Receiving a bad performance review

You receive a bad performance review. What do you do? After you have been a go-getter at work. Your performance reviews since you began working for this company have been very good. Your first boss appreciated your initiative and interest in approaching challenges from new directions, and has given you good job evaluations in the past.

This year, you go in for your annual review with some excitement about wanting to hear what your boss has observed, as well as share some of your new leadership perspectives. To your surprise, you get a review that doesn’t feel like your strengths were appreciated, and instead, unfairly focuses on a lot of things that you need to improve (in other words, a “bad review”). Whoa – what just happened?


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  • actively listen and take notes – be engaged
  • focus on the future
  • ask for clarification
  • use questions that are exploratory

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  • think, feel, or become defensive
  • justify your behavior or action
  • use terms like “you said”, “he said”…
  • try to make your boss wrong
  • focus on other people
  • think you didn’t get a bad review

[publishpress_authors_data]'s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do actively listen and take notes – be engaged

I recommend you practice active listening now, whether you have had a bad review or not. Listen to everything she is saying and take notes. This is truly the tool that will help you throughout your life. If you are calm, I recommend you ask immediately. Take keen interest and don’t try to argue points, defend, or justify anything. Take it all in first before reacting; remember: there are always many sides to every story and situation. If you become defensive or try to justify, you will miss the opportunity to understand your boss and how to turn this situation into something beneficial for you. Yes, the key is to make a bad review beneficial!

Do focus on the future

The past is the past. You cannot not change it. If your boss has a bad perception on what you have done over the past year, then you want to understand the specifics so you can ensure yourself a bright and successful future. Focus on understanding those aspects of the job that will make you successful in the future.

Do ask for clarification

Ask for clarification regarding situations, behaviors, or recommendations that could be open to interpretation, or ones you feel unclear about. Ask questions to help you understand your boss’ perspective, rather than defend yourself. With this in mind, you might practice “appreciative inquiry” or other forms of neutral exploration of topics. In asking clarifying questions, be sure to not accuse your boss or anyone of anything – frame each question as a sincere (don’t fake it) exploration to learn more about their perspective and what they would prefer to see from you (e.g. specific behavior, action, results, etc.)

Do use questions that are exploratory

Use questions that are exploratory, and use phrases such as “I would like to make sure I understand a better course of action for next time . . .” or “I appreciate you sharing your perspective and would like to clarify my understanding of the recommendation.” It is not an interrogation, rather an exploration to understand and connect.

[publishpress_authors_data]'s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not think, feel, or become defensive

This is a typical immediate reaction and you must recognize it and avoid going there. Often we begin with an explanation – no need to explain at this time (maybe later). When you become defensive, you close your ability to listen and take in another’s perspective focusing only on your perspective. This is a big no-no.

Do not justify your behavior or action

Again, this may begin as an explanation with good intentions of helping your boss understand a situation more clearly, however, it takes you out of the “learning from your boss” mode. Your mind becomes focused on every element of what you did right and cannot listen effectively. It may even lower your boss’ perception of your willingness to learn and grow from good feedback. Do not see the situation as a fight.

Do not use terms like “you said”, “he said”…

This is a good thing to remember all of the time. When we use these terms, it can sound or be perceived as telling another person what they meant. You are better off saying, “what I heard was . . .” or “Am I correct in understanding what you would like me to do is . . .” Notice that you are coming from your perception and not judging or assuming you understand the other person’s perspective completely.

Do not try to make your boss wrong

How do you feel when someone tries to make you wrong? We are all human, and it just doesn't feel good – so why do it?   When your mind moves toward trying to make the boss wrong, you have lost your ability to learn and actually benefit from their perspective. Often people perceive things to be facts that are really just opinions or perceptions. If a fact is wrong, you may find an appropriate time at which to share it, but it should not be your focus during the review. The other problem is that we often feel that the other person must be made to see they are wrong, in order for us to be right. Big trap – don’t go there. The interaction with your boss is to be informative and a powerful learning experience, not a competition. This is not the time to be reviewing everything that is wrong with your boss in your mind – again you miss the opportunity to learn.

Do not focus on other people

Your performance review is not the right time to focus on other people and what they are doing right or wrong. If you find yourself wanting to talk about another person, stop immediately. Even if your boss brings up another person, you just want to take it all in, not dive into a conversation about someone else. You lose the chance to learn more about how your boss views your performance and opportunities for improvement, if you spend the time discussing other people.

Do not think you didn’t get a bad review

To benefit from the situation, you want to face it for what it is, not pretend everything is fine. It is important you realize that it isn’t a bad review as much as it is useful and meaningful feedback that you can utilize to grow and develop your skills and abilities. The main reason we often like to “sugarcoat” the situation is because we are unwilling to struggle with learning more about ourselves and trying new things. Be brave, be smart, and be engaged.


A bad review doesn’t mean you are a total failure or that your days are numbered at that organization. Most often, it is a “wake up” call and can provide you the opportunity to really excel. The more you understand the expectations of your boss, his or her view of what you do very well and what they would like to see less or more of, the more opportunity you have to succeed.

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