Stuck with a Bad Performance Review—Making It Worse

April 6, 2010

A bad review can be a temporary set back or it can be the beginning of a quagmire and drag you down. There is a lot on the line here—money, prestige, future prospects, so it is important to understand the consequences of your actions in the weeks following the review.

Regardless of the reason (Dealing with a bad employee performance appraisal) ,you are stuck with this review for a year. It is not the end of the world or of your prospects for a good career with the employer. The first impulse to change employers is never the best immediate option.

Career consultants have a lot of classical advice on how to get on track; People usually ignore it or cannot use it. The opposite approach is considered here. There are three actions that will make your situation worse. Watch yourself to see if they apply to you.


No doubt about it, you got an unfair deal. The reasons that it was unfair are specific to your situation. It may be that your work was not valued, your boss was out to get you, or that they don’t like your personal style. Make sure your side of the story is told so that you can be vindicated. Take opportunities to get the story out. Some people hedge on this and only tell “trusted” friends. Complaints can be made in e-mails to a few select friends.

Negative comments have an interesting way of making their way back to the managers. This news tends to harden their position that you are an underperformer. The opposite approach is to keep your negative opinions out of the light. If possible, even send messages that things are going to improve.

Take It Personally

Ouch. A lower than expected review hurts emotionally as well as professionally Don’t see the performance evaluation for what it is–an opinion about you that serves different purposes. The real way to make the situation worse is to take it as an attack on your personal self worth. This approach allows the hurt to fester and internalize so that the pain continues to renew itself. That way there is no opportunity to put the experience behind and move on. Eventually, a negative air occupies the space around you. Your energy will decrease. Your co-workers will notice it.

If you are having trouble moving on, talk to someone outside of workplace who can help you.

Stay the Course

Make no changes and hope that the situation rights itself.

Sure, some conditions improve on their own, such as a cold that runs its course in a week. Other situations just lead to more trouble. The odd sound from the automobile engine doesn’t go away. The situation is similar here. The bad evaluation is just the first noise; Your situation will likely get worse if you just keep plugging along. Just persevere and be confident that that management will see the error of their ways and reward you.

Don’t make the effort to calmly follow-up and understand what has to change from the arbitrary and unfair perspective of the bosses. Ignore the fact that managers like to see improvement and tend to reward it significantly in the next review cycle. If your boss cannot help you, actively seek someone who can. (Looking for a Teacher, Asking for a Boss)

Getting a bad review is like finding a footprint in newly poured concrete. You can ignore it and let it harden or do some work to smooth it over, with no long term consequences. It is a matter of the right efforts at the right time to minimize the effect of the review.

Cause of Common Accidents–Story

February 21, 2010

A master gardener, famous for his skill in climbing and pruning the highest trees, examined his disciple by letting him climb a very high tree. Many people had come to watch. The master gardener stood quietly, carefully following every move but not interfering with one word. Having pruned the top, the disciple climbed down and was only ten feet from the ground when the master suddenly yelled: “Take care, take care!” When the disciple was safely down an old man asked the master gardener: “You did not let out one word when he was aloft in the most dangerous place. Why did you caution him when he was nearly down? Even if he had slipped then, he could not have greatly hurt himself.” “But isn’t it obvious?” replied the master gardener. “Right up at the top he is conscious of the danger, and of himself takes care. But near the end, when one begins to feel safe, this is when accidents occur.”

Comment: It certainly is the case that accidents tend to occur at the end of the working day when people are comfortable with their surroundings, tired, and let their attention down.

A more technical description is in the short article: Preventing Common Household Accidents

Source: Schloeal, Irmgard; The Wisdom of the Zen Masters, New Directions 1975, Pg 52


Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (

Using Ignorance Wisely–From Spiritual Teachers to Parents or Managers

July 29, 2009

Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163) was a leading Zen Master of the Sung Dynasty. believed that each teaching must fit the person, time, and place.  His writings remain accessible.

