Dear Crucial Skills,
At my last performance review, my boss was extremely positive and gave me great feedback, so I was horrified to later discover that he gave me a score of “below average” on the formal paperwork.
I arranged a meeting with him to find out why. That’s when he told me I was disengaged, did not challenge myself, and did not collaborate well with others.
I don’t believe any of that is true, and, even if it is, he should have brought it up during our initial discussion. I got angry in the meeting, so he read me a formal HR statement about the review process and has since refused to talk with me about it. What should I do now?
The short answer? Start over.
I mean that in the most encouraging way possible. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
That said, I don’t think you should try to get your performance review score revised, nor do I think you should try to convince your boss that what he did is wrong. I do think you should try to meet him where he is.
It sounds like the interaction has reached a temperature that almost guarantees you’ll be met with resistance if you persist. Even if you succeeded in persuading him to change the score he gave you, it probably wouldn’t mean much long term. “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
The fact that you got angry and he’s now refusing to talk tells me this conversation isn’t going anywhere until one of you restarts it in the spirit of good faith. And while you could wait and hope for your boss to do that, the power is in your hands.
Here’s what you can do.
Focus On Yourself First
You won’t successfully resolve this disagreement if there are ill feelings in your heart, because whatever you are feeling you will end up expressing, whether in body language, tone, or words.
In crucial moments like the one you face, we often believe that others are the cause of all that ails us, but it’s this belief that prevents us from communicating in a way that could lead to progress.
So, recognize that as much as you may want your boss to change your review or confess he handled it poorly, the only person you can change is yourself.
Get Clear on What You Want Long Term
When conversations turn crucial, we tend to get carried away with trying to win, protect our beliefs, punish others, and so on.
Such tactics are concerned with short-term outcomes, and achieving them usually comes at the expense of long-term outcomes that have much greater value. I suspect, for example, you don’t go to work every day in order to get a good performance review or that what you really want is for your boss to “eat crow.”
So, step back and try to identify any short-term desires you may have, then replace them with a long-term, healthy perspective.
Reflecting on the following questions should help.
- What do you ultimately want?
- What do you care about—in the long run?
- What’s worth caring about—in the long run?
- What do you want for your boss—in the long run?
- What do you want for the relationship—in the long run?
Consider Your Own Contribution
One more thing to reflect on: Are you overlooking any ways in which you might’ve contributed to your situation? Have you done anything that would give your boss reason to do what he did, regardless of whether you find his reasons excusable? For example, note the bit of irony in your question: getting angry at your boss may have validated his assessment, right or not.
Interlude: Internal vs External Work
So far I’ve outlined the internal work you should do before you raise your concerns again. This will enable you to reframe your perspective and get control of your emotions. When you’ve done this sufficiently—whether it takes you seconds or days—it feels like letting go.
Why? Because you will have let go—of any story that suggests “he’s wrong and I’m right” or “his behavior is unjustified and mine’s justified,” and so on. And when you’ve let go, you’ll feel malice dissolve and frustration dissipate. That’s when you know you’re ready to talk.
You may also feel vulnerable. Vulnerability is a good sign. It means you’re about to take courage, not revenge or some other spiteful action.
Now, on to the external work.
You don’t have to apologize for your position—it’s ok to disagree with your boss’s assessment of your performance or how he handled the review process—but you may want to apologize for getting angry. It’s unlikely you’ll get a dialogue going without doing so.
Here’s what that might look like: “Hey, I’ve thought a lot about how I reacted to my performance review and I’m really sorry. I was wrong to lose my temper and I hope you can forgive me.”
Share Your Good Intent
Now share the good intentions you should have established when you did your internal work—for yourself, your boss, and your relationship. Conclude with a request to try again.
“I really want to do a good job here, and I want your honest feedback. I also want you to feel like you can give me honest feedback any time. And I want to improve how we talk about this stuff. I feel our last conversation did not go well and I’d like to try again. Would that be alright with you?”
If your boss declines your request, it doesn’t necessarily mean game over. You may have to reach out a few times before he feels ready to talk, or you may have to wait until your next review. Let him know your door is open and allow him his right to choose.
If, on the other hand, your boss accepts, take the next steps.
Seek Mutual Purpose
Make it your primary goal to uncover some common ground. What do you both care about? I’ll assume he wants you to do good work and that you want to do good work. Can you find common ground with regard to the performance review?
“I’d like to know where you’re coming from. It would help me if we can get on the same page, so I want to know how you see performance reviews. What’s their purpose in your view, and what do you hope to achieve with them?”
Seek Some Ground Rules
After you’ve identified a shared goal, propose some ground rules to reduce the chance of miscommunication. Even if your boss is following a formal procedure, it should allow for some communication guidelines.
Here are three suggestions.
- Focus on Facts. Ask him to share concrete examples and facts surrounding your performance. For example, “disengaged” is an interpretation of behavior; showing up late to work every day is a fact. And commit to using facts yourself. If he shares feedback you want to contest, do so with data.
- Describe Gaps. Ask him to connect the dots from your behavior to clear standards or expectations. “I think I can make better progress if you could take a little extra time to explain why my performance is considered below average and describe what average or good performance looks like. Can we do that?”
- Request Transparency and Time. Finally, going forward, ask for forthright feedback on your first meeting and see if he’ll agree to a second meeting to review things before paperwork is filed. Explain you would like a couple days to process his feedback before embracing it.
You Can Do It
Notice all these tips combined put the onus on you. Nothing I’ve said will empower you to change your boss’s behavior or mind. But when we show up differently, others respond differently.
I often say that the skills of Crucial Conversations, when demonstrated, look like taking the high road. And while taking the high road can be difficult, it will lead you higher.
PS. Here are two more articles on the subject that you might find helpful.