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How to Bounce Back From a Bad Performance Review (So You Don’t Get Fired)

Don't stew, complain, or plot revenge: Here's how to react to a negative performance evaluation so you can move onward and upward.

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First, calm down

While your instinct may be to cry or lash out, maintain your composure and your professionalism, at least until the review is over and you are outside the office. You can let your boss know you are surprised or disappointed, but don’t get emotional or defensive. Put yourself in your boss’s shoes, writes Jodi Glickman in Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It. The Secrets of Getting Ahead. From her perspective, “the goal of the meeting is not to make you feel good. The goal is to make you better at your job.”

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Ask for specific ways you can improve

Consider saying more than “What can I do to boost my performance?” Glickman suggests, “I appreciate your candor. How would you recommend getting the R-and-D team on board earlier in the process next time?” If pressing for concrete information puts your boss on the spot, ask, “Is there someone here you think does a particularly good job at that? I’d love to get some ideas from him.”

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Avoid pointing fingers or passing the blame

Saying “That’s not my responsibility” or “It’s so and so’s fault” will make you sound not only defensive, but also unprofessional and petty, according to Business Insider editor Jacquelyn Smith. “A performance review is rarely, if ever, the time to talk about other colleagues, especially in a critical way,” writes Smith. “While no one likes to feel blame, it’s often necessary to hear it—even temporarily absorb it—while you empathize and decide how to tactfully respond.” Instead, try saying something along the lines of: “I agree. Next time, here are the changes I’ll make to ensure a better outcome.”

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Observe your boss’s body language

“People want to be heard and understood, not just logically but also emotionally,” writes Rick Kirschner in How to Click with People: The Secret to Better Relationships in Business and in Life. When giving you the bad news, does your boss appear disappointed? Uncomfortable? Angry? Sympathetic? Bored? Take her mood as much as the content of the review into account.

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Say “thank you”

Yes, really. If you don’t agree with her assessment, say, “Thanks so much for taking time to sit down with me. I really appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts,” writes Glickman. Or “I’m not sure I completely understand or agree with all of your points, but I do appreciate your taking the time to sit down with me.” If you think she’s made a good case, try “I absolutely understand your points, and I’m going to spend some time thinking about ways to improve in the areas you mentioned. Thank you.”

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Ask to revisit the situation

Glickman says you should always follow up—whether to ask for clarification, to argue your case, or to smooth over any disagreement. Before you leave, say something like “You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I’d like to continue the conversation after I have some more time to reflect on all of this.” Then schedule a meeting with your boss for a few weeks in the future.

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Avoid jumping ship right away

Although it is always a good idea to maintain your network and keep your options open, a bad performance review doesn’t necessarily mean you need to start job hunting. Instead, assess your review in light of the company’s culture and your boss’s personality and strategy. “In some cultures, anything but glowing praise will be viewed as negative. In others, tough reviews are the norm,” says LinkedIn contributing writer Dawkins Brown. Be aware of unwritten messages or external pressures on your boss—sometimes, “your performance review has nothing to do with you or your performance.” Here are secret signs you might be getting fired.

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Construct a rebuttal around facts, not emotions

In your follow-up meeting, make sure you have assembled some documentation of your performance throughout the year. Providing evidence of your positive work quality, including letters of appreciation, dates and times of project completion, and statistics showing how you helped the company can go a long way, according to Brown. From his perspective, “a strong, carefully written rebuttal will clarify your strength of purpose,” as well as your progress.

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Look on the positive side

It may sound as corny as a needlepoint pillow emblazoned with “When life gives you lemons …,” but according to Tali Sharot in The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, perceiving setbacks as opportunities actually helps make them so. “Predictions not only alter our perceptions but also modify action,” writes Sharot. If you think of your boss’s assessment as a catalyst for positive change and not a kick in the teeth, you’ll more likely work toward that change.

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Make new goals (and stick to them)

Work with your boss to discuss your goals for the future and agree on ways to measure your achievements. The key, write Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, is to determine both a long-term objective (say, boost your sales by 20 percent) and intermediate goals (book lunches with five clients a month). “Have an idea of what you want to accomplish in a month and how you want to get there,” advise Baumeister, who directs the social psychology program at Florida State, and Tierney, a New York Times reporter. “Leave some flexibility and anticipate setbacks.” Making and accomplishing these objectives shows your boss that you are taking an active role in improving your work quality.

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Start small

Baumeister’s research has shown that willpower is like a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Start with small housekeeping tasks each day, advise the authors. “You may not care about whether your bed is made or your desk is clean, but these environmental cues subtly influence your brain and your behavior, making it ultimately less of a strain to maintain self-discipline. Order seems to be contagious.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest