Coping with a bad performance review
January 31, 2018 1:56 PM   Subscribe

I have been in my current role for 5 months and recently had my first performance review. My supervisor was full of things I should improve on and said very little about what she was happy with. Prior to the review I thought I was doing well but now am struggling to keep going in the job. How do I cope with this blow to my work self-confidence?

The role is a typical office job with bits of admin, finance and lots of organisational skills needed. Although there was a steep learning curve (the job is very different to my last role and i have no experience in some parts of it) I am used to doing well when I set my mind to something so I was pretty thrown off to be told that I have all these improvements to make. Also this job should be easy as i am two levels lower than where most people my age are at. I don’t see why I can’t get this right.
posted by EatMyHat to Work & Money (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Different organizations use reviews for different purposes. The place you are at now may be using the reviews to focus on improvements, rather than applauding achievements over the past year. Have you had other discussions with your manager about the intent of the review process? What about other feedback on your day to day, is your manager generally happy with you, or are they making corrections to your performance?

As far as your comment about "should be easy/two levels lower" -please be careful with that; every org is different. I have had someones struggling with their current role, yet, after a career ladder type discussion, the person thought they should be "at a higher level". Not trying to affect your self confidence, but you need to examine what your current org is like.
posted by kellyblah at 2:12 PM on January 31, 2018

Remember that some folks are just not good at giving performance reviews. They may focus on the negatives and not even think to identify areas of strength. Unless your reviewer was like, "Well, there's just not much you're doing well here at all" (and that's reflected in the day-to-day) I wouldn't necessarily assume that that's what she was thinking.
posted by praemunire at 2:27 PM on January 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

Yeah, a lot of people take performance reviews as a chance to "air grievances" and not everyone is good at the compliment sandwich. I wouldn't worry unless she has said at other times that you're awful at things. At 5 months, I would expect there are lots of "improvements" you could make as you're still settling into your role!
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:36 PM on January 31, 2018

I think it's natural to feel sad/frustrated/misunderstood when you receive a performance review that indicates there are areas for improvement. Most people work hard at their jobs and it hurts to feel judged as not measuring up. This may be especially stinging to you as someone who historically has done well when they put their mind to it! But I think that, ideally, performance reviews--especially 6 month reviews after being hired--should be treated as an opportunity (by both parties!) for reflection and learning to work together. Maybe give yourself a few days to recover and then either see if you can re-read your evaluation with fresh eyes and see ways to authentically improve, or, if it's still bothering you, maybe schedule a follow-up meeting with your supervisor to clarify (in a positive way) that you understood the actions you need to take to continue improvement. You might also ask if you can schedule a meeting with her for a month out to check in about your progress--the other thing about 6 month or annual evaluations is that they can come as kind of a blindside if there aren't regular performance meetings or informal reviews. Meeting more regularly about goals and progress gives you both a chance to course-correct sooner; not all managers are good at effectively communicating if there are behaviors that need to change absent the imposed deadline of an evaluation.

I will also say, as a manager, that there are sometimes directives coming down from above that you may not be aware of and which may affect your evaluation--a common one I'm thinking of is "don't give them too good a score on their first one, corporate wants to see improvement from everyone so we have to under-score".
posted by stellaluna at 3:01 PM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Something just like this happened to me a few years ago. You should absolutely NOT take this personally, though of course it's hard. Management theorists often bemoan the performance review as an unnecessary exercise in humiliation for the employee by a person who has power over them, and can be tempted into a bullying stance. The supervisor doesn't do the employee's job, and may not even really understand what goes into it. Performance reviews suck, but some companies rely on them.

If your manager was hostile or overly critical, that's a red flag. The super-destructive tough love approach could be an organizational flaw, or it could be that this supervisor has terrible people and management skills. In either case, no one should be making you feel hopeless or humiliated at work. There's a way for the manager to express concerns or make suggestions for improvement, without scapegoating you.

