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Saturday, August 15, 2009

emotional after performance review

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.

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

I hear you sister! ( or brother ). This seems like a letter that I was about to write to AAM.

AAM, there is onr thing that you did not point out - there is only so much that a person can do. The Letter Writer (LW) is taking work home on a regular basis. No wonder she is getting stressed out. She should learn to say no and push back if the load is too demanding. Things falling through the cracks might be because of the fact that she is juggling too many things. Ask the manager on what are your key deliverables, and on what will you be evaluated and prioritise them.

And managers, grow some spine or better still, understand what is important for you that we should be doing and give us feedback - the good and the bad. Do not just say 'good, good' when we ask for feedback and drop the bombs in the review meeting.

Mike Waling said...

You might also considering seeking out feedback on regular intervals -- something like once every 2-3 months so that you're not blindsided during your next performance review.

Kerry said...

I completely agree with AAM.

I just wanted to add that you are not the only person to be emotional after a rough performance review. If I had a dollar for every one of those I've encountered, I'd have a minion to type this for me and feed me ice cream. It happens. It's so common that it's unlikely she shared that it happened, because everyone would be, like, "So?" Seriously.

Also, I'm a little bugged that you never got any feedback, and then suddenly there was this deluge at the performance review. I hate when managers do that. If yours is one like that (and it sounds like she is), as Mike said, you are going to have to ask for explicit feedback on a very regular basis. It's better to hear it realtime than to get hit with all of it once a year.

Good luck. You're doing all the right things.

Mel Vault said...

I think I remember reading here a while ago that a manager isn't really doing their job if an annual review comes as a shock.

We don't have annual reviews where I work. A couple times I've brought this up at interviews and the interviewer will have a reaction of disbelief like it's impossible to know how I'm doing without them. I usually figure then that I don't want to work for that person.

Anonymous said...

"Out-of-nowhere" things like that are really the worst. There's nothing quite like being blindsided with the notion that your perception of your performance was wrong. You thought it was going well, while all the while the manager had issues with your performance and wasn't telling you. It's a bit of a betrayal and it's definitely a slap in the face. I've been there, and it sucks.

Your manager could have been either more honest or more proactive with you. Since your boss said "excellent work" in November and is saying "needs improvement" in a lot of areas now, there are two primary possibilities here. One, that your boss was fibbing to you because she didn't want a confrontation at that time. Two, that your perceived performance HAS changed since November and she didn't bring it up with you when it first started. I don't know what kind of workload the manager has, but in the latter case I would certainly hope that she would have had the consideration to give you the chance to correct your behaviour in advance of your performance review.

I guess the third possibility is that she is more harsh in performance reviews in order to justify smaller raises or none at all. In which case that's pretty low, too, since it's going to harm employee morale and self-esteem just to save a few bucks.

Susan said...

I agree with some of the others that this manager probably isn't doing a good job managing. Isn't it in the company's best interest for the manager to address problem areas that have come to the point of being a pattern before waiting all of the way until the end of year review? I think this sounds partly like a weak manager or someone who is trying to justify lower or no salary raises. She might take the track of scaring the heck out of the employee to make them feel thankful to have a job in the first place, so they don't cry foul about not getting a raise or having more work dumped upon them. That has been going on in workplaces lately. Some managers have been outright abusing their employees because they feel the employees have no alternatives.

All of this does not mean that the original poster should not fix the problems addressed. I would watch and keep track of the manager's pattern. If this sort of thing happens again, then you might want to start considering a career change at the right time. This should only be done after you address the problems raised, ask for regular feedback in order to do the best for the company, and forget about being worried what others think or know about your performance review. Worrying about what others know is only going to make you look and act strangely, and then people really will be talking behind your back.

Good luck and keep trying to improve. Things will work out one way or another, especially if you put in your best effort and think about what is going on and what it is you need to do.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I thought AAM was a little harsh with this poster. Whether she is used to negative feedback or not, getting an overall grade of "needs improvement" is a serious problem. She is right to get concrete examples of what she can do better and try to improve.

But I don't think she was wrong to be upset (though I'm sure she regrets the tears). Getting "needs improvement" is a problem.

Charles said...

I agree with AAM about the advice given; One should always reflect on feedback.

It also sounds to me, as so many commenters here have said, this manager lacks good management skills.

Here's my advice:

Stop with the extra work without the manager appreciating it. You will eventually feel "taken advantage of" and your bitterness will show through. This will cause them to bypass you for promotions and raises.

Instead of asking your manager to call you; be proactive, write a short weekly or monthly report; really nothing more than bullet points outlining what you did in the past week, what you have planned for the next week, next month, what takes priority, etc. This will help communicate accomplishments and workload to the manager. It might also help you to keep things from falling through the cracks.
(I have done such reports in the past and they are not very time-consuming as they are little more than cut and paste once you have done the first one or two. I have also made myself finish tasks that have been sitting in the "to do" category too long - I would get embarrassed about it!)

Seriously ask yourself if you can continue to carry such a heavy workload and learn to live with the manager's lack of managment skills, and especially her "surprises"?

You might think this is a dream job as you love a lot about it. But keep in mind that there are many other options out there, many that you might not even be aware of. Okay, so the economy really sucks right now, so there are not that many. But things will get better.

As one who is in his fifties, I mean no offense, but, you're in your twenties - so, you ain't seen nothing yet!

class-factotum said...

I like the part about how the boss works "three-day weeks." How does she know what the questioner does again?

Dan Erwin said...

As I went through this post and through the comments, the same notions kept gnawing at my insides. First, it's rare to be rewarded solely on the basis of our work. What that means is that if you want to be rewarded, you've got to deliver, but you've also got to manage your boss and get regular feedback from your boss. Both of those are learnable skills. You might find this post valuable:

Willr said...

Two things:
1) your boss shouldn't have rated you a 'needs improvement' unless you got some prior warning. Since you did not, I would ask your manager why? This is a very fair question and her answer may be very informative.
2) the 'have you thought of other types of work' comment is very leading in that she now seems to think that you are incapable of the task. Since she blind-sided you with your review, I think it is fair for her to clarify that comment.

Overall, he/she sounds like a sucky manager. Your best defense is to meet with him/her on a weekly basis and have them both set your priorities and assess your performance.

Will at

Anonymous said...

There is another side to all this...the willingness to set high standards for yourself, yet being willing to either, A) ask for help in terms of other people's experiences or B) know your limits and manage them accordingly. Doing too much won't make any employer feel impressed; they'll be disappointed you don't understand yourself.

Best of luck...I know this is older but I think it's an important subject.