How to Receive Performance Review Feedback Like a Pro

Going into performance reviews often makes people nervous, but these conversations can actually be incredibly helpful and valuable in your career. There are several things I wish I’d known much earlier in my career about how managers perceive you when you’re receiving feedback during a performance review. What follows is a summary of the top things that can help you avoid common mistakes, and be regarded as a highly coachable employee. This will make your boss want to not only retain you, but invest in your further, to keep working with you to help you grow in your career.

1. Say “Thank You”

While it’s a very simple concept, thanking someone for feedback with sincerity can be hard to remember in the moment. But, it’s a game-changer. Here’s why:

  • Starting with “thank you” conveys the door is open. When your boss has to give you critical feedback, it’s not easy for them either. Good managers truly care about other people. They don’t want to say things that might hurt your feelings or cause you to leave your team or company. Your manager likely spent a lot of time and thought preparing for this conversation. So when you say “thank you” at the very onset of the conversation, they immediately breathe a sigh of relief. They think, “I’m so glad you’re making this easy for me.” If you start with a “thank you,” you’re setting a positive tone, and opening a door to collaboration and productive discussion.
  • Being grateful for the feedback shows that you value it. By simply saying “thank you,” you are conveying that you believe there is validity to the feedback you’re receiving. Every manager wants you to see their feedback as valid, but to also act on it and use it to help yourself improve. But many feedback conversations don’t even make it to that point. Often, a manager can’t tell if their comments are actually resonating with you unless you specifically acknowledge this and say so. If you’re quiet and say nothing, they might assume you disagree. If you ask a ton of questions, on the other hand, you might appear defensive and unwilling to accept the feedback. If you thank them, however, you make it easier for them to continue and give you even more nuance and context about what you need to work on, which can only serve to help you.
  • Thanking your manager prevents you from seeming defensive. One mistake I made early on in my career is that when people tried to give me feedback, I asked way too many questions. I’m by nature a curious person who likes to probe further and ask a lot of questions, to really get to the bottom of issues. I also like to see things from many angles and dissect most points (including my own). I rarely take someone’s opinion as a simple fact, because there’s usually more nuance involved. But this isn’t a great way to be during a performance review, even if your intentions are noble! If you ask too many clarifying questions, you might be misinterpreted as questioning whether or not the feedback itself is valid. During a review, resist the urge to ask too many questions too soon, before you’ve even acknowledged the other person’s opinion. Save your questions for later on in a follow-up conversation. Focus on thanking, validating, and opening the door for the feedback to keep coming, instead.
  • Saying thank you is simply what you should do when you receive a gift. In every culture on earth, gift-giving is seen as a positive experience, and everyone all over the world says “thank you” when someone goes out of their way to give them something. No matter how “constructive” the feedback is that you’re receiving, choose to see it as a gift. Your manager is taking the time to try to help you to the best of their ability. They are giving you time in their busy schedule, and they are devoting an entire session just to talking about you in order to help you grow. Even if you don’t like what they have to say, you should acknowledge the thought and effort they put into it. Just like you would if you get an itchy scarf in your least favorite color for a birthday gift, say a heartfelt “thank you” and recognize that even if it’s not what you hoped for, you still appreciate it.

If you do nothing else differently in your performance reviews, remind yourself to do this one thing. I promise, it makes a huge difference! It will show your manager that you’re a capable, mature employee who is appreciative, open to their suggestions, and eager to learn.

2. Assume Good Intentions

Your manager wants you to succeed. While you might not believe this to be true, here is the logic behind it. It’s far more work for your manager to replace you than to keep you. No manager wants the extra work involved in letting go of you, only to then backfill your position, then train yet another person who may or may not, after many months, perform as well as you are currently performing in your role. What your manager really wants is for you to just accept the feedback and do even better than you’re already doing. Managers are truly motivated to help you improve!

