Career Advice

Six Steps To Coping With A Tough Employee Performance Review

A lot of employee performance reviews are happening right now. We all know they’re coming, but no one looks forward to them with any enthusiasm. While the cardinal rule of performance appraisals should be: No Surprises, too often employees find themselves presented with a shockingly long list of grievances, shortcomings and transgressions, delivered by a shifty-eyed, sweating manager who either 1. Relishes this once-in-a-year chance to put you in your place, or, 2. Would rather be at the dentist and can’t wait for it to be over.

So how do you handle tough criticism from your boss, especially if you weren’t expecting it or think it’s unjustified? How can you stay motivated when tough news hits?

I advise employees to take a six-step approach: prepare, compartmentalize, listen, record, review and plan next steps. Let’s break it down step by step, and you’ll see that although we’re not listing ‘defend yourself’, there is ample opportunity to do just that.


Your performance review is around the corner. You have a date. Arm yourself with a copy of your job description. Review it carefully against what you’ve accomplished in the review period. Have you met your goals? Write your accomplishments down, and note the ways in which they have helped your manager be successful and helped the company thrive. If you haven’t met your goals, know why and have an answer. Were you pulled off a task and given an emergency to manage? Did a colleague leave and you inherited their tasks without an adjustment to your job description? Make the list: what you did, what slipped and why, what changed and how you managed through the change. Make sure to note where your work benefitted the company.


You’ve done your prep: now it’s time to psych yourself up for the actual review. There’s nothing worse than trying to control your emotions when you’re vulnerable. So don’t. Here’s the trick: this is not about you, the wonderful, smart, multi-dimensional and lovable person. It’s about your performance against a job description. Compartmentalize your feelings and go into the review with your emotions locked down. Be clinical. Be an observer, a listener. There’s plenty of time for emotion after.


This is the most important thing you should do. Listen to all that is said, not just the words but also the subtle body language of the reviewer. Since you’ve already compartmentalized your emotions, keep a neutral, open look on your face as you listen.


Take good notes. Cut and paste your job description into a document with a space under each goal for notes. If your responsibilities changed but the written goals didn’t, add a section to cover that, with dates.  Your manager should give you the review document; if they do, take notes on that as well.


Here’s where the preparation, compartmentalization, note-taking and listening pay off. Review what you’ve heard from your manager right then, point by point. Here’s your opportunity to say (unemotionally) ‘In July my responsibilities increased, but my goals weren’t adjusted to reflect the change. Here’s how I managed that change, and here are the benefits to the company.’ Don’t argue; just get it on the record. Repeat the manager’s recommendations for improvements so both of you can acknowledge you’ve heard the message. If things are seriously out of whack, ask for a second meeting where you can present revised goals for the coming year.

Plan next steps

After the review, take your notes and the manager’s recommendations and look at your job description. Where are the deltas? Revise your job description with two things in mind: creating goals with which you can be successful, and supporting your manager so he or she looks successful to upper management. Now is the time for the second meeting, where you can (un-emotionally) present a revised set of goals for the coming period, with rationale for the change.

What if the news was so bad you’re verklempt?

Say you were totally blindsided by the review. Maybe your manager was hostile in the delivery. Maybe it looks like there is no hope you can be successful in this organization. You have a couple of options: revise your resume and start looking, or dig in and seek motivation – not from external sources, but from within.

Deciding it’s time to find a new position is not an admission of defeat or incompetence; it may just be time to move on in your career. Jobs change, organizations change, people change. Re-read the book “Who Moved My Cheese” (it will take 25 minutes) and think about the things that were good about your job, when and how it went sideways, and what you are best at. Then do two things: try as hard as you can to do a good job in the now while you look for the next career opportunity.

Or you can decide to hang tight and take the challenge offered to you in the review. Take the revised set of goals and make sure your manager is on board. Then look for inspiration not from the organization, but from within: what are your strongest skills? Where is your value to the workplace? What are three things you can change right away to put yourself back on the path to success?

Keep in mind that criticism is most often not about you the person; it’s about a set of expectations the organization has for someone doing a specific job. Criticism can be a powerful force for change and enlightenment, if you don’t personalize it.

In my next post, we’ll talk about five steps you and your manager can take to make sure you’re in alignment throughout the year. Until then, please let us know what you think.