More of Us Will Get Harsh Reviews This Year. Here’s What to Do About It.

This moment in workplaces is all about efficiency, and corporate leaders want employees operating at full capacity.
This moment in workplaces is all about efficiency, and corporate leaders want employees operating at full capacity.

Summary

Bosses are delivering tougher criticism as companies squeeze more productivity from workers. It pays to have a clear-eyed response plan.

Chances are your boss will give you some brutal feedback this year. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

This moment in workplaces is all about efficiency, and corporate leaders want employees operating at full capacity. Trimming costs where they can, they’re not fretting if an underperformer walks away.

Long gone is the pandemic era of work, when managers gave performance issues a pass. Back then, hiring, not firing, was the order of the day, and companies feared tough love would drive away stressed-out talent.

Businesses’ mantra now is: “Make sure every seat is filled by the right person," says Dave Carhart, people-strategy adviser at human-resources software company Lattice. In fact, performance management, as it’s known in HR speak, is the priority for nearly 40% of HR professionals this year, the highest share in recent years, survey data from Lattice show.

McKinsey, for example, recently put about 3,000 staffers on notice with unsatisfactory performance ratings, according to people familiar with the matter.

All of which means your review may sting a bit more than usual this year. Or sap your esteem or enthusiasm.

You can bounce back from a bad review, and even parlay it into an opportunity to demonstrate your problem-solving powers. What’s important is to keep your defensive impulses in check and come up with a clear-eyed response plan.

Once you walk it off, a negative review could be the reality check you need to get your job back on track—or to find a new one that is more fulfilling.

Open your eyes

Erik Post says he was blindsided a few years ago with a review that said he met, but didn’t exceed, expectations. In the months before, the senior customer success manager had been getting face time with top executives at his automotive software company. They were telling him he was doing great things.

He asked his boss why that wasn’t enough to be considered an outperformer. He was surprised to learn that despite impressive work at times, he was inconsistent on the more mundane parts of his job, like helping or sharing information he’d gleaned from clients with his co-workers.

“I just kind of let myself rest on those laurels," says Post, now 38 years old.

Painful as the criticism was, it made him realize he needed to get better at the day-to-day of being a team player, he says. He began passing on to colleagues more of the tools he learned from client calls. He also realized he had fallen into a rut. He changed jobs internally, and then moved to another industry altogether.

These days, he is the one setting up meetings with his bosses to figure out how he can improve, he says.

To avoid a nasty shock, take a cold-eyed inventory of your performance beforehand. Ask yourself what you did well and not so well in recent months, and make a list of your most valuable contributions. Seek out honest feedback from colleagues, too. Supervisors are often lousy at delivering candid feedback in the normal course of the job, making it easy to be lulled into thinking you’re doing well enough, company executives and career coaches say.

Among employees who received the worst grade in their reviews last year, 38% had rated themselves as highly valued, according to data from BambooHR, a software company that provides performance-review systems to employers. That’s a higher share of unsuspecting underperformers than prepandemic, according to the analysis of nearly two million assessments that BambooHR conducted on behalf of The Wall Street Journal.

“New managers, especially, will shy away from having the hard conversations," says Gianna Driver, HR chief at cybersecurity company Exabeam, which uses role-playing exercises to train managers in delivering tough feedback.

But criticism is being doled out more liberally than in the recent past. Some employers, like education technology nonprofit Khan Academy, are increasing the frequency of performance check-ins so staff can more readily see how they’re tracking against their goals. (The number of Khan Academy employees on performance-improvement plans more than doubled in 2023 from 2022, according to Regina Ross, chief people officer.)

Others, like compliance-training company Ethena, are making tough feedback harder to ignore. The company overhauled its reviews about a year and a half ago, attaching colors to each piece of critical feedback to make it clear how severe it is. Yellow signifies a nice-to-have improvement. Orange means failure to act could limit their trajectory at the company. Red suggests the person’s job is at risk.

Ethena managers overused yellow at first, says Melanie Naranjo, the company’s HR chief, but they came around to pulling out orange, and even red when necessary.

Call time out

Overly blunt feedback can be jarring to get, but you don’t have to deliver a fully formed response on the spot, says Alisa Cohn, an executive coach. Especially if you feel your face getting red or another physical reaction, “that is a sign for you that you are having a bad moment and you should probably take a timeout," she says.

Try saying: “This is a lot to take in. Would you mind if we stop now and have a follow-up meeting to continue this discussion once I have time to digest this?"

What definitely not to do: Blame other people, especially your boss.

It’s ultimately up to you to rebrand yourself as someone who tops expectations, says Cohn. When a client of hers was told a lack of strategic thinking was holding him back, he identified people at the company known for their strategic acumen. He noticed they were experts in the broader industry and thinking long-term. He developed those same skills—and took pains to say so. He was promoted nine months later.

Ask your boss to be specific about improvements to make, but tread lightly. Some managers can’t quite express themselves, and pressing for too many examples might sound confrontational. Instead, signal good intentions, which might mean using extra words to soften the message. Try: “Thank you for this input. I can’t grow if I don’t understand what I need to improve, so I really appreciate that you tried to give me constructive feedback. It would be really helpful for me to get specific examples."

And don’t forget, sometimes bad feedback signals that it’s time to pack your bags, says Susan Peppercorn, an executive coach.

“If the manager seems very distant and doesn’t seem interested or invested in your career," she says, “then you have to really think about, is this a place I want to work?"

Chip Cutter contributed to this article.

Write to Ben Eisen at ben.eisen@wsj.com

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