You should watch to see if this becomes a pattern. In my case, it was. My supervisor was a bully and there was no way to save the situation, so I left. Your situation may not be so dire, but in your case I would:

-Write down the points the supervisor made
-Follow their suggestions during the week
-Document the times where you put into effect the changes they've suggested
-Document your interactions with other employees, since you're not the only factor in what happens

Stay calm but watch your back. You know you're not an idiot, whatever this person is implying. Keep doing your job and try to fulfill what the supervisor wants. If by the second meeting you're still getting that sunken-stomach feeling, it may be time to move on.

And remember: it's just a job. It's not you. YOU ARE AWESOME!
posted by cartoonella at 3:06 PM on January 31, 2018 [9 favorites]

Also this job should be easy as i am two levels lower than where most people my age are at.
The level in the organization has very little correlation with how easy a job is. You said you are in a new job with " a steep learning curve - the job is very different to my last role and i have no experience in some parts of it"
Listen to how unfair that negative self-talk is - look at the facts and recognize that you are taking on a challenge.
posted by metahawk at 3:50 PM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

1) Prior to the review, you felt good about your job. Is this supervisor someone you work with regularly who's otherwise been positive towards you? If so I'd follow their recommendations from the review but be more informed by how they behave otherwise. Also, what rating you got, if your company uses a rating system.

2) Age really has little to do with expertise / job level. In my current job I am multiple levels above people who are older than me and very experienced in their area, it's just how the company decided to structure the roles (stupidly). And I'm levels below people who are younger than I am. This is not unusual. The head of my group is younger than several of her very intelligent, accomplished staff members. I wouldn't get discouraged about this.

3) A serious problem with your work should not be a surprise in your review. If that's what happened - though it doesn't sound like it, it sounds like she just gave general suggestions - consider it a red flag. If your supervisor knows you have a serious problem, they should address it right away.

4) Some companies set limits on how many people in each team should get what types of ratings. In a team of 10 maybe 2 can be Ds, 5 people can be Cs, 2 can be Bs, one can be an A. Sometimes managers propose one rating and their management changes it. And then the manager has to give a performance review that justifies the rating.

5) Some people just aren't good at giving positive feedback.

One time I was critiquing someone's work in a different (creative) context and I made the same mistake your supervisor did. I was actually really excited about their work and could see all kinds of ways it could go but unfortunately my appreciation didn't come through - though I did express it- just the criticism. I regretted it very much but never figured out how to undo the damage. Maybe make room in your head for the possibility that she's thinking "This is an A worker and it's my job to tell her how to get to A+++."

Another time I was being critiqued by a senior in a way that was completely different from other conversations we'd had about my work and how she'd trained me. I was very frustrated, but eventually realized that the issue she was critiquing me on was a mandate from her management and not her own opinion. She liked my work just fine, but her management was pushing her to get everyone to meet other requirements less important to her, and it was her job to tell me to do that even if she disagreed.
posted by bunderful at 4:12 PM on January 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

I dislike the fact that she is rating your performance after such a short time at a complicated position. Jobs that have a lot going on take more than a couple of single experiences with multitudes of occurrences to assimilate. Unless everybody gets a rating in January like clockwork, it seems like a year should be the barest minimum to evaluate, especially if there haven't been any coaching or counseling events about anything she specifically mentioned. She may feel like she was offering specific areas for concentration, but that's not really something that should come like a bolt out of the blue in an evaluation situation.
I think it was ham-fisted, but take a good look at it again, and see if you can use it in a productive way, and set your own goals to match her newly revealed expectations. If not, I do think further discussion would be warranted and necessary.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:37 PM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are some orgs that really want workers to show improvement over time. Maybe your supervisor is highlighting areas that need improvement, and 6 months from now, you can show concretely how you improved in these areas. Then there will be a new set of goals for improvement, and you'll need to show how you achieved those, and so on. The idea behind it is that workers should always be improving their skills, and I agree, but for someone who was used to a classroom environment where 95% was common and 100% was always possible, it now feels like the goalposts are constantly shifting and is a bit unsettling.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 5:36 PM on January 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

