Conquering the Cringe: How to Manage a Difficult Performance Review

Performance reviews. Those dreaded words can send shivers down anyone’s spine, but let’s be honest, for some, they’re an epicenter of awkwardness and tension. Whether you’re on the receiving end of critical feedback or delivering it, navigating a difficult review can feel like entering a minefield without a detector. Fear not. With a thoughtful little preparation and some tactical finesse, you can emerge from your review not just unscathed, but empowered.

If you’re the Recipient:

1. Breathe and Listen: Before jumping to conclusions, take a moment and truly listen to the feedback. Remember, a difficult review is an opportunity for growth, not a personal attack.

2. Ask Clarifying Questions: Don’t assume you understand everything. Seek clarification on specific points of feedback and ensure you’re both on the same page.  Ask for examples if they are not volunteered.  

3. Take Ownership: While factors out of your direct control might have influenced outcomes, acknowledge areas where you could have performed better. Taking ownership demonstrates maturity and a willingness to improve.

4. Focus on Action, Not Excuses: Explaining external factors is fine, but don’t dwell on them. Instead, shift the focus to actionable steps you can take to address the concerns raised.

5. Build a Spirit of Partnership with your Manager.  Set SMART Goals: Collaborate with your manager to set Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals for improvement. This provides a clear roadmap for success.

For the Deliverer:

1. Frame it as Development, Not Judgment: Approach the review with a supportive and constructive mindset. Remember, your goal is to help your team member grow, not tear them down.

2. Focus on Behavior, Not Traits: Stick to specific examples of observed behavior that impact performance, results, or the behavior’s effects on others.  Avoid personal attacks or generalizations about character.

3. Offer Concrete Examples: Don’t just say “you need to communicate better.” Provide specific instances where communication broke down and suggest improvement strategies.

4. Balance Strengths and Weaknesses: Acknowledge your team member’s strengths alongside areas for improvement. This creates a balanced and objective perspective.

5. Create a Collaborative Plan: Work together to develop a concrete action plan for improvement, including resources and support mechanisms.


  • Open communication is key: Be honest and transparent in your feedback and dialogue.
  • Empathy goes a long way: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and be mindful of their emotions.
  • Focus on solutions, not problems: Turn the conversation towards actionable steps for improvement.
  • Learn from the experience: Both receivers and deliverers can take valuable lessons from difficult reviews.
  • If the review becomes acrimonious (let’s hope not), pause the session and reconvene when you are both in a better mental state.

With these arrows in your quiver, you can successfully navigate even the most challenging performance reviews, turning them into opportunities for growth and positive change. Remember – communication, empathy, and a focus on the future are your instruments of choice in this performance review!

Bonus Tip: Consider partnering with a colleague or someone from HR to conduct mock review beforehand to practice your delivery or reception skills. This can help reduce your own anxiety and contribute to a more productive conversation.

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