1. First, drop your ego. It's human nature to want to defend ourselves against criticism. But focusing on your defense—or the idea that your boss is crazy/tyrannical/wrong—can keep you from an objective analysis of whether there's any truth to the complaints. I've seen a sad number of cases where the things that got someone fired could have been fixed if the person had truly heard the criticism, rather than put up walls and refused to process it. Even if your boss is a tyrant, you do yourself a disservice by not hearing the feedback with an open mind.
2. Next, drop your ego some more, and go to your manager with your guard down. Tell her that you know she hasn't been happy with your performance and that you'd like her advice on how to improve. This conversation is not about defending yourself, even if you ultimately become convinced she's wrong. This step is simply about hearing what she's saying, correct or not, because even if she's objectively wrong, you need to fully grasp her answer in order to figure out the best step for yourself.
3. Whether or not you think there's any truth to your manager's assessment, the reality is that her assessment likely has more weight than your own in determining whether you ultimately succeed in your job. So, now that you know her take, there are two questions before you: Can you do what's being asked? And do you want to do what's being asked? There's no shame in deciding you can't or don't want to. Just be honest with yourself about it.
4. In some cases, dropping your defenses, truly hearing your manager's feedback, and accepting that there might be some truth in it will help you turn things around. I've seen employees go from very shaky performances to excellent ones. Don't discount this possibility.
5. In other cases, you may decide that you either can't do what she's asking or that you don't particularly want to. If you and your boss share a bleak assessment of your future in the job, there's a relatively untraditional—but often surprisingly effective—approach you might consider. Go back to her and say something like: "I appreciate you being candid with me about your concerns. I'm going to go on trying to do a good job, but it sounds like we should be realistic about the possibility this won't work out. I wonder if we can make arrangements now to plan for a transition that will be as smooth as possible for both of us. Would you be willing to work with me while I conduct a job search? That will help me, and it will give you time to search for a replacement and have a smooth transition, and I can be as involved as you'd like in bringing the new person up to speed."
Many managers are likely to hear this with relief. No one wants to fire an employee if it can be avoided. By making it easy for your boss to end the relationship and offering terms that help you both, you're maximizing the chance that she'll work with you in the way you've proposed. You get some grace time to find a new job, you don't have to explain a termination in future job searches, and you gain more control over the situation than you'd otherwise have.
(But a disclaimer: You should take your knowledge of your company culture and manager into account before proceeding this way, because some companies might respond with, "It sounds like you're resigning, and we'll accept that." Proceed with caution, and let your knowledge of your employer be your guide.)
No matter which route you choose, the key to all of this is to listen with an open mind and be honest with yourself. Don't ignore warning signs in the hope that you can just somehow muddle through. Be proactive, know there's no shame in things not working out, and tackle the situation head-on.
Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-size nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.
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