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How to turn a bad annual review into a self-improvement action plan

We’re all human. Anyone can get into situations that are less than successful. And anyone can meet with a bad job review.

But the ship can be turned around, says Theresa Rose, a professional development consultant and speaker.

It takes a positive response to the partners, a positive emotional attitude, and an ongoing effort to improve in the areas that matter to the partners.

And it can be done. There’s no reason to let the partners think they need to be looking for a new administrator.

Meet negative with positive

No matter how bad, how unfair, or how incorrect the review and no matter how low the raise, the same rule applies: be positive.

A negative or defensive response says the administrator believes his or her actions were right. And it tells the partners the behavior isn’t going to change.

It also shows the administrator is likely “a disgruntled short-timer” who’s going to look for another job. That’s not what the partners want, Rose says. “They want happy people who they know are going to stay around.”

The first step is to take responsibility for your behavior. Don’t throw blame for the bad performance on someone or something else—a staffer, an attorney, the software, whatever. Using anything other than first person shows refusal to take responsibility, and the partners don’t want an administrator who can’t take ownership of problems.

Rose suggests that during the performance review, you don’t use words such as can’t and don’t as in I can’t get my job done because or I won’t be able to do that or I don’t know how to correct this problem. That achieves nothing and shows the administrator as both incompetent and “a perpetual malcontent.”

Get positive, says Rose. Use phrases such as I understand your concerns, I appreciate the constructive feedback, I appreciate hearing how I can do my job better, and I am committed to making positive changes.

Statements like that tell the partners a lot. They show that the administrator can accept criticism, wants to improve in the job, and, says Rose, “isn’t going to cut and run.”

Ask for an example

What if the partners’ criticism is unclear?

Ask for an explanation, but again, be positive. For example, don’t say I don’t understand what you’re telling me. Exercise diplomacy: Can you give me an example to help me understand this more?

What if the criticism is flat out wrong?

Stay positive and pull out yet more diplomacy.

Instead of I don’t agree with you or You’re wrong, show a readiness to make whatever changes the partners want: I understand your concerns about objectives not being met. From my standpoint I feel I did meet them. But I am committed to ensuring that you see clearly what I am doing to meet them.

Stiffen the upper lip

Don’t take a bad review personally, Rose says. A review is not an inquisition but a feedback mechanism. Listen.

The strongest position is to be grounded, calm, and looking the partners in the eyes with openness so they sense the message is being absorbed.

Many people take notes during an interview under the assumption that the notetaking indicates the comments are being taken seriously.

Instead, Rose suggests you take notes only after asking permission to do so. And then do so judiciously.

Focus instead on listening, making eye contact, and interacting with the partners.

Obsessive notetaking can be seen as an avoidance tactic. It’s a way to keep from making eye contact and thereby a way to stave off confrontation.

Leave with a tone of success

When the meeting ends, thank the partners for the time and feedback—and their candor.

Then ask permission to meet with them regularly to discuss the progress in the areas they have cited for improvement: Would it be possible for us to meet every three months to review my progress in these areas?

“The goal,” Rose says, “is to leave that meeting showing a commitment to the long-term success of the job.”

Chart out an improvement course

Now it’s time to fall back and regroup.

Most people leave a bad review thinking they have to justify their existence. And it all goes down from there. They assume they will get fired. They get depressed. They slack off. And their personal choices get worse and worse.

Don’t take that attitude, Rose says. Instead, map out a positive route and move forward. “Make an effort to show improvement in the way the partners want and assume the best.”

She recommends starting post-review life by drawing up a notebook with a page for each area the partners have cited as inadequate or needing improvement.

In it keep a log of what’s done in those areas. Suppose the partners have said the billing turn-around time needs to be shortened. Write down the steps taken to shorten it and then document the results.

Then at the follow-up meetings, discuss those actions and their good results.

And keep going.

End each meeting with a request for further guidance: Is there anything else that I can do better for you?

That question will catapult the administrator’s image in the partners’ eyes. It tells them they have an administrator who is not just following their orders but is committed to going beyond that and making improvements.

“Don’t settle for moving up to a level of mediocrity,” Rose says. “The goal should be to move past that and get in line for the next career jump.”

Big results from little things

Now to take those improvements to another level altogether.

Go beyond the improvement points in the notebook and identify areas of personal professionalism that weren’t brought up in the review. Draw up a list of questions about them, and each week do “a self check-in.”

The questions are the Did-Is, such as these:

Did I keep my desk clean last week? Get to work on time every day? Limit my personal calls? Meet with people when possible instead of e-mailing them? Smile at staff? Take on tasks without being asked? Dress appropriately? Go the extra mile to help a client? Learn something new about my profession that will help me be a better administrator?

Look at each item with the attitude of “I’m going to choose to do this.” That makes it a choice, not an obligation.

Don’t share the results with anyone, Rose says. The personal check-in is a private matter. “It’s about taking ownership of success and embracing a better work ethic in a private way.”

But those small things have a tremendous impact on performance. Gradually they start influencing the list of improvements the partners have asked for, and the partners will notice it.

The continued improvement will not only repair the damage of the poor review but will highlight you as one of the stars of the office, says Rose.

The partners will see their administrator as “present and accountable and joyful and there for the duration.”


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