How to Deal With a Bad Performance Review

Five steps to regain your manager's trust and rebuild your standing after an awful evaluation.

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Receiving a negative performance evaluation is one of the most rattling and anxiety-producing experiences you can have at work – and that’s especially true if you’re blindsided by the criticism. You might even wonder if you’re in danger of losing your job. But the worst thing you can do in response is panic, because that can keep you from taking steps to improve the situation.

If you’re faced with a bad review, here are five steps that will help you regain your manager’s trust and rebuild your standing.

1. Make sure you fully understand your manager’s concerns. You can’t fix problems that you don’t entirely comprehend, so make sure that you really get where your manager is coming from. If you’re not quite understanding the feedback, say so, ask for clarification and some specific examples. It’s fine to say something like, “I really want to understand your concerns, but I’m not sure I have my head around it yet – can you give me an example or two of how this plays out and what you’d like me to be doing differently?”

2. Stay calm. It's hard not to react emotionally in the moment, particularly if you didn’t see this coming. But it’s crucial to stay calm so that you can focus on what you’re hearing. Plus, if you seem angry or defensive, your manager will worry that you’re not open to the feedback and won’t be able to incorporate it into your performance going forward. Staying calm and reasonable is the professional way to handle difficult feedback, and it’s going to help the situation go more smoothly.

Realize, too, that you don’t need to react on the spot. It’s OK to ask for time to think over the feedback and process it. If you want to request that, say something like, “I’d like to take a day or two to contemplate this and then come back to you with a plan for addressing it.”

3. If anything in the evaluation was a surprise, ask to get feedback more regularly. A good manager will give you feedback on a regular basis and won’t let anything in a formal review come as a surprise. But plenty of managers fall down on this front, and it's not uncommon to find yourself hearing about an issue for the first time in a review. If that happens, it’s reasonable to say something like, “I take concerns like these very seriously. I’d like to ask for your help in ensuring that we’re on the same page about any concerns going forward. Could you let me know right away if you have concerns about my performance in the future, so that I’m able to address them quickly?” You could even add, “I promise to be receptive to hearing them – I just want to be sure we’re on the same page.”

4. Don’t refuse to sign the evaluation. Sometimes people think that refusing to sign a bad performance evaluation will indicate formal disagreement with the evaluation’s contents or even stop the evaluation from being finalized. But that’s not the case – and refusing to sign is generally seen as such a hostile and adversarial move that it will do permanent harm to your standing. Plus, the signature requirement itself is a bureaucratic detail; it’s not something that prevents your employer from proceeding with the evaluation. However, if you want to indicate you don’t agree with the contents when signing, you can add a note that says “signing to indicate receipt only.”

5. Develop a plan for your next steps. In some cases, your boss might put you on a formal performance improvement plan. But if she doesn’t, it’s worth creating an informal one for yourself. For instance, you might decide that you’re going to work to develop a particular skill, seek mentoring from a senior colleague, sign up for a training class or proofread all your work twice before turning it in.

You might also consider asking to meet with your manager in a month to discuss what progress you’ve made. Doing that will show you’re taking the feedback seriously, want to improve and aren’t going to avoid confronting the problems directly. In fact, it’s so rare to have someone do this in response to a bad evaluation that it’s likely to make your manager want to invest in you – or at least to make her respect you in a way that can only help you, no matter how this plays out.