what to do when you disagree with your manager’s feedback

You sit down with your manager to discuss your work performance – and end up fundamentally disagreeing with her feedback to you. How can you respond and state your case without seeming argumentative or even insubordinate?

Here are four key steps to responding to feedback that you disagree with.

1. Ask for more information. Ask clarifying questions and try to gather specifics that illustrate your boss’s concerns – and listen with an open mind. Don’t focus on defending yourself; focus only on hearing and understanding what your manager is telling you. At this point, your goal is just get a better understanding of what her concerns are with your work. Then, ask yourself why she sees things that way. If you’re honest with yourself, is there any truth to her assessment? If not, then proceed to step 2.

2. Try to figure out what might be accounting for the difference in perspectives. Do you have information that your boss doesn’t have and which might change her perspective? For instance, if your boss is concerned that you’re not processing new accounts as quickly as she’d like, are there factors impacting your performance that she’s not aware of, such as that you’re now responsible for two major new projects that are taking up 20% of your time, or that you’ve been waiting for I.T. to fix a technical snag that’s been slowing down your work? Ensuring that you both have the same information can reduce some differences in perspectives. But if that doesn’t work…

3. Respectfully explain why you disagree. You want to do this in a polite and collaborative manner, of course, but a reasonable boss will be open to hearing your point of view. For instance, if your boss is concerned that you’re not pushing a product hard enough with clients but you believe your approach is more effective, you might say, “I appreciate you talking to me about this. My sense has been that my clients won’t respond well to a hard push, but they’re more receptive if I’m able to build a relationship with them first. I know my sales numbers haven’t reached our targets this quarter, but I think I’m building toward bigger sales next quarter that will make up for it.” Or even simply, “From my perspective, it seems like _____.”

4. Realize that ultimately your boss gets to make this call. It might sound obvious, but sometimes people lose sight of the fact that even if you’re convinced that your manager’s assessment of you is wrong, it’s still hers to make. You can try to change her thinking, but ultimately her job gives her the prerogative to assess your performance and ask for changes. If that happens, then you need to decide if you’re capable of making – and willing to make – the changes she wants, or if this is a flag that this is the wrong fit for you. (And if that’s the case, it’s far better to realize it on your own than and leave on your own terms than to be pushed out, if the issues rise to that level of severity.)

I originally published this at Intuit Quickbase’s blog.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. MR

    Should this information come during a performance evaluation, and you are the first to hear of said information, don’t forget to ask to be provided feedback on an ongoing basis.

    No good manager blindsides reports with bad (or good) information during a performance review.

    1. Seal

      One early manager of mine was big on ideas and short on execution. Many of his ideas were truly visionary, but so far ahead of technology or organizational culture most people would have though them impractical to implement. But that didn’t stop this guy. He regularly forced his projects and initiatives through, generally leaving chaos and confusion in his wake. So what might have been a great project or initiative often failed spectacularly, never to be tried again, because this guy refused to listen to reason.

      Case in point: my group worked in a different building on another part of campus, because my manager thought this would be more efficient – in the end, it was not. We regularly had to work with other units in our building. But because no one was in charge (another of his missteps – he thought he could manage from afar with bi-monthly staff meetings and no other interaction with his employees) there were regular turf wars. One guy went so far as to steal shared resources from our office space when no one was around because he thought HIS work took precedence over ours. After a particularly outrageous incident where this idiot basically cleaned us out to the point we couldn’t get our work done, I asked another manager to mediate because of the immediacy of the situation. Although it was not pleasant, no voices were raised and ultimately a sort truce (however short-lived) was reached. Nothing more was said about this particular incident.

      That is, until my performance review almost 6 months later. My manager brought up this incident and told me that I needed to watch my step because I “overreacted”. Apparently the other manager who had been asked to mediate complained to my manager about me. Never mind the idiot who was stealing our stuff was well-known for pulling crap like this. Never mind that I was well-regarded by my peers and known as the go-t0 person. Never mind that my coworkers and I had dropped every hint in the book about how difficult it was to get things done without someone on site in charge. Never mind that this thing had happened so long ago that it took me a minute to remember what he was talking about. My manager instead chose to sit on what was apparently a major infraction on my part for almost 6 months and blindside me with this information at my annual performance evaluation, well after the point anything could be done to salvage what was now a permanently damaged relationship between units apparently caused by me and only me.

      I never took him, that job or that organization seriously after that.

      1. Ann Furthermore

        I had a similar experience — my manager and I did not hit it off at all, and when my review time came, he had a long list of grievances, none of which he’d ever bothered to address with me before that. By far, the most upsetting thing of my career. I had figured he had it in for me, but this just confirmed it.

