How to survive a performance review

Sandra Rosier gives tips on how to turn a bad performance review into an opportunity for self improvement
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Sandra Rosier gives tips on how to turn a bad performance review into an opportunity for self improvement
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 My last review did not go well. I completely broke down. People were happy with my work but the negative comments were all pretty subjective without examples. Am I supposed to sit there and smile?  How do you defend yourself against vague comments like “she is not creative enough” without looking defensive? – Deer in Headlights

Deer, the best way to serve your interests, particularly if a performance review strikes you as unfair, is to advocate for yourself rather than to defend yourself. There is a subtle but critical difference between these two approaches. Amazingly, lawyers are not all naturally gifted at conducting fair and constructive performance evaluations. Reviews are often more in the nature of cross-examination and character assassination than about having an example-based conversation focussed on building competencies and skills.

You need not feel like a deer caught in headlights. However, when you try to defend yourself by denying or explaining away every negative comment, you are being defensive. Even if the feedback provided is ludicrous or unfair, it is being presented as a fait accompli. Can you honestly imagine a scenario where a reviewer will change her mind about fuzzy, non-actionable feedback? Keep in mind that most reviewers would rather be somewhere else and are not receptive to contradiction. You will only succeed in making yourself look bad.

By contrast, you can advocate for yourself and play an active role during your review by assuming a calm and professional tone. Actively participate by being prepared with your list of questions, past accomplishments and goals for the next year. Acknowledge any concerns, including the negative feedback you think is wrong. Ask for clarifications and examples. Make sure that fairness and accountability are in the room with you. In your calmest and most polite voice, request some specifics on situations where it is claimed that you fell short of expectations, ask for examples of what steps you can take to improve, ask to see the performance benchmarks, promotion requirements, evaluation criteria, action items.

Delete the petty remarks, personal attacks and subjective criticism. Do not bother responding to those. They have no place in a professional review, other than to make you feel bad, so don’t get side-tracked. Focus your questions and remarks on competencies, skills and substantive learning. If the tone of the review differs from your expectations, take out your list of accomplishments and share it with your reviewers, asking for feedback and suggestions. This is about assuming ownership for your development by advocating for yourself.

I have said it before, feedback is supposed to be a good thing. Feedback is nothing more than information that you need to make your next development or career move. It may not be easy to hear negative comments on your performance but it has got to be better than the alternative: not knowing where you stand.

The more deficient the performance review process or reviewer, the more critical it is that you approach your evaluation as an opportunity to inform yourself, build competencies and get better at what you do. Take control of the outcome by driving the process. Deer, you may not feel like it during your review, but the most important judge of your performance is yourself. You’re the only one who can do anything about it.


Sandra Rosier is a former Supreme Court of Canada clerk who has worked at large firms in Toronto and Boston. Having come to her senses, Sandra currently works as a tax advisor at a Toronto-based organization. Have a question for Sandra? Email us.