Consider this excerpt from Swampland Flowers (Zen Sourcebook, Addiss et al editors, Hackett, Pg 124)

In the conduct of their daily activities sentient beings have no illumination.  If you go along with their ignorance, they’re happy; if you oppose their ignorance, they become vexed.  Buddhas and bodhisattvas are not this way: they make use of the ignorance, considering this the business of buddhas.  Since sentient beings make ignorance their home, to go against it amounts to breaking up their home; going with it is adapting to where they’re at to influence and guide them.

Here, Ta-hui is addressing the use of ignorance wisely as a tool to liberate beings from their attachments and move them in the direction of direct experience of their original nature.

Rephrasing makes it immediately helpful to improve situations at other levels:

. . . . Making use of ignorance, is the business of parents and managers.  Since people are comfortable with what they know, to go against it rankles them; going with it is adapting to where they’re at to influence and help them grow.


The obvious response to inappropriate action may not be the best.  If you can first recognize what people are thinking and address that, more appropriate actions can follow.

Often teachers, parents, managers impulsively oppose the behavior or ignorance of their students, children or employees, demanding compliance without understanding the situation.   Except in an emergency, that may not be the best action.

Examples of inappropriate, impulsive behavior abound, especially when you begin to look for them. (If this were a book for sale, there would be pages of anecdote examples—but see them for yourself.)

Observing inappropriate responses in situations around you is a good way develop awareness and skillfully use ignorance.

Begin to make the effort to better understand the new situations and then respond, rather than oppose then directly.  It takes some practice, but see for yourself if the results are improved.  (If this were a book for sale, there would be pages of anecdote examples—but who has time for this.)

When this teaching is used skillfully, it is not evident; When not used– a glaring omission.

Coaching for Improving Employee Performance–Imitation, Overcoming Failure, Intuition

August 27, 2008

Supervisors are generally required develop their employees’ skills. Most supervisors don’t put much creative effort their subordinate’s growth. There are good reasons for this—supervisors are evaluated on more major visible projects and have their own careers and ambitions to consider. Challenging an employee takes effort and time, with few immediate rewards. In addition, many employees are not particularly interested in being challenged to develop skills. Finally, the development component has become so ritualized with required courses and checklists that training requirements can be satisfied with little real effort.

On occasion, by chance or design (for example: Looking for a Teacher, Asking for a Boss ), there is a match between a supervisor who has the interest and ability to challenge for growth and an employee ready to respond to it. It can be an exhilarating period for both.

The three areas outlined below are not emphasized in the standard texts. However, developing these skills can increase the employees’ performance for their entire career. You, the supervisor, can coach these skills as situations arise during the work process.

1. Imitating My Success is Failure–Work to Meet the Goals, not the Style.

If you are a great boss, others will try to match success by imitating you.

There is some basis for imitation. Children are taught to imitate role models, often their teachers and others in authority. This tendency to imitate often extends into adulthood. Also, imitation is a good strategy to follow in the first job, for a short time, to get one’s bearings and understand the work environment. But this also is a temporary situation. Further, some bosses like to be imitated and it is well known that such people reward their clones. But in the long run, a tendency to imitate will hold people back and dull performance. Imitation is black and white; originality is technicolor

Employees should be challenged to meet the goals by their own methods. You, the supervisor, have your own unique blend of intelligence (i.e. analytical or interpretive skills, style of learning), personal style (i.e. speaking and interpersonal skills, political awareness, introvert/extrovert etc), and response styles to the immediate conditions (impulsive, more considered). This blend has worked for you.

The employees each have their own mix of skills. Rather than allow them follow your example, challenge them to meet the same goal by maximizing their mix of skills. People should be pushed to understand their strengths and to maximize their effectiveness in specific work situations. They should be encouraged to shore up their weaknesses to the point that they are not a liability.

Your real contribution is to challenge and coach them to use their blend of skills, not yours, to achieve the same goals.

2. Nine Times Down, Ten Times Up

Mistakes are a part of life. People have learned to fear the consequences of making an error of commission. This approach leads to tepid responses and eventually an erosion of initiative. Also, regardless of best efforts, outcomes of events often turn on conditions well out of reasonable control. These failures can be devastating.

The employees have to expect to be knocked down by events on occasion. It is important to learn not be crushed by them, but to stand back up, and move on.

Coaching not to be attached to the defeat and the inevitable blame can be emphasized. This attitude means that no setback is ever in vain. The event changes the situation and by taking the learning from that, the future events can move in a more favorable direction.

There is always the nagging concern that a setback is a “career-ender”. A single event rarely is; time moves on and memory fades. New situations and opportunities will always arise.

3. Go Beyond Thinking–Use Intuitive Skill

People generally prefer known approaches to solve problems. A rote approach leads to a rote solution. Using intuitive skills has a mystical overtone that is not always welcomed by quantitative business. However, breakthrough results often rely to some extent on acting from an intuitive sense of the situation.

The fact is that intuition is a sense like the more familiar ones (touch, feel, thinking) and can be developed to be more effectively used. Intuitive skill provides another tool, like a turbocharger, to more effectively get the job done. Intuitive skills allow you to go beyond your rational imagination.

Intuition can be developed and strengthened over time. You can start by reminding the employee to be quiet and still immediately before making a decision. Then, encourage them to find their own way to encourage this skill. (Note that Intuitive Skill is different from the overused “Thinking Outside the Box”; intuition goes beyond thinking.)

The most effective coaching for growth comes when a real situation demands a response. As a supervisor, have Imitation, Failure, and Intuition ready for the appropriate time.

Dealing with a Bad Employee Performance Appraisal/Review

August 17, 2007

The ritual of the employee performance appraisal brings with it anxiety and surprise. Sooner or later, almost everyone receives a review that is disappointing and confusing. The immediate reaction to the situation, the accuracy of the subsequent analysis, and follow-up actions can have a major impact on your future performance, evaluations, and compensation. Just in case a bad review comes your way, consider the points below

1. Immediate actions–Getting the bad news

It is not pleasant to hear that performance and contributions have been below standard. However, the immediate reactions are crucial to both understanding and later resolving the performance issues.

First, recognize that the decisions have been made and reviewed with higher levels of management. The decisions will not be reversed, particularly at a review meeting. It is a losing strategy to argue for a change at this time.

Similarly, expressions of hostility and anger are also inappropriate. These emotions tend to make the supervisor defensive, harden negative positions, and “confirm” that the low rating was deserved. Disappointment and frustration can be appropriately expressed. Actually, it is important to inject the right amount of tension into this type of discussion. This meeting should not be easy on anyone.

Two important responses

Listen carefully to the comments of the supervisor. Do not accept vagueness or clichés. Ask detailed questions to clarify the situation. Take notes. This information will be important to really understanding the situation.

Also, take the initiative to establish a follow-up meeting to occur after you have digested the news and have developed some plan to take action.

2. Analysis–Understanding the Situation

Keep in mind that everyone in an organization has their own agenda. Particularly at a performance review meeting, comments can not be automatically taken at face value. An analysis is necessary.

Review your notes and supplement it with other input, particularly the comments of trusted co-workers. Often, the spontaneous comments made by a supervisor in response to a question provide the most revealing information. Weigh all of the information against the scenarios listed below to refine your perspective on the situation:

—7 Scenarios for a Poor Performance Review

Chronic Absolute Underperformance

This possibility for a poor evaluation is difficult to accept, but it is important to look into it fully. It is not sufficient to accept management’s comments. You need to find some trusted people with whom you have worked with and ask for their frank input.

If, in fact, the objective evidence does suggest that your work does not measure up, then it will be a downhill slide until corrective steps are taken. True underperformance is tough to own. However once it is recognized, the next step is to decide whether you are willing and able to make required changes. Sometimes it is just not possible. Alternatively, there may be some other situation you can transfer into where you can excel.

Chronic underperformance is not generally an emergency requiring a rash action; there is time to consider alternatives and take constructive action. However, over a longer time frame, it is unstable to remain in a position where your contributions do not measure up to the norm.

One-Time Project Failure

Not every major project works out according to the objective. Time and conditions have their way of disrupting the best plans and actions. If this happened in your work for the review period, accept the result and have confidence in your ability to return to a high level of performance. However, a run of bad luck begs for another explanation. This is no place to hide.