It’s hard to imagine how high the stakes are for retaining and growing team members when you’re not a manager, but the reality is that losing people creates a major headache for every manager and every team. Losing too many people can really make a team or even an entire business wobbly. It can also create risk of attrition among other team members, because workloads have to then get redistributed, which can create burn-out and increased work for both the team and the manager.

Your manager wants your performance to have maximum impact — on the team, in your role, and for the company. So, as hard as it can be sometimes, train yourself to approach any performance review with your manager’s good intentions in mind. It will help you frame all of the feedback you receive in a more positive light, even when the feedback is critical. Tell yourself before any performance review, “They want me to succeed, and everything they’re saying in this review is designed to help me do that.”

3. Accept Feedback as Valid

Your manager offers you a unique and important perspective. When you do a self-evaluation of your performance, you’re only generally able to see the scope of your work from a very narrow perspective. You can describe how you think you’re doing, but you’re unable to know how others think you’re doing, unless you have the habit of getting feedback from others on an ongoing basis (which is a manager’s dream, by the way — people who proactively seek feedback from peers and others on a team are doing preventative work that keeps a manager from ever needing to get involved!)

Earlier in my career, I made the mistake of thinking at times that my manager was disconnected from my reality and didn’t really know much about my work. Therefore, while I always listened to the feedback, it didn’t always sink in with me fully because I figured they didn’t know much about what I was actually working on. Well, many years later, I can say that’s pretty common! Managers are by nature more disconnected from your work than you are. They cannot possibly know the work deeply of every single person on their team. But even if that’s the case, and you think your manager is too hands-off to really weigh in, this doesn’t mean their feedback isn’t valid. Quite the opposite in fact. They are trusting you to know the details of your own work deeply, while they’re getting feedback on the higher-level impact of your work as perceived by others.

Your manager has a perspective on your work that is simply different, and arguably more important than your own perception of your work, at least within the greater context of the organization. You might think you’re focusing on things that matter, but your manager is piped into more conversations with other leaders and peers, and gets a more holistic sense of the value you’re bringing to a team or an organization. For this reason, if you want to know how your impact is being perceived, you need their feedback! This is why it’s incredibly important that you view their insights as credible, valid, and importantly, different from your own reflections on your work. To take it a step further, embrace their feedback instead of merely accepting it.

4. Reflect and Follow Up

Resist the urge to react to the feedback immediately. Ideally nothing comes as a surprise to you, because any underperformance should have been discussed on the path to getting to the review. Make sure you give yourself time to reflect and process. If you’re stunned by some aspect of the feedback, have a response ready that bides you some time, such as, “I appreciate the feedback. I’m going to reflect on this further and come back to you with some concrete ideas on how I can take action.” Your manager doesn’t expect you to have a detailed plan at the ready the very second you receive the feedback. But, the sign every manager is looking for is that you don’t just forget about the feedback and keep going about your work the same way you always have.

Instead, focus on following up with your manager on the feedback so they know you not only understood it but are continually working on it. Bring up the feedback openly and transparently in a future conversation. For example: “Remember how you flagged in my review recently that I wasn’t participating enough in meetings and sharing my ideas, which is causing others to feel like I’m disconnected? I’ve come up with a goal for now to volunteer to take the notes during the meeting, so I can ask clarifying questions even when I don’t feel like sharing my opinion just yet, so I can participate more. What do you think about this idea?”

No matter what the topic is, the basic formula you want to bring back to your manager to follow-up on feedback is fairly simple. Your goal is to convey the following:

  • I heard you loud and clear. Acknowledge the feedback and confirm your understanding of it. You want your manager to know you truly heard the feedback, value it, and are working on it.
  • I’ve come up with a plan of action. It doesn’t have to be big; start small, but make sure it relates to the feedback. Any sign that you’re following up will be helpful for them to know you’re committing to improving.
  • I value further input. Does the proposed action seem helpful from your manager’s perspective? Make sure they know their feedback is encouraged and appreciated. Keep the door open and actually solicit their feedback, which will make it easier for them to give you more advice.

