I had recently a conversation with one of my friends who told me something between the lines of ‘I got a salary raise, but I feel miserable. My manager told me they are giving me a raise, but it’s his opinion and everyone else’s on the team that I am not giving my 100%, not going the extra mile and I cannot believe it. I feel horrible and angry at the same time. All my efforts, my attention, and dedication passed them by just like that. I only give 150% to this job and I have always done it. You know me … “
And yes, I do know her and I know for a fact she is a high achiever and for someone like her, where she constantly gives her all, pushes her limits and makes many sacrifices to deliver and over-deliver, she took a great hit with this feedback.
While I was talking to her and trying to comfort her and make an appeal to her more rational part of the brain, to elevate her emotional mood, it got me thinking about my annual review experiences over the years. They came all back immediately and made me wished I knew back then what I know now.
It’s never easy to get negative feedback or a poor review on your yearly performance evaluation. We actually dread this meeting all year long and when it comes, in some cases we might actually feel very strongly about it and decide to make a life change.
Being scored, rated, criticized and evaluated by your manager is never a walk in the park, as it is in fact by definition a crucial conversation – when stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. If this is done by the manager in a personal, criticizing and demotivating manner it can have a great impact on one’s motivation and overall wellbeing at work.
The manager plays an important role because giving and receiving feedback without attacking one’s identity it’s a skill in itself and it’s developed through management training, mentoring, personal development, emotional intelligence programs, etc. and not all companies send their managers to these type of training, and also very few managers are interested in leadership training paid by themselves. Understanding the psychological implications of their words and their delivery style it’s crucial to the future of the employee in the company.
People don’t leave jobs, they leave (poorly skilled, non-empathetic and toxic) managers.
The way we react to receiving a negative feedback has a lot of implications and can take a lot of forms (depending whether we respect that person, whether we feel if it’s a fair feedback or not, whether we are sensitive to criticism or whether we are emotionally skilled) and it certainly can make or break our professional growth.
Adobe polled 1,500 workers and learned that 22% of respondents have cried, 37% have looked for another job and 20% have quit as a result of a bad performance review.
That is indeed some worry some data and I know this can happen as I have experienced this first hand when I had my annual reviews. With all of these in mind, I’ve put together some tools and guidelines to help you handle receiving a negative feedback or yearly review in a healthier way, be more prepared and hopefully help you see it from a different angle – as a great opportunity for personal development and self-reflection.
“How will we know how strong we are unless our strength is tested? ”
1. Ask for feedback all year round; don’t wait until the end of the year
This is probably one of the important pieces of advice. Ideally, this should happen on a regular basis, in your 1-1 calls or meetings with your manager, but in case it doesn’t happen or it’s not the company’s policy, you can be proactive. Getting a meeting with your manager at least once in 3 months for a feedback and personal career plan check-in can go a long way: creates a connection between the two of you, gives opportunities for feedback or opens up the communication channels.
2. Prepare before for the annual review meeting
If it’s your first annual review ever, or your first annual review within the company it’s even more important to ask your manager about it beforehand, to clarify what is going to happen and how you are going to be rated.
Ask your colleagues as well, check your data yourself, pull some reports, think of areas that can be improved, be sincere with yourself and be (mentally) prepared for good things and more negative inputs. If you know you didn’t reach your goals, you can start thinking of ways to improve next year and present them at the meeting.
3. Take notes while your boss is speaking
Once you are in the room, start taking notes of everything that your manager is saying. In this type of situations, we tend to react emotionally and because of it, we’ll forget several pieces of information the minute we talk out the door. By taking notes, you’ll remain connected to your logical part of the brain, you’ll be able to follow his train of thoughts and you will have the information many months after.
4. Dissociate from your work
‘You’ does not equal ‘your work’. You are not your work. Yes, you are doing your job and putting your biggest efforts into it – but at the end of the day, you are not your job role and we shouldn’t identify ourselves with it completely.
Identifying with your job/position is a good thing, especially if you’re doing something creative, but tying (most probably unconsciously) your performance at work, your productivity and results with your self-worth – is not healthy.
Every time we’ll receive feedback about our performance or activity at work, we’ll take it as a personal rejection when in fact it’s not. We are not solely defined by how good we are in our work or how much we achieve (even if we tend to feel that way); we were existing and were defined as a person before this job and we will continue to be so after moving on from it as well. A job’s just a part of our life, it’s not our life.
With this in mind, know that the negative feedback received is specific, about some activity you did this year (behavior) and not about you and who you are (your being/ identity).
5. Reflect before you act – “hold your emotions in check”
I know this is a hard one and it goes against everything we feel in the moment, but it’s very important to keep your calm, become aware of your emotions and keep them in check. It helps writing them down in your notes than to have an emotional outburst during the meeting. Also, to inhibit everything that we feel until we leave the room, is not a healthy option either, so might you want to consider these as options:
- if you feel strong negative emotions: shock, frustration, anger, disappointment and you feel like you are about to explode – I would suggest to keep it professional and mention you would like to reschedule the meeting if possible, as you are not feeling very well right now, as this comes in as a shock and you are too emotional to think straight right now. I personally think this is a better option for a business environment than to have a passive-aggressive ping-pong with your manager, to raise your voice, attack them or to start crying.