It’s unclear whether your supervisor is unhappy with your performance or whether they just gave you a lot of constructive feedback. As much as I hate numerical ratings they do avoid this ambiguity. You should feel entitled to ask your supervisor straight up questions like “am I underperforming?” And “what does good performance look like to you in this role? How does my performance compare to that?”
posted by phoenixy at 8:39 PM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

I dislike the fact that she is rating your performance after such a short time at a complicated position. Jobs that have a lot going on take more than a couple of single experiences with multitudes of occurrences to assimilate. Unless everybody gets a rating in January like clockwork, it seems like a year should be the barest minimum to evaluate, especially if there haven't been any coaching or counseling events about anything she specifically mentioned.

This is really specific to organisations. In my organisation it used to be a default rating of ‘met expectations’ if somebody had started within the last three months but after that people got evaluated like everybody else. After three months you’ll still have process aspects/new tasks that can trip you up but you have probably demonstrated that you’ll get to grips with these things over time, as you’ve been getting to grips with the other new tasks or procedures you’ve encountered over the last three months. It is rare that somebody who takes on new tasks in their stride all of a sudden stops being able to do that. Likewise, somebody who has been struggling for the last three months is unlikely to become a shining star all of a sudden.

There is also a definite thing around distribution of ratings. We’d all like to think the people we work with deserve high ratings. At the same time, for a national or multinational organisation, there is a reasonable expectation that performance follows some kind of statistical distribution. Of course you can have an office that outperforms the average (for reasons). But at a regional, country or international level, you would not expect 90% of employees to exceed expectations of a normal employee. And in my experience, they don’t all exceed expectations.

So give it a few days and then take a step back. Examine, what you were told considering the various possible benign interpretations people have provided. Then try to find some specific actionable points. Agree those with your supervisor and work on demonstrating those things. If you really can’t find specific actionable points that is also something to raise with your supervisor. They should be able to help you define them. Unless you were told about fundamental flaws this is probably just bad communication and mismatched assumptions on how the review process is supposed to work.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:46 AM on February 1, 2018

Thirding don't take it personally, especially if it's "new" information -- I would expect, if you have truly been doing poorly at your job, your supervisor/manager wouldn't wait weeks/months to tell you so, you'd be corrected more frequently.

So, as a manager, when I do evaluations I'm explaining performance based on where I expect you to be at x point in your job; so the bar is higher based on how long you've been in the position, or the bar moves based on changes in responsibility, so what gets a "5" on the worksheet may seem like the same criteria evaluated, but it's not really. If you got a 4 now, but a 5 a year ago, it doesn't mean you got worse, it means you're still at the 5 level for that position a year ago but haven't improved as expected. It's not a step backward, it's lack of stepping forward.

So, if I were you I would say that you should look at it as you're doing fine at your job -- you're not being corrected on a daily basis or clearly making mistakes -- but at the place you are in the scheme of things, you'd be doing better if these new items were corrected and improved upon.

And, also, some people aren't great at communicating, or maybe your manager got a poor review of their own so weren't reacting at as good a level as usual the day you got your review. Lack of positive doesn't mean it doesn't exist, you can't really guess why your supervisor chose to communicate that way on that day, better to just focus on the meat of what was discussed.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:45 AM on February 1, 2018

If your manager is somebody you talk with frequently, consider revisiting the official performance appraisal in a less formal conversation. Tell them that it would be helpful to you to hear all the things they think you're doing well, so that you don't accidentally let any of that slip while you're trying to focus on their suggestions. That might create an opportunity to find out more about whether you're "in trouble" or just getting suggestions for A++ performance.
posted by aimedwander at 6:56 AM on February 1, 2018