A variation on this idea is instead of proposing an action, simply take an action and report back to your manager on how it’s going so far. Get their input on whether they would suggest any changes. Whether or not it’s wise to do that depends on what the feedback relates to, but in general, the more proactive you can be the better.

5. Note Your Progress

Look at any review period not as the just the ending of a prior period, but the beginning of the new. How will you use the feedback you’ve just received to improve, so that you can move on to the next big thing? Here are some things I’ve done that have made a difference for me and that may be helpful to you:

  • Print out a summary of the key things you need to work on. So much of life is digital lately that sometimes I find it helpful to have an analog, visual reminder of the most important things for me to focus on. I did this after one particularly challenging review, and kept this summary right next to my laptop for six months. While I wasn’t happy about this feedback, I could not avoid looking at it many times per day, so it eventually did sink in for me. Having such a visible reminder helped me bring up the topic to my manager regularly. I could easily say, “Remember you asked me to work on X? Here’s what I’ve been doing lately…”
  • Identify specific actions to ensure you’re making progress. Throughout any review period, keep a simple Notes file, Google doc, or even a Wins list on paper where you can jot down what progress you’ve made, so that when your next review comes around, you have a good starting place and can remember what you were tasked with working on last time around. A lot can change from one period to another, but at least this gives you a jumping-off place to work with. Also, sometimes the things we’re focused on after the prior review period are totally different and might not cleanly align with the goals we set previously. So, keep an eye on this, and flag to your manager if you’re noticing that you’re not getting an opportunity to actually implement the suggestions you were given.
  • Remember that most weaknesses are also reflective of strengths. This is another way of saying “Don’t be overly hard on yourself!” And also, don’t think that negative feedback means that your manager will hold a stagnant view of you as a person. Show that you can change! At the same time, recognize that often, our strengths in business can manifest to others around us as weaknesses — and this can surprise you when you change companies, teams, or even when you get promoted to new levels! There was one particular habit that I got feedback on that was super hard for me to fix — “write shorter emails.” Ugh! I’m a writer at heart, and I’ve worked with words for most of my life. I’m also very passionate about topics that matter to my work. And I type really fast! Verbosity is my downfall, but also a strength that helps me tremendously. To balance things out, I’ve had to become much more mindful of how this trait can show up in negative ways, to channel this natural propensity at work today very differently than I did in the past.
  • Make a plan for how to build further on the positive. Don’t just focus on the critical feedback. Focus on your positive contributions and how you can build on them further too! The best managers will in fact coax this out of you, steering you toward applying your skills in new ways to benefit your career, and the team and company. But if your manager isn’t doing this, do it yourself. Identify what the positive feedback was in the review, and identify ways to do more of what your manager sees as valuable.
  • Candidly seek feedback from your peers. Tell your team, colleagues, and direct reports what you’re working on so they can help you and offer you advice. You’ll be surprised at how open they might be with you to help you improve. Don’t forget to ask them what you can do more of that you’re already doing to help drive impact. They might have some interesting perspectives to share with you that can help you. And as a bonus, you’ll be able to let your boss know that you’ve been soliciting advice from others. Every manager wants to see that type of teamwork and collaboration!

Remember, being a pro at receiving feedback does not always get easier with more experience in your career! Often, the more expertise you obtain and the longer you’ve been in the workforce, the harder it is to accept feedback from those who might seem to have less experience and tenure than you do. Sometimes, if you’re just trying to share information, you can accidentally become perceived as a “know-it-all.” Keep in mind that it’s not the amount of years or the depth of knowledge your manager has under their belt that really matters in these conversations. Rather, it’s your ability to understand their unique perspective on your work that does. If you’re a perpetual high performer with unique skills, or a great deal of experience in your discipline, check yourself and make sure you’re keeping an open mind to feedback!

This advice is meant to help you be a “good receiver” of feedback during performance reviews, and to leverage the feedback to carry you forward to the next step forward in your career. While these tips are very simple, they can be powerful. I hope they help you in your next review conversation!

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, and product development. Her latest book is "Found in Translation" (Penguin). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly works remotely from New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.

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