How to make the most of a bad performance review

Dec 06, 2023

5 mins

How to make the most of a bad performance review

Navigating negative feedback in today’s competitive workplace can prove overwhelming, triggering feelings of rejection, disappointment, and self-doubt. This emotional turbulence can be intensified by a common phenomenon known as negativity bias. Adults are “far more attentive to and much more influenced in most psychological domains by negative than by positive information,” according to a study published in Psychological Bulletin, the journal of the American Psychological Association. So, it’s not just you. We all tend to focus on the negative.

This inherent bias can amplify the impact of critical feedback, making it a formidable challenge in professional life. A report by Gallup indicates that only about 14% of employees strongly agree that their performance reviews inspire them to improve. This brings us to a pivotal question: How can you reframe constructive criticism as a catalyst for growth, or recognize when it’s time to explore new opportunities? Successfully navigating this terrain involves overcoming any negativity bias and realizing that feedback, while important, is not a reflection of your entire worth.

Remembering your strengths, not your flaws

The crux of the issue lies with our interpretation of feedback. Often, there’s a tendency to equate the need for improvement with an inherent lack of worth, explains Nidhi Tewari, a well-being, workplace culture, and resilience consultant who has spoken at TEDWomen 2023 and the World Economic Forum. “We take learning that we have room for improvement to mean that we’re not good enough,” she says. This mindset triggers a belief of inadequacy, impacting self-esteem, she explains.

It’s essential to take a step back and examine your thoughts and feelings, identifying whether your initial reaction is just emotional, such as frustration or shame. An effective strategy is to create a cognitive distance between the self and the message received, explains Tewari. Detachment is important to avoid immediate defensive reactions, enable a critical evaluation of the feedback and transform it into an opportunity for personal and professional development. But how can you detach when tensions are so heightened? Get ready to adopt a growth mindset if you want to learn how to take constructive criticism well.

The growth mindset and how to achieve it

Psychologist Carol S Dweck introduced the concept of the “growth mindset” in her research in the late 20th century. The term was popularized with the publication of her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in 2006. In it, she defines a growth mindset as the belief that one’s abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication, hard work, and persistence in the face of a challenge.

Recognizing that “perfection” is an unattainable goal is a cornerstone of the growth mindset, explains Tewari. “Learning and growing is always going to be the lay of the land in your progression,” she says. Adopting this mindset allows you to view mistakes not as failures but as valuable learning opportunities. It shifts the focus from achieving perfection to continuous learning and improvement, which is vital for long-term career development.

Embracing discomfort is also essential for growth, as discomfort signals areas ripe for development, explains Azizi Marshall, a mental health expert and the founder and chief executive of the Center for Creative Arts Therapy, an arts-based psychotherapy and training center in Chicago. “It’s about shifting to that growth mindset, accepting that some things will initially feel uncomfortable,” she adds. This mindset involves tackling tasks that don’t come naturally, such as speaking up in meetings for those who are usually more reserved.

Transforming feedback into growth

So how do you turn workplace feedback into a catalyst for personal and professional enhancement? The following steps offer a practical roadmap, from emotional processing to proactive “job crafting,” ensuring a constructive response.

1. Managing emotional responses

Handling your initial emotional response to feedback well is critical. Tewari says, “Give yourself a day to feel all the emotions… then, when you return to work, you have an opportunity to compartmentalize that.” This process of allowing emotions to surface and then setting them aside is vital in preparing your response.

2. Understanding the ‘why’

Deciphering the motives and objectives behind feedback is key. Your goal is to achieve understanding. Marshall says, “Ask your manager for specifics to understand the reasons behind each feedback and task.” This is about more than just receiving instructions during your review; it’s about deeply understanding the feedback’s context and how it fits into the broader scope of your personal growth and career trajectory. It’s a reflective process that helps transform feedback into a personalized plan for development.

3. Effective communication with supervisors

It’s important to engage proactively in constructive dialogue with supervisors when processing feedback. Tewari says, “Ask for specific tasks that will show improvement.” This isn’t just about clarity – it’s about creating a two-way street for feedback and progress. It’s an opportunity to present one’s perspective, seek guidance, and collaborate on setting realistic goals and timelines. This external communication fosters a supportive and transparent relationship with supervisors, which is essential for long-term professional growth.

4. Mindfulness techniques

To maintain objectivity and focus, Tewari recommends using mindfulness techniques. “Visualize yourself taking that negative thought… and just put it away,” she advises. Such practices help create a mental distance from negative emotions, enabling a more focused and balanced perspective. Mindfulness is something that comes with dedicated practice, she adds. “If you’re uncomfortable with silence or find your thoughts racing, start by setting a timer for 60 seconds. Just sit and observe your thoughts and feelings with curiosity,” she says. Once you can comfortably do this for a minute, gradually increase the time. This practice can help you to become more aware of internal states, and to develop mindfulness as a skill.

5. Managing stress and maintaining focus

Initially a reserved meeting participant, Marshall received feedback encouraging her to be more vocal. However, she didn’t like speaking up at meetings and found it stressful. So, to help her to manage any anxiety that might well up, she created an ‘emotional toolbox’ containing simple tactile objects, including a fidget toy and lavender-scented putty to play with discreetly. “Anything to hold you grounded,” Marshall explains, noting how the toolbox helps her maintain focus and stay composed during high-pressure situations. She also highlights the value of creative and expressive activities, such as drum circles or dance classes, which provide emotional release and enhance your overall stress management techniques.

6. Job crafting and maintaining morale

Finally, Tewari suggests ‘job crafting’ – taking steps to redesign your tasks or responsibilities at work – to rebuild confidence, especially after receiving critical feedback. “Shift focus to add in more activities at work that you feel competent in,” she advises. This proactive approach to reshaping one’s job role can result in greater job satisfaction and a renewed sense of engagement.

Is it time to move on?

Determining whether feedback is constructive or a red flag can be challenging, especially in the heat of the moment. Tewari advises looking at the intention and the details of the feedback. “You want really specific feedback, a pathway forward,” she explains. If feedback lacks these elements or comes across as a personal attack, it’s a sign to reassess your position. Tewari also emphasizes the importance of relationship dynamics at work. Feedback from someone who doesn’t foster psychological safety or trust, or who fails to provide specific and actionable guidance, can be a red flag.

Marshall highlights similar red flags. A lack of clarity in feedback or an absence of opportunities for employees to understand the reasons behind required changes also signals a potentially unhealthy workplace. She also points out signs of a toxic work environment, such as lack of support, witnessing bullying or microaggressions, and systemic issues. “If you’re going home and snapping at your family, or crying in your car before work, those are signs that this is not a healthy place for you,” she says.

Tewari and Marshall agree that constructive feedback should be specific, actionable, and delivered with the intention of fostering growth. Feedback that feels like a personal attack or lacks clear direction may indicate it’s time to consider new opportunities.

Bouncing back after a bad performance review

How you respond to a bad performance review can help you to do better in your current role or to find a more suitable role in the same workplace. Even if red flags cause you to decide to look for a new job, you can turn the experience into a chance to advance and improve.

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