Valuing Different Activities

From the meeting discussion, there should be a good idea of what was rewarded. Compare this with what you actually accomplished. Sometimes the two are different. Of all of the things that you do in your job, the supervisor is most concerned with approximately 20% of your work. Know what that 20% is! These activities carry the most weight. Check to be sure that your crucial priorities are the same as the supervisors.

Not Trusted by Management

Performance can be fine, but if, for rational or irrational reasons, you are not trusted, the performance review may be their opportunity to send the message. In this case, working harder to improve performance will have no consequence. Once trust is lost, it is difficult to regain and then only at a great cost. The choices are either accept the situation and wait for current management to move on or to find a new situation in which this bias is not against you.

Relative Underperformance

Most organizations, whether they admit it or not, use a forced ranking system. Similar employees are grouped together, ranked from first to last, and reward appropriately. In this system, it is the relative performance that is measured. The superstars come out on top, with the star performers below them.

The argument that you a star in a group of superstars gets you nowhere. Just accept the situation as a short term loss. If you really are a star, just do good work and your light will be seen, either in this group or in a different setting.

Arbitrary Positioning

A cousin of relative underperformance. In some organizations with uniformly strong employees, misguided management may choose to rotate people to the top or bottom over a period of time in order to keep everyone relatively happy. Is it your turn? No one will confirm this to you.

Easy Mark

As noted previously, in a stack rank system, some individual have to come out at the bottom. Weak managers occasionally select the person, other things being equal, they can most easily assign it to. That is why it is important to keep some tension in the meeting. It may have happened this time, but already you need to lay the ground work so that it doesn’t happen again.

3. Strive for a Balanced Response

No matter what your analysis and conclusions are, do not do anything rash. Actions taken in anger or haste invariably lead to a poor outcome for the individual. On the other hand, a bad performance review cannot be accepted without a response. Use your resources—the information that management has stated, comments from trusted co-workers, the list of scenarios above, and your own intuitive ideas in order to do begin to change the situation.

Then, a poor evaluation is just a temporary set-back and a wake-up call to both fully understand the situation and take control of it.  Or you can make it worse.  (Stuck with a Poor Performance Review–Making It Worse.)

Others on this topic: Struggling to Give a Good Performance Review Maintaining Credibility

Employee Performance Appraisals Ranking Methods –Lessons from Arrows Paradox

Working Beyond Everyday Expectations—Learning from Rain

July 26, 2007

It is not a popular idea these days to do a task without a specific reward or compensation. There is nothing wrong with that. People need to be compensated for their effort.

The possibility for an outcome beyond imagination or expectation is often overlooked, yet experience shows that such results happens all of the time.

It is often not recognized that the approach to doing the activity can have a major effect on an unlikely positive outcome. There are many different attitudes towards performing any activity. The trick is to harness as much energy into the activity as possible. Nature is a guide here.

Nature just operates according to its own truth. Watch the rain for example. It falls from the sky, wets things, and in doing so, nourishes them, and allows them to grow. Then the rain moves to the lowest position, disappearing into the ground, just to repeat the cycle. The occurrence of the rain has effects, usually positive, but at times negative. However, the rain takes no note of these effects, does not compliment itself on the result, or wait for a reward; it simply and directly continues the cycle. There is only direct activity

Our activities can be just as direct as those of nature. This is true for all activities—projects at work, at home doing the laundry, driving, playing with children,

Actions are often not direct however–there is scheming to be done, ambitions to be achieved, goals to be met, expectations to be fulfilled, and frustrations to be vented. Scheming, ambitions, expectations, and frustrations have their place in the human activities. However, they dilute the energy available for the activity itself and dull the potential for unexpected positive results. The mind sticks, the energy is compromised, and there is a loss of creativity.

Typical of the distractions are the internal conversations that begin with questions and lead to an on-going story that runs at the same time as the activity. For example:

“Why am I doing this?

“What am I going to get out of this?”

“How will this help me?

