How to respond to surprising negative feedback:

what to do when your boss rates you lower than everyone else


Published on: December 2018

Written by: Michael Seitchik

Even the most senior, seasoned executives can be surprised when their boss gives them negative feedback.

Particularly when it seems out of whack with their successful career trajectory, and what they hear from everyone else around them. How they respond can either derail them or accelerate their path to future success.

When the boss rates a leader on a 360 lower than any of their peers, their direct reports, or even themselves, it can be hard to know how to respond and continue with forward momentum. We have seen leaders falter at this juncture, and we have also seen them seize the opportunity to propel themselves ahead. We have found that context and conversation are the best way to re-focus a leader’s way forward.

A tale of two leaders 

Sean, a very successful IT executive, was surprised by his boss’s ratings on his Bates ExPI™ feedback report. Sean had been receiving great performance reviews and had even been recently promoted, so he was shocked when his boss’s perceptions of his executive presence were significantly lower than the perceptions of his peers and direct reports as well as his self-ratings.

“What’s wrong with him?!” was his initial response.

Mary, a rising star, was a high potential director. Her boss had recently greatly expanded her scope of responsibility and asked Mary to turn things around in the dysfunctional units she had just taken over. She too was surprised when she saw her boss’s ratings were significantly below everyone else’s.

“What wrong with me?!” was her initial response.

In some ways their responses were quite different. Sean had an overstrength in the ExPI™ facet of Confidence and tended to think he knew more than anyone else, including his boss. He figured his boss must be wrong and he could not be in trouble.

On the other hand, Mary had an overstrength in Humility and was feeling a little overwhelmed by her new role. While she gave herself high scores in most facets, when she saw her boss’s low scores, she figured she must be failing. It was her fault.

But in some ways their responses were very similar.  Both immediately interpreted the boss’s low ratings as a sign they were in trouble. Perhaps their jobs were in jeopardy and the boss was using the assessment feedback as a way to tell them.

First, seek context

It is understandable that anyone, especially a successful leader who has recently been promoted, would be upset by a boss’s low ratings. But by taking a more objective look at their feedback, it can become clear that there are a number of factors, aside from the person being in trouble, that can account for low ratings from a boss. Re-framing the negative feedback can lead to new and potentially helpful insights.

Tough love

When Sean and Mary were each asked, “Do you think your boss has been highly supportive of you, may have good intentions, and may actually want to help you succeed by being tough on you?”  Both laughed and said, “Yes.”

Instead of the boss’s message being perceived as “you need to find a new job,” it could now be perceived as, “I want you to succeed and here is what you need to do better. I am here to help.”

We often see bosses who want to be unambiguous about what the person is doing right and what they need to do differently. As a result, on a 1-5 rating scale they will purposely use the entire scale, or even just the extreme ends. They intend to send a message, not to tease out subtle differences between strengths and development needs. Their goal is not to be subtle, but to get a successful leader to make some key adjustments quickly.  They know the person they are rating is driven to be even more successful, so they believe that tough love is the thing to do.

Reaction to complaints of others

It is also common to find that a boss’s low ratings are not completely a reflection of the boss’s direct observations, but also a reflection of what others are telling the boss.

In many organizations, people do not give direct feedback, but go to a third party to complain about someone. Often people go right to the boss. As a result, the boss has heard second-hand accounts of someone’s behaviors, accounts that may be tainted by jealousy, competitiveness, or other negative dynamics. And often, the boss doesn’t take steps to redirect the complaints or find out if they are true and allows them to negatively influence their assessment of the person.

When a leader we work with is surprised by low ratings from their boss, we often ask, “How much do you think these ratings are a reflection of what your boss is actually seeing, and how much a reflection of others complaining to your boss about you?” If some of the boss’s perceptions may be the result of people’s complaints, the leader needs to know this before taking action. We go on to suggest asking the boss this same question, and we recommend that you are specific. For example, we suggest the leader ask, “You rated me a ‘2’ on the item ‘Honesty and promise-keeping are huge for him/her.’ Is that because I have not been honest with you or have not kept my promises to you?  If so, could you give me some examples, because I rated myself quite a bit higher.”

If the boss cannot give examples, then it is fair to ask what is giving them the perception of a lack of promise keeping. Depending on the leader’s relationship with their boss, it might be too risky to directly ask if they are being influenced by others, or specifically naming someone. But, it is an option.

Reaction to the boss’s boss

A boss’s low ratings may also be highly influenced by pressures from their boss. That is, the surprisingly low ratings may be the result of your boss’s boss suddenly making a new demand on your boss. Maybe profits are suddenly down, or a major client just went to the competition and your boss needs to change priorities quickly. In these instances, the ratings are more about new priorities you may not be fully aware of than your behaviors or performance. It is not the best way to send that message, but maybe the boss did not realize what you need to do differently until they filled out the survey.

Promotion preparation

We have also experienced many instances where the boss gives someone tougher than normal feedback because the boss wants to help someone get ready for a possible promotion. The boss may be perfectly satisfied with the individual’s skills and behaviors for their current job, but feels they need to focus on developing additional behaviors for that next role. The boss may not have made this clear before giving you this 360 feedback. And perhaps the boss is not even allowed to tell you that you are being considered for a promotion. In either case, the result is lower than expected ratings.

Different standards

Finally, some bosses have very tough standards. Some just don’t give many “5’s” since they feel everyone can do better and no one is perfect. Some may appreciate a past boss who was tough on them. Or perhaps the boss was raised in a culture where is rating of “3” out of “5” is perfectly fine. You experience the “3” as a failure, while your boss thinks you are doing exactly what they expect of you.

Follow up with your boss

Whatever the reason for your low ratings from your boss, it is essential to follow up to learn what to do with the feedback to use it to continue on your path of success.

  1. Avoid the temptation to talk to your boss immediately after receiving the negative feedback. Take some time to gather your thoughts and come up with a plan to keep the conversation focused and constructive.
  1. Thank your boss for the feedback. Start the conversation with your appreciation for the time he or she took to provide feedback.
  1. Control the conversation. Your goal is to get more information and more context to understand the feedback. Rather than focusing on how others rated you more highly, begin by sharing your learnings from the assessment – the 2 or 3 key strengths, and 2 or 3 areas to develop. Solicit specific feedback on the 2 or 3 low scores you want address by asking for examples, or suggestions of how to shift the behavior. Resist the temptation to show your boss the entire feedback report, which can backfire by making him or her defensive.
  1. Lay out a forward path. Briefly give a few examples of what you plan to do in the next few weeks to leverage your strengths and work on your development areas. Tie your actions to current projects, meetings, or presentations. Ask for feedback on your plan.

We have found that when leaders take this approach, they tend to have very productive discussions.  Often, the boss will laugh and say, “Oh, there is nothing to worry about. I was just being a little tough on you to help you prioritize what to work on.” Sometimes the boss will say, “You know, now that you have a much bigger scope of responsibility, there are some new skills and behaviors you need to focus on. I see you struggling a little bit and I just wanted to be sure you worked on some things to get you moving up the learning curve a little faster.”

Even if the boss says, “Listen, you have not been living up to my expectations and you need to turn things around,” you now have very specific feedback and can take action.

Bottom line

Low ratings from a boss can be the result of a number of factors. While low ratings from your boss hurts, in many instances, he or she actually has very positive intentions or is highly influenced by the perceptions of others. In any case, it is best to view the low ratings as an opportunity to have a constructive discussion with your boss of what you need to do differently. Assume your boss wants to help you, not hurt you and use that input to your advantage.

For more on navigating the feedback loop at work, click here.

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