In which I outline a step-by-step plan for processing a negative performance review. Open for tips on dealing with work grief.

Now that we’ve fully exited the holiday season, it’s that time of year again: performance reviews. Now I’ve gotten a range of performance reviews, and I remember my first negative one and the grief that I had to work through. Years of therapy and other experiences have perfectly poised me to write about the best way to work through a negative performance review. Alternatively, you can picture your reviewers face on a punching bag and have at it. This is a bit more productive though.


1. Realize that part of a negative review is almost always the fault of management

In most cases, both parties take fault in a bad review—the reviewee and the reviewer. I don’t mean this to offload all of the responsibility but to offer some comfort. Management involves accountability for your employees. Not to infantilize the subordinate, but (good) managers are kind of like parents in their responsibilities. They can’t control everything, but they’re in charge of guiding their employees, teaching, and ensuring their success. Without these things, a “manager” is just someone who delegates tasks and criticizes you twice a year.


2. Before reflecting on your own actions, consider what your manager could have done better

This allows you to depersonalize what can seem like a harsh rejection. It’s also an excellent reminder that pobody’s nerfect, and there will always be room to improve. Plus, good managers also want to know how they can improve! The more different perspectives they have, the better leaders they will be. Also, managers are not omniscient. Help them help you.


3. Actually read what your manager wrote and reflect

After thoroughly reading the review, ask yourself some questions. Do you agree with it? What do you think you could’ve done better? How could you have mitigated it?

What do you think led up to this? This last question can be a doozy. Performance reviews often only consider the last six months or so, but careers are years in the making. Negative (and sometimes positive) reviews require a more holistic review of “How did we get here?”


4. Accept the review

The past is the past and cannot be changed, for better and for worse. The only way forward begins with acceptance. Dwelling will only create misery and probably worse work. This may take some time, because emotions are a strange thing, but it’s a necessary step. Fighting it will only lead to headaches.


5. Create an improvement plan

After acceptance, you can actually figure out where you go from here. Ultimately, the goal should be to succeed in your role. Whether or not you plan on staying in that role, there are always lessons that you can take from your past experiences to your future jobs.

Some inspiration for considerations pulled from my experiences: Is this work you want to do? Where do you struggle? What types of communications styles work for you? Most importantly, what communication styles have worked for other people that you’ve worked with? We can put on many different faces at work, but some are more effective than others.  Which can be a long trial and error process to figure out.


6. Share and build upon this plan with your manager

It’s imperative that you and your manager are aligned on this improvement plan so that you’re setup for success and that your manager is setup to perceive and recognize the success. Improvement only exists where a baseline is established. Reviews take two parties, and the more involved both parties are, the better it is for everyone.


And finally… move on.

While it doesn’t always help my career, I’ve found that keeping my identity distanced from my job has made my… varied career much easier to take in stride. Currently, my strategy is to build rapport with my co-workers, because while my work may not always seem important, I will always care about people.  Re-frame your work however you need to put in a healthy amount of time and effort.  And remember: we work to live, not live to work.


a peak into my high school geometry class, which was full of grief