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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Angry with Your Boss over a Bad Performance Review? Here’s What You Should Do

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?

Signed,
Blindsided

Dear Blindsided,

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.

Here’s why.

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.

Apologize

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?”
  3. 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.

Good luck,
Ryan

PS. Here are two more articles on the subject that you might find helpful.

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

21 thoughts on “Angry with Your Boss over a Bad Performance Review? Here’s What You Should Do”

  1. georgewilhelmsen

    This boss is a jerk.

    If such things were the case, they should have been brought up during the year, documented in feedback, and noted for improvement (e.g., I gave you feedback that you were not engaged, and I have seen the following cases where you were engaged / were not engaged.).

    This is basically two things:
    1. The boss has abdicated their responsibility as a coach
    2. The boss is unreasonable and doesn’t like to give feedback.

    I agree with the Crucial Conversation parts of this. With that said, if the writer is unable to change her boss’s mind, they need to go to HR and file a formal complaint.

    Bringing up stuff like this at the year end review and not during the year and then giving a below average rating is inappropriate. HR at my former and current company would tell the manager (after looking at the feedback program, which should be able to be seen by the employee) that they have to change their rating.

  2. Susan Camp

    I had the same experience during my last rating period. I met with boss and was advised that I was ineffective in my role and someone had complained that I was rude to them. I met with a mentor who told me about Crucial Conversations and I used the tools in the book to clarify what I specifically needed to change. I met with my boss, had a note card outlining my plan and took notes during the meeting. My boss indicated that I handled the feedback well. She has since offer additional useful feedback .

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Nice!

  3. Geoffrey Oshima

    One thing Blindsided could do is come from a place of curiosity. He could ask his boss some questions: “What does a good job look like?”; “What areas have I excelled/done well in?”; “Has the focus, goals, or process changed since my last review?” Blindsided could also self-assess to discover and honor transferable skills and think of past successes he could leverage to close the gap. Oftentimes, companies will overhaul the review process mid-year and the result is employees having a difficult time embracing and understanding the “new”.

  4. Amy Ellison

    He needs to quit

  5. C. P.

    There’s multiple layers of issues here. First though, is that it isn’t revealed in Blindsided’s question if this is a performance review that matters (i.e. a year end that involves salary increases), or a midyear performance review that gives you time to turn it around.

    The difference between the two is the need for revision. If it is one that matters, revision could be a very real need in order to maintain salary or not get put on a monitoring plan. It is a vastly different crucial conversation than the one outlined above if this is the case, because it is not just about feelings on the line – it can be about survival. The three ground rules are absolutes in this case, because you can focus on what facts you have been given in your review, and give facts to refute them. Calmness and factuality are key, and at the end of the meeting, ask for the revision AND for regular meetings with your boss to get more feedback from them.

    If this is a midyear performance review, absolutely, I would leave it alone, but I would have the conversation with my boss about how to turn it around. Sometimes its not on you to turn it around – sometimes it turns out your boss was poisoned by one person’s opinion, or one meeting where you weren’t feeling great, or one particular incident that isn’t reflective of your last six months. Other times that conversation could reveal that the boss doesn’t have management training and just has no idea how to give feedback and you can negotiate how to get better feedback. And there could be a very real bias layer to this as well – I’ve been in situations where there were bosses who discriminated against employees of color and different sexual orientations.

    In either case, if it were me, I’d start looking to move on at the same time, because the relationship isn’t a good fit for either of us. As an employee, I would need a better coach, and working for someone who gives disingenuous feedback would give me anxiety about my working situation there all the time. The manager, on the other hand, needs to explore this situation with their boss and get any needed training in crucial conversations, how to give employees feedback, and possibly how to deal with unconscious bias.

    1. Steven Thomas

      Nice job on your reply. So much positive feedback that is useful beyond just the knee jerk reply of Quit. I agree that blindsided needs to carefully evaluate the Coaching skills of the “boss” and the relationship. I can recall a “crucial” conversation with a soldier under my command when I was given some very clear and not very respectful feedback on my coaching skills. That lead to some reflection and learning on my part. Possibly the Boss and blindsided after some reflection and improved communication can both learn and grow.

    2. Ryan Trimble

      Good points, C.P. Thank you.

  6. JW

    Boss is passive aggressive in the typical corporate way. Not worth the psychic energy. Shift focus to rapidly finding an alternative to this job.

  7. Graeme Dennis

    If like you mentioned that the boss gave you a good verbal review, then the boss gave you the not so good paper review. This tells me that the boss was not being honest during the whole process and made the interview/review pointless. I see you as having a right to be disappointed with the disingenuous review. I agree with Ryan on you having to try to build that gap to get back to some kind of working relationship. Yes this is unfortunate that you will have to do the work in the relationship, not the boss. The boss has proved his disingenuousness to yourself. I wonder if he is that way with the company too?

