Pass It On: You Can Bounce Back From A Negative Performance Review
“The first thing to do is to be brutally honest with yourself.”
A bad performance review may feel like a personal affront, but reacting defensively during an evaluation might jeopardize your professional relationships and/or career path. Here, we sit down with The Swaddle’s founder Karla Bookman, and investor/strategist Rupa Pandit, to find out how to navigate constructive criticism with grace.
Aditi: First things first, I just wanted to ask you guys if you’ve ever had a performance review that completely blindsided you or came across as a surprise, because it was completely not what you were expecting.
Rupa: I’m sure I’ve had one, but I can’t seem to remember. I think, early on, I just started to manage expectations well with respect to these reviews.
Karla: Yeah, I totally do! It’s the only negative review I’ve ever gotten in my life and it was from a partner at a law firm I used to work at, who I just did not get along with. I had the unfortunate luck of him being the person who’s designated to do my review, even though usually in law firms you work with many senior people and the person who does your review is chosen arbitrarily. And, he gave me a terrible review, but didn’t cite my work as the reason. He said my work was good, I was responsive and really good at my work, but basically, he didn’t like me. So that blindsided me because I wasn’t expecting a personal component to it.
Aditi: That’s interesting, because I was wondering about the difference between a bad performance review and an unfair one, because this sounds like the latter. However, if you have a bad review but aren’t self aware, you might think it’s unfair. How would you differentiate between the two?
Karla: Well, I think that all of us, as human beings, have an incredible capacity for self-delusion. So if we receive a negative review, we probably think it’s unjustified. I think it’s usually only after a period of introspection, or if a little bit more time goes by and you have some distance from the situation, that most people are able to process and accept the feedback. I think it’s quite hard to accept that your work hasn’t been as good as you think — it’s a difficult pill to swallow. Part of what’s important is learning how to manage the situation in the moment so that you buy yourself the time to later go back and introspect and think about it and figure out whether it’s justified or not.
Rupa: Everyone’s going to have negative feedback because they’re meant to be sort of holistic feedback that helps you improve. The hard part, as Karla said, is the self-delusion that won’t let you improve. There’s perhaps a gap between what your boss expects from your role and what you expect from the role. So you have these situations where people think they are doing a good job, but they’re actually doing the bare minimum or they have things that went wrong, but they think their boss won’t notice (but people do). Or, they just didn’t manage up properly — especially in today’s jobs where there’s a lot more autonomy — managing up or letting your manager know what you’re working on, what the goal of a project is, what the timeline of a project is, and more. A lack of feedback doesn’t always mean you’re doing great — it probably means your boss is too busy to ask what you’re doing and needs a digestible update on what you’re doing. So, if the perfomance review is a surprise, it’s either because you didn’t manage up or because your view of your role is different from what your boss thinks your role is.
Aditi: So in a situation where you get surprised by a negative performance review, what’s the best way to react? People would most likely want to be defensive or annoyed, but how do you manage those impulses?
Rupa: The first thing to do is to be brutally honest with yourself. All immediate reactions that people have are personal, because they might agree with the flaws pointed out but they don’t have the immediate mental capacity to have a stark conversation about it. So, I would say it’s better to do this before and be ready in order to not have that review be the space where you react. It’s important to see this constructively, because your boss doesn’t enjoy giving you negative feedback — they’re trying to make sure you improve. So it’s always better to think clearly about whether and how you need to improve, or if you need a new manager.
Karla: Yeah, I think acting defensive or angry is the worst possible way you can react to negative feedback because if your manager has any doubts about you and your ability to handle a certain role, you’re only going to magnify those doubts. So in that case, it’s really good to be prepared with two or three lines for moments like this. For example, if your review feels like a punch to the gut and you need a minute to compose yourself, you can say things like, “Thanks for this feedback. It’s really valuable to hear this. I hadn’t realized some of this — can I have some time to process it, then come back to you and ask more questions about this?” That way, you buy yourself some time and don’t have to react to that specific feedback in that moment. Then you can go back, digest it and think very carefully about how you want to present your own response.
Aditi: I was also wondering about how truly private performance reviews are, and if they aren’t as private as they should be — how can that affect your professional reputation?
Karla: I think it depends on the organization. I’m fairly certain that any performance reviews I’ve been in charge of are completely confidential — they don’t get shared with anyone except those who directly manage the person being reviewed. I don’t know what it’s like for other industries, but any workspace with a good H.R. process would not be sharing those reviews.
Now, that said, this is very different from networks and informal reviews and feedback that gets passed around in an industry. You have to remember that industries, especially as you get higher and higher up in them, the circles get smaller and more people know each other. So, if they’re looking to hire somebody, it’s very likely they’re going to call up their friend and say, “Hey, what’s this person like?” Those are the type of performance reviews that can impact your ability to get hired. This is also a major reason why you should remain composed when you receive a negative performance review, and not lash out, because reactions like that can actually stick in people’s minds. Five years down the line if you’re applying for another job, you don’t want that manager to remember you as the person who had a meltdown in a performance review.
