It’s normal to underperform on occasion. After all, everyone has an off quarter — or even an off year — from time to time. But don’t just sit back and wait for that painful performance review. You need to have a conversation with your manager sooner rather than later. How should you position the news? How can you maintain your reputation while being honest? And what sort of explanation — if any — should you give?
What the Experts Say
When you’re having a bad time at work — your big project isn’t coming together as planned or you’re missing your sales targets by a wide margin — talking to your manager may be the last thing you want to do.
Dick Grote, a management consultant and author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals, says you must do two things to preserve your professional standing. First, “come clean” about your underperformance “before your boss has had a chance to discover it another way,” and second, focus on “solutions, not excuses.” Here are some ways to think about — and prepare for — the discussion.
The first step in owning up to your underperformance is determining the source of the problem.
For starters, says Manzoni, you need to consider “whether you really areunderperforming.” Often our efforts don’t “immediately translate into desired organizational outcomes.” In other words, “you could be doing all the right things but, unfortunately, it’s taking a long time for it to lead to positive results.” Look at what both the “leading and lagging indicators” tell you. If both point to underperformance, Grote recommends a period of “soul-searching.” You need to figure out if this “is a one-off situation or more of a trend.” If the missed goals are an anomaly or due to extenuating circumstances that’s one thing, but if they’re indicative of a pattern, they ought to “trigger some career thinking,” he says. This bad stretch might mean that “you are really struggling” and perhaps in “need of more development,” he says. It could also mean that “you’re not in the right job.” (More on this below.)
Next, says Grote, you need to think about your underperformance from your boss’s perspective. Ask yourself, how will my boss react to this news? “If you have a boss who has a propensity to blow up, you need to prepare for that,” he says. “You don’t want to go in naïvely thinking ‘I hope my boss is in a good mood today.’” Think especially about how you will explain what happened, says Manzoni. It could be, for instance, that you “took a risk” that didn’t pan out as you’d hoped. “You thought the market would turn. The odds were good. It was a reasonable bet, but it didn’t work out.” Or maybe you’re dealing with an outside distraction — an ailing parent, for instance — that’s the reason you’re “not at your best.” A “reasonable boss will be able to understand that,” he says.