Quick question: what comes to mind when you hear the words “appraisal time”? Salary hike? Promotion? New office? Or cringe-inducing feedback that you think you don’t deserve? A bummer of a review, one that banishes you to the bottom 20 percent of the performance chain, can be hard to deal with, especially if you were blindsided. But chances are you will have to deal with it, at least a couple of times during your career, whether you’re a junior, mid-level, or senior employee. Sheila Heen, who has authored Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, says: “Always getting a glowing review means that you’re not challenging yourself.” She believes that critical input can be “a signal that you’re tackling things that are stretching you”. That may be so, but a negative performance review can throw you off-guard. How can you deal with it and ensure you don’t let it affect your performance this year?
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Dick Grote, the author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals, in an article for Harvard Business Review has a step-by-step guide to reacting to a negative appraisal: “Whether the critic is a boss or a co-worker, the same familiar guidance is consistently presented: Listen carefully, don’t get defensive, ask for time.”Try these steps to ensure you take the sting out of the negative feedback and make it work for you: Try to be objective Nobody likes to be called out, but make it a point to listen to what your boss has to say. Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ and author of Hiring for Attitude, writes: “Being able to accept feedback requires a modicum of critical self-awareness.” It may seem hurtful but be ready for criticism; being a little thick skinned may help. You may feel emotional, but you don’t need to go around showing it. “What the most effective accepters of constructive feedback do is listen more carefully to hear the one fact in there. In that sense, I think you can call it thick skin. They almost have a mental shield. They compartmentalize it, take what’s useful, and move on,” Murphy believes.
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Take a new perspective It's not going to be easy, but think of negative feedback as a data point instead of considering it as condemnation. It will be easier to process and then action over the next few months. “[If] feedback is viewed as one more point of data to assimilate, to analyze, to allow you to make a better decision, then it’s not so emotional. And that’s one of the major lessons about feedback: people who are best at it, de-personalize it. They view it as information. That’s all it is,” Murphy says. Follow up on the review The natural tendency when you get a negative review—especially if unexpected —is to fight or consider leaving the firm. However, career and executive coach Kate O’Sullivan argues against this and suggests getting more insight. “Set a follow-up meeting [with the supervisor], and ask for examples of the weaknesses they brought up, and come prepared with your own examples and talking points. Try to keep an open mind in this discussion—shutting down or getting defensive will make it much more difficult to have an open and productive dialogue,” she says. Question yourself Your opinion of your performance over the last year may vary from your supervisor’s perception, but it’s important to try and find your blind spots. Ask yourself tough questions: Have I heard this before? Could this be right? Have I come across this criticism earlier? “We need other people to help us see ourselves,” Heen says. “Think about talking to friends who can help you learn from the feedback, rather than simply reinforce your self-perception,” Heen adds. Self-reflection could help you realize the path you need to walk on from now. “You might find that in fact you do have some blind spots or things you could have approached differently, and your boss will likely find that they were missing some key information as well,” O’Sullivan says.
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Give yourself time A knee-jerk reaction – be it reacting emotionally or retaliating by putting in your papers – is childish. Give yourself time to process the review, self-assessment, the follow-up conversation and others’ inputs of others. Experts say stepping back from the conversation can help you analyze the feedback and focus on the facts, which often tend to get overshadowed by emotions. “The most important point is to give yourself time to calm down emotionally so that you can see your options in the situation rationally, and to get a variety of viewpoints so you can step back and see the bigger picture,” O’Sullivan believes.
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Draw up a performance plan The purpose of all feedback is to help you improve your performance; if the latest one hasn’t been up to the mark, it may necessitate a detailed plan of action. Speak to your manager on what you need to do to make changes. Do you need to reprioritize your tasks, learn new skills, or focus on team building? Set yourself a deadline – be it a month or three – to experiment and do things differently. Mitchell Marks, president of the consultancy JoiningForces.org, suggests seeking an interim review with your manager to make sure that you’re making the performance improvements that you want to make. “Ask your boss if you can set a date now for a meeting in three or six months,” he says. This will ensure your performance meets everyone’s expectations.
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Reconsider your options Performance reviews serve as feedback on your work over the course of a year or longer, so most of us tend to think of them as an ending. Thinking of the review as the beginning of a process – to change, to improvement, to success – can change this. If after all the steps you continue to feel out of place, you may not be a good fit for the organization. It’s important to use the negative review as a springboard for positive change. “Many, many successful people have failed at various points in their career, and most of them later looked back on it as a real opportunity,” Heen says. A new opportunity at another company could well be the shot in the arm that you need – you can start looking for one today by signing up here.
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Challenging a boss’s appraisal can be a delicate matter and it’s important to be cautious and prudent. Your boss has a significant investment in the appraisal, and seeking an immediate resolution won’t work. If you feel you have been deliberately shortchanged, you may want to get your boss’s superior and/or HR involved. But think this through for HR has a “dual accountability”. That said, you must loop HR in if you have evidence that your manager is bullying you, taking retaliatory measures against you, or can’t back up the feedback. “[HR can] often be a helpful resource to help you sort through things more objectively, and they can suggest process improvements to ensure that performance reviews are conducted fairly and accurately in the future,” O’Sullivan says.
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