Negative Performance Reviews: How to Give and Receive Them

No one likes bad news. Whether you’re a manager who has to give a negative performance review or an employee who’s received one, being on either side of the issue is a horrible experience. While no strategy can completely mitigate the effect of bad news, there are ways to minimize the shock.

Tips for Managers

Managers should remember that performance reviews are meant to be a summary. This shouldn’t be the first time an employee has heard about these issues. Take time to discuss these concerns when they first surface. This isn’t just for the annual appraisal, either; any time you give bad news to an individual, you should have several examples for him or her. Here’s a few ways to ensure the best possible outcome:

  • Prepare for the review. Consider what your employee’s reaction will be, and be ready for it. If you think aggression is at all likely, prep for some damage control. It’s better to get ready for a reaction that never occurs than to ignore the possibility of it and be unpleasantly surprised if it happens.
  • Identify specific problems that will be addressed. Workers need even more details when their performances are poor. This ensures they understand you aren’t exaggerating their performance issues and allows them to understand the seriousness of the situation. When you have specifics, you can usually figure out precise ways of avoiding the same problems in the future. Have some suggestions ready for the performance review.
  • Don’t send mixed signals. Be cautious when beginning a negative assessment with a compliment or positive remark. Your employee needs to understand that the poor behavior is unacceptable and that improvement is required. Beginning with a compliment lightens the seriousness of the critique.

The transition from positive to negative can also create mental whiplash. This can heighten any bad reaction the employee might experience. Your employee could also decide you’re very confused and disregard any critique you make in the future. None of these are the responses you want from someone who needs help improving.

  • Give your employee a chance to share. After you deliver the review, prepare to listen. Even if you never change the rating, feedback can inform what course to follow with future suggestions. Sometimes employees were given more than they could handle at that point, or they had a bad life experience. Listening can help you figure out what suggestions will be useful or harmful.
  • Be a mentor and offer assistance. Ask the reviewee what you can do to help him or her succeed. You may have inadvertently contributed to the problems the employee has been experiencing. Even if you haven’t, you can likely do something to help him or her improve in the coming year.
  • Avoid personal statements. You’re criticizing the behavior, not the person. Once you make things personal, you’ll likely lose your employee’s trust and respect, as well as any chance he or she will listen in the future.

Tips for Employees

  • Take responsibility for your shortcomings. Listen to any negative feedback you received earlier in the year, and take steps to improve. Managers have a responsibility to inform you about negative behaviors, but you have the responsibility of absorbing that information and taking corrective action. If you have questions about improving your performance, ask your managers early in the year. That gives you ample time to figure out a workable solution.
  • Learn how to hear a negative review (if you think it’s coming). When you expect bad news, mentally rehearse listening to it and not reacting. This is particularly important if you have a tendency to respond extremely. Preparation will help you keep calm. Listen to your manager’s critique and the specific examples he or she gives. If examples aren’t given, then ask. You can’t improve performance – or defend it, for that matter – if you don’t understand what needs to be done.
  • Learn how to respond. When you explain the circumstances leading to a negative review, avoid defensiveness and appeals to change the rating. Most managers won’t change an evaluation no matter what the circumstances. You performed poorly, whatever the reasons. However, you can react to the review with dignity and openness, which may reflect well on your next evaluation.
  • Ask questions. After your manager has critiqued your performance, ask what you can do to improve it. Make this discussion collaborative. If your supervisor makes suggestions you aren’t certain will work for you, offer a few of your own. The entire process should be collaborative. Asking questions is also a good way to mentally work past the effects of the bad review.
  • Give helpful feedback when prompted. If your manager asks what he or she can do to make work easier for you, avoid emotional answers. You can critique your supervisor’s style if that contributes to the discussion, but there’s a difference between criticism and an attack. Make your suggestions polite and respectful, and do what your superior should do with your critique: give examples. Evidence brings the entire process into the open.
  • Keep an open mind. Sometimes people have a hard time seeing what’s wrong with their performance without feeling personally criticized. Remember that you can’t be the best at everything. You should have records of your work. Check them for the problems your manager indicated. Assess your notes, and take some time to process the feedback. You may end up feeling motivated to improve.

After the Review: Looking Forward and Recognizing Progress

Both managers and employees should remember that improvement doesn’t happen instantly. If a solution were that simple, the bad review would probably never have happened. Instead, track improvement over the course of the coming year. Even what seems like a small improvement can be an important step. No matter how many strides have been taken forward, it’s still progress. Recognize your employees’ efforts, and continue to act as a guide.

Avoiding the same mistakes is the most important part of reacting to negative reviews. As long as change is occurring, you have something to build on. If you alter something and make it worse, try a different approach. But always remember to try. If you’re feeling stuck, read through our review phrases for some inspiration.

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