How to Handle a Poor Performance Review

Last Updated Mar 15, 2010 10:18 AM EDT

How do you cope with a bad assessment at work? Having been on both sides, I know there are good and bad ways of dealing with it.

Most, but not all, bosses are human: they hate giving bad assessments and will be desperate to get through it.

Handle it badly, and you just give your boss more evidence to use against you. Handle it well, and they will be so relieved that you should be able to come out with a constructive outcome.

Here is how you can make a bad situation worse:

  • Argue and deny. This keeps the discussion negative and backward looking. And since the boss has the power, you are unlikely to win the argument.
  • Spread the blame. The "he said you said I said, so she said" discussion gets nowhere. It paints you as a poor team player who avoids responsibility: more evidence for the boss to use against you.
  • Get emotional: become angry or weepy. This will simply be used as evidence by the boss that you are not up to the job.
Here is how to make it better (and to prepare, if you know what's coming):
  • Stay calm and professional. Create a positive, relaxed and constructive atmosphere for discussion.
  • Let the reviewer to do all the talking. Even bosses find it hard to be relentlessly negative. Ask open questions. If you have created a relaxed atmosphere, many reviewers will start talking themselves out of the review: they will reciprocate your kindness by being kind to you.
  • Understand the facts and find points of agreement you can build on.
  • Focus on the future. Explore options and agree what support you will need. Use the assessment as your chance to negotiate the future rather than argue over the past.
Just occasionally, you get the boss from hell who wants to project all their own personal failings on to you through the assessment. The review will be a surprise and you will probably disagree with most of it.

You may even be pressurised into signing the evaluation in order to demonstrate the review's been completed. Don't sign your own death warrant.

In this extreme case, you need to buy time, regain some control, keep your composure and professionalism and find a constructive way forward.

Here's how:

  • Get the facts. Ask the boss for the evidence for each assertion in the review. Again, don't argue: just gather the facts.
  • Establish what the way(s) forward might be, at least as the boss sees it.
  • Indicate that you see the world differently: reserve your position.
  • Ask for a couple of days to reflect on what the boss has said. And fix another meeting to review it again. Offer to provide a self- assessment for discussion.
  • Do some real reflecting in your two spare days, . Perhaps you could have done better. Take advice from friends and trusted colleagues.
  • Do your self-assessment. Figure out what you would like as the way forward.
  • Have your second meeting with the boss. Hopefully, it will be more constructive. If it is still a nightmare, it is time to start thinking about formal escalation procedures internally and to start looking for new jobs externally. Life is too short to live with the boss from hell in the job from hell.
(Pic: Helga cc2.0)
  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership