Executive Coaching

Human Resources (HR) Consulting

Leadership Development

Human Capital Performance Management

DC and Virginia HR Consulting and Executive Coaching Newsletter - Issue #21

A Negative (Re)View from Above

Hey Jim, my performance review didn't go so well.  My supervisor and I met regularly, and she always said that I was doing at least OK.  Now all of a sudden I got a terrible review.  I get the feeling that maybe it wasn't coming from my supervisor, but from someone above...

My last newsletter looked at the topic of performance reviews.  I discussed how feedback should be FAST (Frequent, Accurate, Specific, and Timely).  I also stated that performance reviews should be a recap of the year and are not the time to introduce new feedback.  The goal should be that there are no surprises in a performance review.

But what if there were negative surprises?  One of my astute colleagues immediately pointed out a common scenario that could and often does lead to surprises in a performance review.  What if the feedback isn't coming from the supervisor?  What if the supervisor is delivering a message that came from somewhere else?  What should I do then?

Before I dive into that scenario, I want to once again thank those of you who forwarded my newsletter to colleagues and friends in 2010.  If you find this newsletter useful, I'd appreciate it if you could continue to use the button above to give others an opportunity to subscribe.  Thanks!

Here's how the performance review process works in most companies that I work with.  The supervisor fills out some sort of review form, and then shows that to his/her supervisor.  That next level supervisor comments, aggregates everyone together, and then shows their supervisor.  The process can be in writing, computerized, or in a big meeting with lots of people commenting.  The supervisor usually has input, but usually does not have final say.

In my experience, there are invariably some people that draw comment or debate.  Maybe the supervisor thinks highly of that individual, but someone else in the meeting has an issue with past performance, skills or attitudes.  Maybe HR has a distribution curve that they need to enforce.  Maybe the employee cut off the VP in traffic that morning (hopefully that's not the case).  This can be very subjective, as all people discussions tend to be.  Once the debate is laid out, then upper management has the final call.  Unfortunately, some people come out of this process with a much lower rating that the direct supervisor intended.

Once the final decision is made, the supervisor's job is to deliver the message.  He/she is asked to take the side of management, and deliver the message on behalf of the company in a unified front.  They are understandably not allowed to talk poorly of the process, or disagree with the decision.  The employee is left with a poor performance review, struggling to understand where it came from and what to do next.

What if this happens to you?  What should you do?  Can this be avoided?

The first step is to try and figure out where the feedback is coming from, if possible.  This can be really, really hard to do.  The supervisor may or may not know, but even if they do they are in a difficult position to be able to help.  If they tell you where the issues are coming from, they are breaking confidentiality and will be in hot water themselves.  If you press the issue too hard, you will be perceived poorly.  The goal is to go on a discrete, professional, subtle search for data.  Some examples might be:

  • Meet with your supervisor.  Ask what you can do to improve performance, and/or who you need visibility with to show that you have accepted the feedback.  Show your supervisor that you are calm, rational, and willing to improve.  You supervisor may give you clues on where to go next.

  • Meet with upper management and ask what their expectations are for someone in your position.  Be humble, take notes, and listen.  Again, the discussion may give you some clues about where you need to show improvement.

  • Talk to HR about career options. HR will know that you had a poor review, so they also may give you some ideas on what you need to improve.

  • Ask for a 360 feedback review, where you get feedback from multiple people anonymously. 

Avoid the temptation to argue the feedback, or go on a witch hunt.  Making waves is not in your best interest at this point.

Maybe you now know where this is coming from (or maybe you don't).  In any case, you have 3 choices:

  1. Do nothing

    On the face of it, this sounds like a bad idea.  However, I have to admit that time can sometimes resolve these issues.  Managers move around, responsibilities change, priorities change, etc.  I know of a number of cases where the person just kept doing their job, the organization changed around them, and the situation just went away. 

    Doing nothing goes against all of MY instincts.  My advice would be to only "do nothing" if you think some exterior change is coming, or if you have a fixed time goal. 

    I had an acquaintance who took this approach.  He was 4 years away from retirement.  He felt that if he pushed the issue, it would come to a head too soon, and he wanted to meet his goal of hanging on for long enough to retire.  He had a couple of miserable years, and some bad performance reviews.  After year 3, there were some management changes and the pressure lightened up.  After 4 years, he retired and met his goal.

  2. Do something

    The second option is to try to make a change in the perception of others.  I worded this very carefully.  Making changes only works if others NOTICE them.  This is not just about internal change. 

    If you know what needs changing, change it drastically.  Make sure that others see that you are accepting the feedback and responding. 

    It helps a lot to know specifically what to change, but the shotgun approach can also work.  This means change as much as you can think of for the positive.  If you wear jeans to work, start dressing up.  If you are chronically late, start coming in early.  If you volunteer for lots of projects, stop.  If you don't, start.  Show an interest in learning new skills.  Start writing a good weekly report, etc. 

    The goal is to leave others with the perception that you have taken the feedback to heart and that you are dedicated to making a change for the positive.  Even if you don't hit the exact feedback, showing that you are trying to change may improve your situation.

  3. Quit

    As Sun Tzu said, "He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight."  (Sorry, I'm fascinated by this guy.)

    In business, there are times when the right strategy is to cut losses and move on.  The same is true with careers.  There are times when the benefit of fighting is small as opposed to the benefit of moving on.

    This might mean moving to a new job in the same company, or moving out of the company altogether. 

    I would not recommend quitting as a first response, but I always suggest that my clients get their resume together and start working their network.  You never know when a great opportunity may just present itself and solve all of your problems! 

If you are in this situation, I highly advise you to seek outside help.  Your supervisor is not really in a great position to help you, so you are really on your own trying to navigate a tough political situation.  Outside coaching can help you figure out where the feedback is coming from, and form a strategy on what to do next.

It would be nice to be able to avoid these situations in the first place.  If we all had the Spiderman power of "spidey-sense" (being able to see danger coming), we could often head these situations off.  This only comes from developing great relationships with everyone who has an impact on your career.  I covered this in a past newsletter, but it may not hurt to refresh yourselves on where you might be in this process. 

If you had a tough performance review, or you want to avoid having one in the future, give me a call!

As always, I welcome your comments on this article.  Feel free to email, Twitter, find me on Facebook or LinkedIn, or post to my blog!

Jim Bowles
James Bowles and Associates