Editor's Note: This is a guest post from Susan C.
Anna Johnson has identified five behavioural mistakes that bosses make in performance evaluations. I’ve added two other factors that might contribute to a boss giving you a bad performance evaluation. If you can recognize that the following mistakes, attitudes and behaviours say more about your boss than they do about you, it might help you find a way to take the higher path when responding to your boss. If you can respond as calmly as possible from a non-defensive place, you might be able to defuse an intense discussion and hopefully recalibrate the level of respectfulness observed in the discussion. The following suggestions have to be tailored to what you know about your boss’s attitude to receiving feedback, and your overall comfort level with speaking up for yourself and giving your boss feedback.
1. Your boss waits until your performance evaluation to give you any feedback
Clearly, this practice is not helpful to either you or your boss. It is rather pointless, and destroys trust, to save up months’ worth of criticisms and feedback only to dump them on an unsuspecting employee long past the date when the feedback would have been useful. Hearing a year’s worth of feedback in one sitting, especially if it’s mostly comprised of complaints or “constructive criticism”, can be overwhelming and may leave you feeling understandably defensive. The best response is to acknowledge that this much feedback is a little overwhelming to take in all at once and you’d like some time to digest it before responding. Your next step is to point out to your boss that it would be helpful to both of you, from here on in, if he would provide you with feedback—both good and bad-- on a more frequent basis throughout the year. Hopefully your boss will see the value in this and “get on board” with you. Ideally, the best time to get the “frequent feedback” habit instilled in your boss is when you are first hired for your job.
2. Your boss overemphasizes recent performances and forgets about the rest of the year
It probably isn’t reasonable to expect your boss to remember everything you did over the past year, but you would hope that your boss has made some notes about your performance over the year and not just the few weeks prior to your performance evaluation. If not, this is where your proactive organization and planning come to the rescue. Remember that document that you set up to track your projects and work assignments? Well, this is where you get to trot it out and point out all of the work you’ve done over the past year. So that you don’t end up putting you and your boss in an awkward position, you might want to email your boss a week or so before your scheduled meeting and ask if him whether you can submit additional materials that might be useful to the evaluation process.
3. The feedback from your boss is too positive or too negative
What? How can too much positive feedback be a bad thing? It can be a bad thing because your boss is not doing you any favours through not telling you if there is room for some improvement or further career development on your part. You may have to do a bit of probing and ask if there’s anything about your work habits or skills that she might like to see handled more effectively or efficiently. She might appreciate hearing that you appreciate the role her constructive feedback plays in helping your professional development.
If, on the other hand, your boss seems to focus only on the negative feedback, you might have to steer her back to a more balanced account of your performance. Listen to what she has to say about your performance and then find a tactful way to inquire about whether she’s basing her evaluation only on her observations and opinions or whether she’s considered feedback from other sources. You could then very tactfully ask whether she had ever received any feedback from client A or manager B or co-worker C since they’d written to you saying they had been happy with the work you’d done on their projects. (This is where having those unsolicited emails singing your praises comes to your rescue.) You’ll have to do this really carefully because you don’t want to sound defensive or as though you’re begging for a compliment, but you do want to convey to her that her assessment seems heavily biased in the negative direction and you’d like her to consider balancing that out with the positive feedback you’ve received from other sources.
4. Your boss is critical without being constructive
Hearing a laundry list of criticisms with no specific feedback as to what and how your boss would like the problem corrected is unhelpful at best, and destructive at worst. If the criticisms seem valid, then ask your boss for the additional information you need to implement the requested improvements. Express your willingness to work with her in these areas. If the criticisms are vague and seem to be a personal attack rather than a performance based concern, or your boss refuses to provide any constructive feedback, ask her if she can reframe her criticism and point to a specific behaviour that she would like changed. Remind her again that in order for you to be able to respond to her complaints, she will need to identify specific behaviours or skills improvement areas that can be translated into measurable goals. Ask if she would like to set a second meeting to develop a plan setting out how and when you will achieve these goals. If she still refuses to be reasonable, suggest ending the meeting, and indicate that you'll give further consideration to her feedback. (Once you get home, you should most definitely write up a summary or some kind of record that documents your boss’s behaviour and attitude during the evaluation. You might want see what options for recourse are available to you.)
