Is Your Negative Performance Review A Cover-Up For Corporate Culture?

By Cathy Goodwin

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Even seasoned executives can be surprised with a negative performance review, even when they're working hard and getting results. Often the reason for a low performance review is related to the company's hidden culture and the boss's hidden agenda.

Adding to the challenge, it's difficult to identify hidden cultures and agendas. It's rarely a good idea to ask questions directly. You have to operate like an undercover detective. Listen, observe and watch for clues.

Here are three questions to help set the tone for your investigation. Even if you've been with the company a long time, culture can change overnight.

What kind of career progress do your colleagues enjoy?

Notice whether people with your skill set, from your department, tend to rise within the company. If you find that they tend to get stuck or even leave the company, consider expanding your horizons and exploring options outside the company.

If you're not in a valued position, you won't get rewarded, no matter how hard you work. Your boss might even be asked to cut expenses, people and options.

How does your company value newbies vs. veterans?

Some organizations expect newbies to perform badly. Their expectations may be so strong that they create a self-fulfilling prophecy. You'll hear things like, "New people always take a while to fit in. Some of them never make it."

Alternatively, some groups tend to shine a spotlight on newcomers, taking their experienced players for granted. You'll be the star for awhile and then all the attention focuses on the hot new arrivals.

Has your company set you up to fail?

If you’ve been working more than five years, you’re probably not surprised to learn that you can be set up to fail, no matter how hard you try. For example, you might be asked to increase sales of a product line that's on the chopping block. They hope you'll just go through the motions.

Alternatively they might hire you for a goal that sounds good but isn't realistic. Robert was hired “to raise standards and prestige” of a private college’s academic program. He soon realized the Board cared about the bottom line more than the school's prestige. It was a numbers game: Get more students and keep them, even if you have to lower standards to get there.

The Bottom Line

Bottom Line: When you get surprised with a negative performance review, begin by assessing your own skills. If you're doing a great job - by objective standards - you may need to review the company's culture. Culture can change overnight and can be hard to observe when you're in the middle of it, so an outside colleague, mentor or consultant can help you make a realistic assessment and plan your next steps.

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