Oof, I feel you. I had a less-than-stellar early performance review once and it's like having the rug yanked out from under you. But unless it was a personal indictment (or even if it was--my reviewer certainly did not hold much back), the best way to turn it around is probably to specifically address and correct the things that were pointed out in the review, and as visibly as possible so the relevant parties know you're actively working on it. That way when your next review rolls around, hopefully they can spend a little more time talking about your ability to take direction well and with a minimum of fuss and how impressed they are by your rapid improvement.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:10 AM on February 1, 2018

Sometimes managers will refrain from discussing what their direct report has done well if they've gotten the impression (correct or incorrect) that their direct report won't take their weaknesses seriously if they think they can compensate for them with good performance otherwise. They may also do this if they feel that their earlier informal feedback hasn't sunk in with their direct report for one reason or another. Worst case scenario, they've taken this route because they don't think their direct report is easy to coach and feel that heavy handedness is the only approach that will work.

While it may be a case of dealing with someone who doesn't know how to effectively provide feedback, it's not a bad idea to assess whether you might be coming as difficult to manage and adjust accordingly.
posted by blerghamot at 9:42 AM on February 1, 2018

An evaluation shouldn't contain surprises. Your manager should have been helping you learn your job well before this. Some managers are better at seeing areas for improvement than noticing success. Your task is to take the evaluation and use it to be better at your job. And to learn how to make your boss aware of what you do well, esp. as it pertains to your job description.

Always do a self-evaluation, and make note of everything you do well. Always keep notes on successes, like how you reduced copier spending or winnowed old files or how there have been no crises because you're so good at keeping on top of things. Keep track of areas for improvement, but share them only strategically. If your boss doesn't see you as having a certain flaw, no sense pointing it out. And your next review should refer to htis one, and assess how well you improved as required. Keep this kind of info in your private email, not on the company server. People get laid off and lose the notes they'd have used to highlight achievements for their next job.

Communicate regularly with your manager and note tasks completed, skills gained, achievements, successes. Market yourself yo your manager. Make it easy for your manager to see you as accomplished.

To recover from the blow, take a hot bath, binge-watch something indulgent, eat some pie, then go to work Monday ready to kick butt.
posted by theora55 at 11:51 AM on February 1, 2018

A manager myself. Don't put too much stock in performance reviews, many people are bad at them, and I'm not about to say I'm particularly good at giving them myself.

Every manager is different - the worst performance reviews in my career I remember getting (in how they made me feel emotionally) were ironically the years where I scored top achiever within my grade band in the company. So a "bad" review may not even be related to your actual performance.

Even employees differ, and differ over time - I now feel like any performance discussion (not necessarily the formal review) where they only say what I've done well is a bit of a waste of time - my ego doesn't need stroking, I already know I did a good job, I'm looking for constructive criticism for how I can improve further.

Regardless of the reasons or validity of the review - which none of us will know - the most important thing is that criticism isn't just the end of it - what you need to do is a follow up with a plan on how to address them - so the manager isn't happy about X, ok, so what is their expectation (Y?) - what does success look like, do you need support from your manager to achieve it, over what time frame, what actions need to be taken, then a finite date or even checkpoints where you can re-evaluate how you have improved. Have other people in the role achieved Y, what are they doing differently, or do they have different skills. Putting this into place can help you feel better, and shift the feeling from "omg I'm terrible" to "I'm learning and I'm on a journey and at the end of it I will be a more skilled and matured person than I am now"
posted by xdvesper at 3:31 PM on February 1, 2018

Many companies seem to adopt an approach to performance that assumes that keeping people feeling like they still have lots to achieve is a way of keeping them motivated. Also keep in mind that most managers never get any coaching in how to give a good performance review. Your manager should be focusing on strengths as well as weaknesses. At a company I recently worked for, it was actually an advantage to rate yourself poorly in some areas, just so that you could demonstrate ongoing "improvement". It's my opinion that institutionalised annual or semi-annual performance reviews are generally a perverse and ineffective practice that only leave people demoralised. Getting informal feedback on your performance in the moment is far more effective. Perhaps you could ask for more of this approach?
posted by amusebuche at 4:47 PM on February 3, 2018

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