5. Your boss does all the talking
Performance evaluations are supposed to be a two way discussion. Your input as to what is or isn’t working for you, as well as the kinds of projects or professional development activities you would like to pursue is a vital piece of the discussion. If your boss has trailed off into a monologue, you may have to politely interrupt and tactfully remind him that you get a say in the process as well. Politely point out to him that he is more likely to arrive at a satisfactory outcome and professional development plan that works for both of you if he’s heard your input on the matter. It’s probably most helpful if you and your boss decide beforehand on an agenda and whether it will be a give and take dialogue throughout the meeting, or whether your boss will give his evaluation first and then you’ll have time to respond. I would recommend a more conversational approach throughout the meeting for two reasons. First, it saves you building up a lot of anxiety and defensiveness that will prevent you from hearing what is actually said. Second, it will feel more collegial and less adversarial. You and your boss are supposed to be on the same team, remember?
6. Clashing Management or Work Styles
This is a difficult situation to resolve because it is really about differences in temperaments and their expression—core aspects of our “selves” that are generally quite resistant to change. If you are both EQ savvy and recognize that your temperament types are diametrically opposed, then you and your boss can probably have a candid discussion about how and where your differences clash, agree to not take them personally, and decide on some strategies to work around the differences while still respecting each other’s personal “quirks”. If, on the other hand, you have a boss with an EQ in the single digits and zero interest in wanting to know or understand how his employees’ temperaments play out at work, you are probably going to be in for a rough time. If your boss has no tolerance for work styles that diverge from his comfort level and expectations, he may well arbitrarily decide that you are a royal pain to manage and may not see past his own biases when it comes time to rate your performance. You may find in the long run that it’s better to move on and find a workplace where you are accepted and appreciated exactly as you are rather than having to bend yourself into a pretzel to meet with your boss’s approval.
7. Your boss is a bully and you’re “it”
The target, that is. If you’ve been tagged as the target by a bully boss, it’s not very likely that any of the suggestions provided thus far will help you deal with a bad performance evaluation. Why? Because all of the normal “rules of play” go out the window when you’re dealing with bullies. They don’t respond to reason and they hate being challenged. Going through a performance evaluation with a bully boss is truly hellish, not to mention psychologically traumatic. Unfortunately, it usually gets worse, rather than better, with every subsequent incident. If the evaluation from hell is not the first incident of bullying that has occurred, I recommend that you make sure it’s the last incident—or close to the last incident of bullying that you experience at the hands of your boss. Life is way too short and your health is far too precious to waste on trying to deal with this kind of c**p. Nobody deserves to be treated with such disrespect. Nobody needs their health, well-being, and quality of life ruined by a workplace bully. And no job is worth enduring an abusive or toxic work environment. Really, why would you want to work for a company that allows workplace bullying?
Wrap Up and Final Thoughts
We can’t control what our bosses say or do in a performance evaluation, but we do have a choice about how we respond to their feedback. If we’re aware that our bosses only seem to remember what we did in the last week or month, or forget to give constructive feedback along with any criticisms, we can step past our initial defensiveness and offer additional information or engage in a dialogue that will hopefully steer them into a more balanced view of our performance. My bet is that most fair and reasonable bosses might appreciate getting some tactful feedback on how they could improve their approaches to doing performance evaluations. It’s also important to understand that bully bosses do exist and deliberately subject their Targets to unfair, demeaning, and traumatic performance evaluations. They don’t play by the same rules as the rest of us and they’re definitely not interested in promoting or supporting anyone else’s work place happiness. They most assuredly are not open to feedback about their destructive tendencies, so don’t open yourself to an attack by trying to give them feedback. The smartest thing you can do is leave with your dignity and well being intact.
When all is said and done, I think the real key to learning how to effectively deal with negative feedback is through understanding what pushes our “defensiveness” buttons, what we learned as young children about receiving and giving feedback—whether it was positive, constructive or destructive—and how those patterns play out in our lives as adults in the work world.
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