How to Survive a Performance Counseling Meeting

Alison Green

You thought everything was going fine at work, but your manager just pulled you into a meeting and told that she has serious concerns about your performance. Or maybe you've sensed for a while that your manager wasn't happy with your work, and now you're hearing details. Either way, what should you do when you hear your performance isn't up to par?

Here are eight keys to surviving a performance counseling meeting and coming out OK on the other side.

1. Listen. Your mind might be reeling, especially if you didn't see this coming, and you might be anxious or even panicking. But the most important thing you can do in this meeting is to stay calm and listen to the feedback - because understanding your manager's concerns will be key to being able to resolve them.

2. Don't get defensive. It's human nature to want to defend yourself against criticism. But focusing on defending yourself can keep you from hearing and processing what your manager is saying. Even if your manager is wrong, you need to understand her concerns, because your job security depends on how she views your work. Moreover, getting defensive will generally make the situation worse; your manager is looking for signs that you're hearing her feedback and will be able to act on it. If you're solely focused on fighting it, she's likely to become worried that you won't be able to make the changes she's asking for.

3. Ask questions to make sure you understand what you're being told and what you must do to improve. If your manager has been vague, ask her to help you understand the issues by giving you a specific example or two.

4. Show that you're taking it seriously. Responding with a brusque "OK" and nothing more makes it look like you're just interested in ending the conversation. Instead, show that you're taking the feedback seriously, by using language like, "I'm glad you're telling me this. I hadn't realized this was a concern and I'm glad to have the chance to work on it." Or, if you can't stomach that, at least say something like: "I want to take some time to think about this, but I appreciate you telling me." Responses like this can change the nature of the meeting, diffusing any adversarial feel and making it more collaborative.

5. If you genuinely disagree with the feedback you're hearing, and you're sure it's not just your ego getting in the way, it's OK to share that. But how you say it and what tone you use will be key. For instance, you might say: "I hadn't realized it was coming across that way, so I'm glad to know. From my perspective, it seems like _____."

6. Be honest with yourself about the feedback. As difficult as it might be to admit, is there truth to your manager's feedback? What factors do you think have been causing the problems? Understanding this will be important in figuring out how to move forward.

7. Set out a plan. Tell your manager what you plan to do to address her feedback, even if it's as simple as, "I'm going to take some time to think about this and figure out how to resolve these issues."

8. Thank you manager for the feedback. Yes, really. Thanking your manager may be the last thing you feel like doing right now, but remember that it's far better to be made aware of your boss's concerns than to be blindsided by them one day when it's too late to fix them. Repeat as needed: "I appreciate you talking to me about this."

And remember, it's not the end of the world to receive critical feedback. Most people have, at some point in their professional lives, been told that they need to do something different or better. Only a very small percentage of those conversations ended with the person losing their job. So listen, be receptive, and try not to let your emotions get in the way.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.