan is a career consultant and licensed psychotherapist in California. She specializes in helping people find happiness in their careers and lives. You can reach her at [email protected] © Anne Chan, 2024


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