- if you feel like you can continue the meeting, but are feeling defensive about it, a good option would be to communicate this to your manager but it’s really important how you deliver the message. Watch your tone, your words, and your body language. It’s important to communicate in an assertive way: just mention politely that you are very surprised by this feedback and ask for clarifications. Say that you would need some time to consider it properly, but for doing so, you would need some specific examples of when / where you could have done it better and how.
6. Look for your blind spots
As mentioned, it’s possible that you may not recognize yourself in the feedback and it would feel like someone just pulled the shrug from under you. If this happens, your ‘fight or flight’ system will switch on and you’ll feel either trapped, by feeling you want to run the hell out of there, but you can’t, either you’ll feel the urge to fight back and defend yourself. It’s maybe the most difficult thing to do, but try to stay present and listen carefully, stay connected to your emotions and let the manager finish his speech. Keep taking notes and ask yourself if what they’re saying might be true and you didn’t see it before. It may happen that there might be some truth in their feedback and you just haven’t seen it before.
That’s because, despite our best intentions, there is often a gap between how we see ourselves and the way that others actually see us. We need other people to help us see ourselves. If the feedback still seems surreal even after 1-2 days, reach out to colleagues to ask for additional opinions about your behavior at work, on those specific points and ask for non-biased, honest opinions, so that you can cross-reference the feedback.
7. Vent outside the office
You may feel the urge to talk about your review with someone from your team or colleagues since they you know each other so well. But unless you trust them 100% and you are friends outside of work too, I would suggest to call a friend and only talk about it outside of work.
In those moments, we are very emotional and we might say things we shouldn’t or they might not see things as we do. Even if they are on our side, after a negative feedback, we might need people who can support us emotionally, be there so us unconditionally, listen and comfort us, as in many cases our ego and confidence just got hit and a close someone would be a better choice to open up to and help us build back our inner strength.
8. Keep your own performance file
There are cases, unfortunately, where the manager it’s just unprofessional, making things personal and seeing this review as an opportunity to put you down. This is a sign of poor management, to say the least, and it comes together with low self-esteem on his side (the need to put others down by making themselves feel better), and poor behavior and work ethics (outbursts, criticism, blaming, shaming, stressing the team, fear-based motivation, etc.). If you work there for say, 3-6 months, you have probably seen this before the meeting and already had a few ‘memorable moments’ with your manager.
This type of boss may highlight what you’re doing wrong or not enough as their main management and motivation tool, so the annual review won’t be any different. To come prepared, a good idea would be a keep your own performance file. The file will be a history of your good work throughout the year and documented feedback from peers, internal and external stakeholders. A personal performance file is a good tool to have in any case, as this will help you leverage your promotion or fight with data against an unfair review.
Examples of what to include:
- performance objectives for the year and progress against them
- projects that you’ve worked on and the results
- workload assessment throughout the year, if possible
- any awards or certifications achieved
- copies of corrective actions
- letters of appreciation (or complaint) about you
- emails regarding important issues/conflicts with your boss, coworkers, and customers
- copies of your key performance metrics
- interim performance feedback (e.g., emails documenting results of quarterly or midyear performance discussions)
In the unfortunate case where you are dealing with a high-demanding, toxic manager and you feel fear every time you see them – you might want to look deeper into that. You have options, like with anything else in life: you can stay and let continue their routine, you can stay and see it as a growth opportunity where you challenge yourself to manage a difficult relationship without feeling/being a victim and learning to communicate assertively in a challenging environment or you may think where you are now vs. where you want to be and see if this company and/or manager contributes to your career growth or not.
9. Come up with a plan and check in again with your manager in 3-6 months
The manager might have given us some negative feedback, but it’s within our power what we make with it. We can, of course, do nothing and try to forget all about it, but we can also be curious, ask our colleagues to see if they confirm his view, look deeply within ourselves to see if there is any truth in it or maybe even take it to a therapist and/or a coach.
An unbiased professional may help you get more clarity on the situation and help you uncover it, change the angle you’re looking at things and may as well help you transform it into a growth opportunity for your career.
Creating a plan based on your manager’s feedback and going back to him with it, asking for their opinion and input is the best way to turn the situation around; engage with them, create a better relationship, one that resembles more the mentor-mentee dynamic, keep them up to date on your goals and vision and I am positive you’ll have a far better review next year and not only that, but a different relationship with them and a healthier workplace.
The dynamic we have with our manager is the key to our career growth and we should nurture that relationship exactly like we do with the rest of the relationships in our lives.
Negative feedback is not the end of your professional story, but instead can be the beginning of a great one. What we do with that feedback it’s solely up to us to decide. Completely reject it and let it consume us every day at work, transform it into a growth opportunity and take action or maybe really look deep inside to help us make a new life decision?
Looking at the big picture and reflecting back to it, many successful people remember negative feedback as an awakening moment in their life which made them really think if they are in the right company or in the right position. Every negative moment may as well be a wake-up call – we cannot perform if we’re not capitalizing on our strengths and maybe that can be done somewhere else.
And because receiving feedback always comes with the other side of the coin – giving feedback – I will do a follow up on this article with another one about how to give negative feedback so that you create a better and stronger team and not impact your their productivity and motivation.