I received a “needs improvement” in my performance review. Now what?

I have written before about my first experience of a performance review. After spending an entire year thinking I was doing a great job, the dreaded ‘Needs Improvement’ rating was a jarring experience. If you have recently received an unfavourable performance rating, you may find it hard to accept and struggle to create a positive way forward. That’s natural and this post should help.

A rating is simply your manager’s perception of your behaviour - not you personally.

To help yourself grow, it is critical to first recognize that an unfavourable rating is a result of your manager’s perceptions and experience of you. Take it with a grain of salt. While it will feel personal, perhaps even like an unreasonable attack, it is helpful to see a review for what it is: another person’s perception of your actual performance, compared to their perception of what it should have been. It will help soften the blow if you see this less about you as a person, and more about the experience of others. Perhaps you can see it less as a judgment and more as an opportunity to gain awareness of how your performance is perceived.

What can you take ownership of?

In my experience, any unfavourable review has at least one element of truth. If we are being honest, there is always at least one area where an employee has opportunity for growth and development. If you are unable to identify a clear opportunity, we suggest that you take our free High-Performance Leader Self-Assessment. We offer complimentary debriefs of the results to help you identify opportunities for development that might align with your manager’s perception.

A performance review is supposed to be about Helping You Grow. We believe you should take ownership of your own development if your manager has failed to do so. If an unfavourable review has created a charged or contentious atmosphere with your manager, take ownership and show positive intent to work on development areas you can accept. This should help you move forward together, and is often a better option than an outright rejection of their review which will create additional conflict. If you perceive that an unfair rating will have a negative impact on your career you might have somebody to escalate things to. In the story I shared above, there was nobody who would listen. I was stuck with ‘needs improvement’.

Build your development plan.

After you have identified at least one opportunity for personal growth and development, it is critical that we build a formal plan. Our High-Performance Development Plan offers an example of a simple, yet structured approach. As you build your development plan, consider these three powerful principles of our Help People Grow framework:

  • Focus on 1-2 development goals. It is most impactful to focus on 1-2 areas of performance at a time, tying development goals to your current work and career aspirations as much as possible. You do not have to work on everything your manager has surfaced. Pick the big things you agree on. This allows you the freedom to avoid elements of the performance review that you think are harsh or unfair. 
  • Co-create actions with your manager. Development plans should be co-created by both the manager and the employee. If we dictate development goals to employees without their input, we undermine their ability to grow. By initiating an effort to shape the development plan in a positive, constructive way, you will likely have a better outcome with your manager and a plan you are personally aligned with.
  • Appreciate that the elements of high-performance are interconnected. Our research shows the 36 elements of the High-Performance Index™ are heavily interconnected. As you make progress in one area, you will also make progress in other areas. For example, if we improve our ability to Set Complete Goals, we will improve our ability to collaborate and also make it easy to hold people accountable. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and not know where to start in your development plan. Find comfort in the fact that whichever element of high-performance you choose to work toward will also have a positive effect on all the rest.

Put your plan into action. 

We will begin to make progress once we co-create a solid development plan, regularly review it with our manager in 1-on-1 check-in meetings, and regularly document relevant wins in key areas of development. Highlighting wins in the context of a plan will demonstrate your growth and help re-shape your manager’s perceptions. I used this approach after receiving my poor review in 1997, becoming the first person my manager could ever remember going from ‘Needs Improvement’ to ‘Outstanding’ in one year (though to this day I still believe the initial rating was unfair). 

Accelerate your development by recognizing your manager’s bias.

Our experience with High-Performance Leader 360° Reviews shows a consistent pattern. When a leader is annoyed by or frustrated with one element of an employee’s performance, that trait often impacts their perception of other areas. It is possible that an unfair review might be due to this trait influencing the perception of multiple  aspects of your performance. To accelerate development, you may wish to ask your manager which single, specific aspect of your performance they perceive to be the biggest issue. If you can make progress in this one area, our research suggests that your manager will be more likely to recognize progress across the board.

Get a second opinion with your own 360° Review.

Upon further reflection, if you still think that your performance was unfairly assessed, and you have nobody to escalate to, you might consider getting a second opinion. You are fully entitled to commission your own 360° Review by collecting data from colleagues. Your manager might also participate. A SupportingLines High-Performance Leader 360° Review provides a rapid, data-driven and efficient way to get additional perspectives on your leadership capabilities. It will provide deeper insight into a broader assessment of performance and perhaps show that your leader is being unfairly harsh. If it validates your leader’s assessment, that is also empowering – either way, you will walk away with more clarity on what you need to work on.

High-Performance Leader 360° Reviews

Each 360° Review comes with an in-depth report to give you deeper insight into your leadership capabilities.
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Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith

Jeff is the Founder & CEO of SupportingLines. He is also a certified Master Corporate Executive Coach, seasoned C-suite business leader and yoga instructor.

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