“Will this project ever work?”

“What is for dinner?”

Instead of allowing these distractions to grow, simply acknowledge them, allow them to drop off, and return attention fully to the primary task at hand.

This approach to an activity takes discipline and an effort. It means becoming aware of and suspending the normal processes of mind activities of mind. Repetition and practice may be needed.

Then, there are the consequences of the activity. In the ordinary perspective, there are planned results to be obtained. Sometimes things work out according to our plan, but on occasion things just go in their own direction. From a different perspective, the consequences are the due to time and conditions beyond planning and rational control.

The approach of bringing full attention is simply to harness our own energy so that the effects are more likely to be creative and useful.


Digging Deeper for Ideas (2)–Playing with Syncretism

May 31, 2007

For people who believe their current perspective is sufficient, there is no incentive to dig deeper. Their ideas remain static. However, new ideas and insights are always arising. The simplest approach, especially when the new ideas have opposing elements to the current perspective, is to ignore the ideas or push them aside. However, something is lost and, ultimately, success will be limited.

There are several methods that use opposing ideas in order to achieve more innovative results. One is the Dialectic Method (Thesis –> Antithesis–> Synthesis), which was previously discussed (see Digging Deeper for Ideas—Stealing from Hegel).

Syncretism is another antidote to simplistic solutions. Syncretism is the attempted reconciliation of contradictory ideas or principles. The result may preserve the differences, using opposing elements as appropriate. Thus, the resolution may not be an unambiguous statement, but a fragile system that simply works better than the ones that served as the foundation.

The process holds fewer certainties, but more opportunity for innovation. Syncretic solutions are not merely looking for compromise on the common elements, but using the opposing elements and building bridges to them. Internal contradictions are permitted.

In references, the syncretic process is usually described for large issues that evolve historically over time. As a consequence, the underlying principles are not often considered for resolving conflicting ideas at work or at home.

Below, two examples of global scale syncretic issues are briefly described in order to give a flavor the applications. Then, a method to use the concepts of the syncretic approach to analyze everyday problems is outlined.

Two Classic Examples

(1) In the area of world political systems, a static idea is that the American model of democracy is the best system to be exported to other countries. This transition is “accomplished” by sending experts to teach the people about democracy and hold elections. The results of this naive belief are obvious.

The static approach neglects the fact that people in these countries have lived for centuries in different cultural conditions opposed to democracy. A new government must also reconcile the opposing elements of the cultural heritage with the principles of freedom. For example, India has a participatory democracy, but the political process is different from America since the major parties represent traditional religious faiths. It works in its own way.

(2) There are syncretic possibilities for the practice of medicine on the global scale. Western and Chinese medicine each have demonstrated strengths. However, there are significant differences. Their descriptions of the functions of the body are in non-reconcilable concepts. Also, Western medicines are relatively recent, developed in the laboratory, and evaluated in defined clinical studies. Chinese treatments, such as acupuncture and herbs, evolved over centuries by observation and experience.

Currently, the two disciplines are practiced separately. However, the current approach to medicine will change as information and expertise in both disciplines becomes more common. What form will medicine will take, particularly in developing countries, remains to be seen. From a static view, the western standards could be retroactively enforced on the Chinese methods. However a syncretic approach, which allows contradictions and preserves the differences of the two disciplines, seems to hold most benefit for patients.

Playing With Syncretism—Application to Everyday Problems

The principles can be applied to problems which routinely arise and can lead to better solutions.

One method to take advantage of these differences is to analyze the opposing ideas with a set of questions based on sycretism.

—-Why does each approach have merit?

—-What do the two approaches have in common?

—-What are the specific non-reconcilable elements of each approach?

—-Under what circumstances does each opposing element provide an advantage?

—-How can the advantages of both opposing elements be preserved, even in a fragile structure?

—-Do the new proposals preserve the advantages ?


Such questions are rarely asked since there is a bias to force a solution.

Working with these questions requires both a re-examination of one’s preferred approach as well as considering the problem using a different framework. However, without really much use of time or energy, a different, perhaps better, result can be obtained.