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Corporate Minds

How to Handle a Bad Review

A good review will leave you with an action plan for improvement and advancement. A bad one simply won’t.
Rose Cammarata VP & Controller, Mattersight


AS IF YEAR-END CLOSE AND THE ACCOMPANYING AUDIT WEREN’T ENOUGH, MANY COMPANIES STILL COMPLETE THEIR PERFORMANCE REVIEW CYCLES IN THE FIRST QUARTER EACH YEAR.

Over the years I’ve seen different approaches used to facilitate a speedy review—many of them misguided. I once worked for a department head who had a hard-and-fast rule that every performance review should include at least three pieces of constructive criticism regardless of an employee’s performance. This sometimes resulted in the inclusion of feedback like “John should keep his desk cleaner.” I also worked for a director whose entire feedback for the year was comprised of three or four positive statements like “John is diligent.” Poor John.

My point is not to tell you how to write a better review, but rather what to do if you’re on the receiving end of a bad one. By bad I mean that your review lacks actionable detail that let’s you know what you should keep doing, what you should stop doing, and what you should start doing to earn your next promotion if you’ve expressed an interest in one (which you should absolutely do if you want it).

First, understand that a review without constructive feedback isn’t a good review. To me, constructive feedback is actionable and gives you the opportunity to increase your value to the company and to add value to your career. You should receive that kind of feedback no matter how well you’re performing. You can’t continue to grow in the right direction without it.

Second, realize that managers can be conflict averse and may feel uncomfortable discussing areas of improvement with you. Conflict- averse people tend to shy away from confrontation because they anticipate a negative reaction to what they’re going to tell you. I assure you that many managers dislike giving what they perceive to be criticism as much as you dislike getting it.

If you can approach your manager with a sincere, open-minded request for constructive feedback, it can help to ease them into the conversation by letting them know it’s a discussion you welcome. If you already have some thoughts on areas where you can improve, offer those up as examples. But make sure you’re in the right mental state to handle what they’re going to tell you before you start this discussion. If you react defensively, it won’t end well.

Third and finally, take the next step. Regardless of whether you received actionable feedback, take the review and prepare an action plan. If the feedback lacked detail, you may have to make some assumptions. In fact, you may have to make a lot of assumptions. The proposed action plan in response to “John is diligent” is not “I will continue to be diligent.” The proposed action plan could be “I will continue to make TPS reports a priority and will research ways to condense the report so review time is reduced.”

To make sure you’re headed in the right direction, sit down with your manager and review your action plan. This is a good opportunity to revisit your responsibilities.

You can get a lot of value out of this discussion. In situations where the review lacked substance, this often turns out to be a better discussion than the performance review itself since it will prompt your manager to provide more detailed feedback.

Not all criticism is bad criticism. Often, it’s a good thing, in that it pushes you in the direction you need to fine tune your skills and advance your career.