Handling Negative Performance Feedback

Sara Knapp

Post by Sara Knapp, Executive Coach

It’s never easy to hear that we’re falling short in some way. Yet often, it’s the first step to getting the help we need to succeed. 

A formal performance review that’s less-than-glowing should never come as a surprise. Your boss should be giving you feedback about your work regularly, so you should have an inkling that you’re not fully meeting expectations long before you arrive at “The Meeting”. 

Whether it’s the formal process or a casual chat at the water cooler, handle it like a pro. Recognize that you’re receiving a gift and treat it as such. It’s not easy to give someone negative feedback. Often people take the easy way out. They ignore the problem and hope it—or you—will just go away. 

The worst thing you can do is get your back up and brace for a fight. So, be open and willing to at least hear what’s being said. 

Focus on the facts and stay objective. Paraphrase and reflect back what you’re hearing to be sure you understand the specifics. Ask questions like, “what would it look like if I was performing as expected?”; “what specifically would I be doing differently?”; and “how would you know?

Don’t “disaster-ize”. Remember that you are not your job. Hard as it may be, don’t take criticism of your work as judgment of you personally. Know that you are resourceful and creative. You can change any behaviours or correct any shortcomings that are getting in the way of your success if you want to. Your boss’s willingness to discuss the issue suggests they see you that way, too. They’re probably willing to work with you to improve, so ask. 

Ask for help. Ask for training. Ask for a development plan. Know it for what it was. Let go of any hurt or negative feelings, and buckle down to address the issues. A one-off poor review or bit of feedback is usually just telling you that some changes are needed. But sometimes it’s more serious than that. 

If, at any time, you get that “uh-oh” feeling, make sure you ask your boss directly whether your job is in jeopardy. Don’t assume anything. You need to know just how high the stakes are. 

End on a high note. Thank your boss for the constructive criticism. Smile (force it if you have to) and shake their hand as you leave the room. When the stakes are high—or feel that way—it’s easy to misconstrue what’s being said. So follow up with an email note. Outline what was discussed and the steps you’ll both take to remedy the situation. State clearly your commitment to doing so. 

It may seem redundant after a detailed discussion, but taking this extra step will leave no doubt that you fully understand what is expected and what is at stake. You’ll need this clarity to illuminate your path forward.