Rupa: It’s also a reason why, during the year or during the build-up to these reviews, managing your relationship with your manager is important. Letting everything get to this one day of feedback — it basically means that you don’t have an open channel of communication with your manager, which means your boss doesn’t have much to say about the work you’re doing, what your performance has been like and where you are. For these types of ‘informal’ reviews, it’s important to manage and set expectations, ask for feedback and demonstrate results in order to receive a positive review in a reference call.
Aditi: Say you do end up messing up and being defensive and angry in retaliation to a negative performance review. How do you do damage control?
Rupa: The best thing that I would do, or I would expect from someone in that moment is — emotions happen, feelings get hurt — completely understandable, but can someone come back and look at the bigger picture for the company and then say that okay, these are the areas that I need to work on so that our product or business is better. Like a game plan for proactive game plan for the things that you can contribute that go beyond the minimum expectations of your job. Those are the things that demonstrate that everyone’s human, but they’re ready to come back and look at the bigger picture outside their own ego or emotions.
Karla: Same answer. Have a meltdown, sure, but do you come back the next day and say, “I’m really sorry, I had a moment, but now that I’ve had time to think about what you had to say and process it, can I have another opportunity to discuss this with you?” I mean that’s it, just owning up to it.
Aditi: Coming back to the more unfair side of some performance reviews, are some people — say working mothers, disabled individuals, or individuals involved in the sort of care work that doesn’t allow them time to focus on their job — more susceptible to such negative reviews? In that situation, how would you explain your predicament to your manager without it looking like you’re making excuses
Rupa: I don’t see a disadvantage perfectly aligned with each of these groups, or with anyone who has challenges with respect to how they work. I think this tends to happen with people who aren’t as vocal with their managers or with the way they contribute to a team. So you will have people who demonstrate more effort rather than results — like people who keep saying, “Hey I’m doing this and that.” I think seasoned managers will be able to see through that, but there are still some managers with large teams who assume that people who are sending more emails are getting more done. So the ones that go off into a corner, get work done and don’t circle back to where they are on the path to results are the ones at a disadvantage. This is because people think that if they work hard, and get everything done, they’d get a great review, but they don’t because their boss isn’t aware of how much they’re doing.
Karla: I agree, and I also think that anyone who’s going through any particular life situation where they need to spend less time on work or be less available for work — if they haven’t already communicated those needs and opened a dialogue with their manager about those needs, they’re headed for a terrible performance review. If there’s any additional support or assistance you need, that needs to be communicated to your manager immediately so that your workplan is structured with that in mind. Otherwise, I do see that affecting someone’s review negatively.
Aditi: As people who have given performance reviews, what is the best way to go about giving a performance review — especially if you’re a new manager?
Rupa: The most important thing to do is ask people to do a review of themselves first. So they get to look at the benchmarks you’ve set for them and then you get to show them where you’d measure them against those benchmarks. A lot of times, this reveals the self delusion that we talked about early on — people feel that they’ve done a good job and want to demonstrate it. But, being able to discuss the gaps in these evaluations also does make for a more productive review, where you can look at why they’ve seen themselves as positive in a certain degree whereas you haven’t. This isn’t always put together by organizations, and people do these informally too, by just putting together a balanced view of what they’ve done well and not done well. To me, that matters and changes the tone of the review, especially if I have to give negative feedback.
Karla: I also would say — to people who are starting to give performance reviews and need to learn how to give negative ones — you have to get comfortable with being blunt. Being blunt is not the same thing as being mean, but you have to get comfortable with giving negative feedback. Too many new managers suffer the need to be liked or to be friends with their team, and one of the issues there is that if you’re well liked all the time, and if your main goal is to be liked all the time, it becomes very difficult to tell people when they’re not doing well because you have to tell them things they don’t want to hear. I mean it will make people upset, and they’re not going to like you for an hour or two, or a day or two or whatever, but hopefully with some distance, they’ll realize that it’s fair and they’ll learn and grow from it. Ultimately, you’ll have done them a service. But you’ll definitely be doing them a disservice if you beat around the bush and do not say things you need to say in order to help them meet their potential.
Rupa: I also want to add a thing, because Karla made me think of this new manager problem — a lot of times it’s hard to give feedback during the performance review because the feedback given throughout the year isn’t the same. This happens with new managers because, in an attempt to be friendly, the feedback is slipped in between a bunch of compliments instead of being focused on the problem and their disapproval. In this case, the manager believes they’ve given negative feedback but their subordinate thinks, “I thought I was great this year!” So that’s another way that being friendly needs to be balanced with real, frank feedback in a manager’s role.