How to Move Past a Negative Performance Review

I recently had lunch with a former colleague who admitted that he had received some negative feedback on his latest performance review. “My boss said I don’t communicate well,” he stated.

According to my colleague, the boss didn’t cite any specific reasons for the feedback. He didn’t provide examples of poor communication in the past, and he didn’t offer any guidance on specific actions or activities that would help my colleague communicate effectively in the future.

(Let’s pause here to appreciate the irony of a boss communicating poorly about his employee’s bad communication.)

Unfortunately, it’s common for supervisors to be unclear when providing feedback. According to a study conducted by World at Work, “results show that 53% of employees say that when their boss does praise excellent performance, the feedback does not provide enough useful information to help them repeat it.  And 65% of employees say that when their boss criticizes poor performance, they don’t provide enough useful information to help employees correct the issue.”

Whether the boss doesn’t want to be seen as the “bad cop,” prefers to avoid conflict, or just hasn’t adequately prepared for a feedback discussion, many employees are left wondering what to do after receiving a negative review.

Here are four steps to make your negative review work to your advantage.

1. Clarify the feedback

Even if you think you know why you’re receiving the criticism, make sure you truly are on the same page as your boss. Alison Green of the Ask a Manager blog says, “You can’t just let [negative feedback] go on without addressing it, or you risk having your professional reputation affected or even losing your job. You must address it with [your boss].”

One way to do this is to ask follow up questions, such as:

  • What gave you the impression that I… 

(don’t get along with my co-workers, am not as efficient as I could be, am disorganized)?

  • Are you referring to…

(the fact that I turned in that last assignment late, the time when Bob and I disagreed over X, the comment that Jane made in the lunchroom)?

  • Can you give me an example of…

(a time when I didn’t communicate well, a time when my manner was too abrupt, a time when I was tardy)?

2. Identify the business impact

Employees can feel singled out for seemingly minor flaws when they don’t understand the context for the criticism. Rather than assuming that your boss is picking on you unfairly or doesn’t like you, encourage him to explain how this issue is affecting the business.

Ask the following types of questions to encourage your boss to elaborate on the big picture:

  • Can you help me understand…

(who is affected when I play my music without headphones, why it bothers you when my update is 10 minutes late)?

  • Why is it a problem that I…

(schedule meetings for later the same day, arrive at the office after 10 a.m.)?

3. Agree on next steps

In order to move past negative feedback, you must understand exactly what changes or actions your boss expects to see moving forward. This is the time to take initiative and propose solutions. Think of specific, measurable steps you can take to address your boss’ concerns and encourage your boss to help you create a mutually agreed upon checklist.

Some examples are:

  • “To improve my communication, I would like to send out a weekly status update to our team. Do you think this will make people feel more in the loop?”
  • “I didn’t realize that Fred had to answer the phones when I arrive late. I’m going to work on showing up 10 minutes early in the future and I’ll also forward my work number to my cell phone just in case. Do you think that will help solve this problem?”

4. Initiate check-ins

Ideally, your boss should follow up on your progress after providing criticism in order to provide continued guidance. However, many managers do not schedule regular meetings with their staff. If you have received negative feedback, take the initiative to address the situation, as it’s unlikely to go away on its own. It’s critical to regularly check in with your boss to assess your performance.

Propose a follow up method to your boss, such as:

  • Could we set up a 30-minute weekly check-in to review my progress around this issue?
  • I’d like to email you a weekly update detailing my activities to address this issue.
  • Could we set up some milestone meetings over the next 6 months to evaluate my performance regarding this issue?

It’s one thing to receive this type of criticism once, but it’s another to be fired later on for failing to deal with it earlier. By proactively taking steps to address critical feedback as soon as it happens, you will demonstrate initiative and maturity that will help you both in the current situation as well as in your future career.