A reader writes:
Some background: I am in my mid-twenties and I work as an assistant for a small, nationally renowned non-profit. I love a lot about my job: I get to research topics I love, and I get to apply skills that satisfy me. I have a heavy workload that has increased substantially over the past few months. I often work straight through the day without a lunch break, stay late when I need to, bring work home when I need to, and check my work email from home constantly.
I had my first ever annual performance review last month. Before this formal meeting, my boss and I had met sporadically, and our discussions tended to focus on particular projects she had planned for me. The only explicit feedback I received about my work was in November, and it was that I was "doing excellent work." Since that comment, I had not received any pointed feedback about my performance, negative or positive. Instead she would casually ask, "How's it going?" and I would say something like "I'm working on a lot right now, but I feel good about everything." As my review crept closer, I was naturally somewhat anxious, but felt I had reason to believe that I was going to receive generally good feedback.
Boy, was I in for a surprise: my boss told me that there was an issue with follow through, citing a few examples of minor tasks I had failed to execute, and said she was worried a pattern was emerging. She said I needed to participate more at staff meetings, and that I'm not a team player. My grade was "needs improvement." I felt completely blindsided, and was so shocked and hurt by the feedback that I burst into tears. She also asked me if I'm really serious about working in this field. In my emotionally vulnerable and unstable state, I admitted that, while I do value a lot about my job, I sometimes think about other paths. My boss told me we would meet again in a month to reevaluate my standing.
I took the review really badly: I was on the verge of tears for the remainder of the workweek and couldn't sleep at night due to anxiety. I felt like I had been working quite hard, that for each of her examples of my failures, there were dozens of things that I had executed well and promptly. My job can be very stressful, I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well. I thought I was succeeding; to be told the opposite was demoralizing and mortifying. Looking back on my tears makes me cringe; I fear that I came off unstable and incapable of hearing criticism.
I've reflected on my feedback and concluded that some of it was valid. The next week I requested a follow-up meeting with my boss: I told her that I had let some things slip due my increased workload, and that I was going to make an extra effort to make sure nothing falls through the cracks in the future. I asked her for more regular feedback, suggesting that she call to check in with me like she does with my colleague (my boss works three-day weeks). This plan seems to be helping, and I've gotten some good feedback related to my areas in need of improvement.
But my despair persists: my department is very small, and I'm now concerned that everyone perceives me in the way my boss described me. I feel sheepish and embarrassed around my colleagues. I'm also worried that my boss shared my emotional response to her criticism with them, which compounds my paranoia. Finally, I'm concerned that my admission to considering other lines of work set off an alarm in my boss's head. Is there anything I can do, besides doing my job well, to improve my standing? I'm worried about being blindsided again.
It sounds like you're doing all the right things here, aside from being really, really stressed out about it. Being open-minded about the feedback, asking for a follow-up meeting, and requesting more feedback were all exactly the right ways to respond to this.
Based on your boss' feedback, it sounds like you were doing the big things well, but forgetting about some of the little things. If you were letting smaller tasks slip through the cracks, she was right to point out that it was becoming a pattern -- but this is exactly the kind of performance issue that's really easy to fix, and she probably knows that. I cannot tell you how many people I've had to have that conversation with -- it's probably the most common issue I have to address with people. The vast majority of people are able to fix it once they're focused on it -- and you sound like someone who's fixing it.
Now, I'm not sure what she meant by "not a team player," and if you're not sure either, get details from her about that one so that you know specifically what she'd like to see you do differently.
But remember -- this is what bosses do: they give feedback and tell you about ways you could do better. It's normal.
It can also be a shock if you're not used to it. I think many smart people go through this right around your age: If you're like a lot of smart people, up until now you've been used to hearing exclusively positive feedback. You were smart, school and peers affirmed that, and it's part of your self-identity. And then when you start working and come across a boss who sees areas where she wants you to improve, it can be really jarring. It can make you doubt yourself or think you're in the wrong job. Don't think that way. Instead, take the feedback for what is it: matter of fact information about areas where you need to focus your attention more. Take that feedback and use it, and you'll find that stretching yourself to grow in that way can be pretty gratifying.
Seriously. Don't freak out. You're on the case here, and it sounds like it's going to work out fine.
About your two other concerns --
It's unlikely that the rest of your department has even noticed or thought much about the points your boss made. Your boss' job is to pay attention to your work and think about these things; theirs is not, and I promise you they're not scrutinizing you like that. Most of the time when I talk to an employee about performance issues, the issues are ones that their coworkers wouldn't have much way of knowing about. It sounds the same here. And unless your boss is hugely unprofessional and a jerk, she didn't tell them that you had an emotional response originally -- I can't tell you how inappropriate it would have been to do that, and unless you have some specific reason to believe she did, err on the side of assuming she conducted herself normally in that regard (meaning that her conversation with you is none of your coworkers' business).
And last, regarding whether your boss is alarmed that you acknowledged that you sometimes consider other lines of work -- unless you're working in the mafia or something, this is not a big deal. If it's bothering you, go back to her and tell her that your conversation made you realize how much you want to stay in this field and ask her for her continued help via feedback and advice.
But really, I think what's going on here is that you're smart and conscientious and horrified by what I suspect is the sort of feedback you've never encountered before. Keep telling yourself that this is normal, bosses have these kinds of conversations with people all the time, and generally the issues raised get fixed and people just roll forward. Not a disaster, not even close to a disaster. You're doing all the right things, and now you just need to stop beating yourself up.