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Should You Defend Yourself During a Negative Performance Review?

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When you know you have a performance review scheduled, you probably get up a few minutes early to wash your hair, choose your very best “job interview outfit,” and ease your nerves with a few positive thoughts before your meeting with your manager.

But what if that meeting turns out to be the stuff of post-grad nightmares: you thought you were #winning at work, and your boss blindsides you with a review that outlines a lot of room for improvement.

[Related: What We Learned From 6 Famous Women Who Failed Forward This Year]

Should you defend yourself and offer your perspective on topics where you disagree with what your manager has said?

The answer is yes, definitely. Especially so, because more men than women defend themselves during performance reviews, says Colleen Cassell, a Local Levo: Charlotte member who spent 25 years in the corporate world at CBS Television selling advertising before starting a career coaching firm. While at CBS, she gave and received many performance reviews. “You need to speak up and that is often where women don’t shine compared to men.”

Here’s how to turn a disappointing, potentially emotional conversation into an opportunity to advance your career and demonstrate your professionalism.

[Related: 3 Subtle Ways to Say You’re Job Hunting on Your Social Media Profiles]

Start off the conversation right.

The key is to stay calm and level-headed, as opposed to getting overly emotional or defensive. Mikaela Kiner, who worked in human resources leadership roles at Microsoft and Amazon, before launching uniquelyHR, an HR outsourcing service for startups, has your script:

“’This review is really important to me, and I worked hard all year. I don’t agree with everything in the review, is it OK to talk about that now?’”

Then, back up your defense with examples.

It’s not uncommon to arrive at a performance review with some written materials prepared, highlighting your successes throughout the year. “Outline the work you have done that supports your effort and the times you have gone above and beyond your job description,” says Cassell. “Having the facts on paper versus just in your head shows that you are serious and have thought about the conversation.”

[Related: How to Be an Awesome Young Manager]

And make sure you’re really listening, too.

When receiving criticism, you may want to repeat back what your boss has said to you or ask for clarification. “Early in my own career, my director included a line in my review that suggested I should focus less on activity and more on results,” says Kiner. “I was devastated, because I saw the comment as a put-down. There were no concrete examples, and this was unlike any feedback I’d received before. When I got up the courage to ask about it, he told me he thought it was generally good advice so he’d included it in everyone’s review.”

Kiner says that it’s fine to ask for your written review 24 hours in advance so you can internalize the feedback and come ready with questions. Seeing the review in advance will also help you prepare counterpoints, if necessary.

Lastly, make sure history doesn’t repeat itself next time.

Generally speaking, there shouldn’t be surprises during your performance review. If there are, it means that you and your manager didn’t communicate effectively throughout the year. Tara Tranum, a senior recruiter for ExecuSource, an Atlanta-based staffing and recruiting firm, says that if your manager isn’t establishing regular meetings to talk about performance, to ask to have those touch points. “Initiate your own check-ins and open the door of communication,” she says. “Every manager wants you to do well and will work with you to improve. During these meetings, take notes and revisit those concerns at your next meeting. A performance review should be an evolving conversation, not a one-time discussion.”

Photo: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

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