  8. Sarah R.

    Ryan gives solid advice here. But here’s something to consider: I wonder if this company has a fixed dollar amount for raises, and the critical review was the manager’s ham-fisted way of making the numbers work for his staff? I’ve seen that happen. It might be helpful for Blindsided to learn how the company budgets for raises.

  9. B.C.

    The author of this article is putting all of the onus of responsibility on the employee vs addressing the issue that the boss was obviously uncomfortable being authentic with him/her. You cannot pretend that everything is fine & then score them lower without specific feedback. The boss’s aversion to conflict &/or inability to communicate clearly the areas for improvement are apparent here. This employee needs to address issue with HR & request a review with mediation. It was not appropriate for the employee to get so angry, but the supervisor provoked the situation by not being transparent, misleading the employee into thinking that everything was fine.

    1. Andy

      The boss didn’t pose the question or problem here, the employee did. You cannot address both sides here, only the employee can if he/she chooses to follow the advice given. The advice is solid but not final. Other steps, like what you’ve suggested, can still be taken if a dialog is not established.

      1. B.C.

        My comment is not in regards to applying “Crucial Conversation” methodology. The boss in my opinion is the problem. He has already demonstrated that he is not able to communicate authentically, so he needs coaching for how to give employees feedback.

        1. Ryan Trimble

          I appreciate your point, B.C., and I invite you to play along with me here. Imagine this: you come out of a grocery store to find that a cart has rolled into your car and dented and scratched the door. It wasn’t your fault that the cart hit your vehicle, but the damaged vehicle is now your responsibility. What will you do? Fix it? Ignore it? Speak with a store manager and see if they have an insurance policy that covers such incidents? Yell curse words in the parking lot and complain to friends? Regardless of who’s to blame, the responsibility now lies in your world. Resisting it will likely lead to resentment and reaction. Accepting it allows us to seek solutions.

          I suggested Blindsided take responsibility because even if the boss is at fault, the problem is Blindsided’s. Our research shows that the best communicators take ownership for interpersonal conflict, and that a lot can be resolved through dialogue. It’s not to suggest that effective communication can solve every problem. But when it can’t, having embraced the problem as our own improves our ability to see and seek other solutions. I hope this makes it a little more clear why I gave the advice I did. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Keep doing it.

  10. Guest

    One important thing to consider is how long have you been working for your boss before this, and what has your relationship with him been prior to this? And also, has HE gotten a new boss lately, or has there been a major change even higher in the chain of command? It could very well be that the boss DOES still think highly of your work, but he and or people above him are now reporting to a “jackass” who is requiring him to unfairly skew the numbers downward. I know this because I had the same experience at a company I no longer work for. Had great reviews and ratings for well over TWELVE YEARS until my supervisor had to start reporting to Manager Jackass. Further personal investigation revealed that additional colleagues of mine had similar experiences. So what happens from here depends on the company culture and whether they allow Manager Jackass to stay. At the company to which I am referring, Manager Jackass stayed and I was ultimately downsized. At the company at which I am now employed, I also had a brief period of having my supervisor report to a Manager Jackass with similar results – and several of my colleagues even quit, she was so bad!!!! – but I hung on, confident that due to the company culture she wouldn’t be around for long, and I was right. After a couple of years, this Manager Jackass was kicked out – thank God and Greyhound she’s gone!!! – and all was once again right with the world. 🙂

  11. Pravin B

    Nice! Very Helpful

    1. Dr. Dennis O'Grady

      Moods frequently determine reputation, productivity, and success. Anger is a choice. As a family business psychologist with 40+ years of experience, I found Ryan’s article to be packed with practical wisdom and new insights. Ryan was masterful in the art of refocusing mood on changing self instead of getting mad when others don’t change. This single rule alone is game changing in life. Thanks for your thoughtful work, Ryan!

      1. Ryan Trimble

        Thank you, Dennis. 🙂

  12. Scott Jackson

    Hi Ryan, last year I had a question about how to know what is true and you recommended “Being Logical: A Guide To Good Thinking” by D Q McInerny, which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and studying! Now I have another question: How do I know what is just? Do you have a favorite book recommendation for this fundamental topic? Thanks again!

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Wow, that’s a serious question. The most famous book to explore the topic of justice is Plato’s Republic. It’s also the first, at least in the West. Socrates (the central character) is a hoot, and the book contains a provocative analysis of democracy. Plus, it has been said Plato is the only philosopher that people read for fun, as literature. So, do I recommend it? Yes! Glad you enjoyed Being Logical. Thanks for the note!

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