        Thankfully, I think the only reason I didn’t get fired was that HR wouldn’t let him can a 40 year old woman who was also 6 months pregnant. But I knew if I returned to that position after maternity leave, all it would have taken was a missed crossed “t” or dotted “i” and that would have been it. I planned to take short-term disability, and then use up all my vacation time looking for another job, and resign when I went back. But fortunately, a position opened up in another group, doing work I’d wanted to get back into anyway, and I was friendly with the hiring manager. And the rest is history.

    2. Vicki

      “No good manager blindsides reports with bad (or good) information during a performance review.”

      Unfortunately, almost by definition, this means that your request to be provided feedback on an ongoing basis will fall on deaf ears.

      1. Anna

        I am confused by this response. What do you mean that by definition it will fall on deaf ears?

  2. Jerry Vandesic

    If you are hearing significant feedback (either positive or negative) for the first time during a performance review, you might want to discount that feedback. What your manager is really telling you is that they are a poor manager, as they should have given you continuous feedback throughout the year. If they can’t manage well, their ability to understand and provide feedback is suspect.

    1. Jeanne

      I agree with you. BUT that is hard to deal with when you know their incompetent management and reviewing will affect your raise and any chance of applying for other internal positions. Often my review would focus around some supposedly awful thing I did in March. Now it was Dec and I had no idea I did it and no chance to change the way I did things. Constant requests for more communication were ignored. It’s hard to be objective about it.

    2. Anon

      I disagree with this; just because the manager isn’t managing well doesn’t make the feedback invalid. Discounting useful feedback because you don’t like the delivery only hurts yourself in the long run.

      1. Ann Furthermore

        I would say that the feedback loses relevance the longer the manager waits to deliver it. I posted above about my terrible manager experience. Had that guy pulled me aside when I did something he had a problem with — addressed the problem at the time — I would have had the opportunity to address and correct it. But since he never said a word, and instead chose to ambush me during my review, it made it hard for me to accept his criticism in any kind of useful way. The way he chose to handle it made it vindictive rather than constructive.

      2. Ann Furthermore

        On the other side of the coin, last year my manager very directly told me that I was doing something she had an issue with, and that others had brought to her attention. She didn’t attack me, but said, “Hey, I need to make you aware of this.”

        It was related to my internet usage — people thought I was using it excessively. If I’m running a query that takes a few minutes to finish, or waiting for a program to complete, I’ll hop on the internet and scan news headlines, because it’s too long to sit there doing nothing, but not long enough to jump in to start answering emails. We had recently moved and my cube was at the end of an aisle, with lots of people going by, so if someone walked by a couple times during the day and saw me reading the news, well then of course they thought I was slacking. But also in there was that we were looking for a new house, and having a terrible time finding something suitable, and I’d become kind of obsessive about scouring the real estate listings several times a day. So yeah — I probably had been on the internet a bit more than normal. My bad.

        So — I thanked my boss for bringing it to my attention, explained what I thought was going on, and told her that it would not be a problem going forward. And it wasn’t. And when review time came around, this was not brought up — because she addressed the issue with me and I corrected it. End of story.

        That’s how a good manager manages.

    3. Laura

      Practically, I don’t make any sense to discount the feedback. Yes, it says they’re not great a supervising you, but it doesn’t mean they’re not amazing at other things and potentially giving you truly useful feedback. Also, they’re your boss, so it’s your job to try to do what they want you to do regardless of whether it was delivered in a timely (or even appropriate or professional) way, or you run a big risk of seeming like you’re nonresponsive/ not a team player/ not right for the job.

      To my mind, you can always say that your manager is crappy and look for another job, but you discount what they say at your own risk.

  3. Mallorie, the recruiter

    I was actually going to write in about this from the reverse – what can a manager do when someone pretty consistently disagrees with any “constructive criticism” type feedback… any words of wisdom?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      How serious is the feedback? Is it stuff that he has to change in order to well, or is it more like “you could go from A to A+ by doing this”?

      1. Mallorie, the recruiter

        More like the A to A+ stuff … development is a huge part of our culture, so the team is always looking for “how to get to that next step”. But for some, when I tell them, they get super defensive or upset. For the “serious” stuff, I would almost not care if they were upset… it would be more like, “This is a big deal, I need it to change immediately.” But when its much less serious and just helpful things for their career, I’m not really sure how to handle it (very new to mgmt).

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I’d focus on the defensiveness/poor reaction to feedback. I’d talk about how the way we all get better at what we do is by hearing feedback, maybe how it’s been helpful to me in the past, and how it can hold their career back/make people hesitant to give them useful feedback if they get defensive about it. I’d talk about how I take feedback myself, to try to model it for them.

          And I’d also make very sure that I was giving them plenty of positive feedback, so that they weren’t feeling like all they hear is the “you could do this better” stuff.

    2. Not So NewReader

      Does this person admit or understand that there is a problem?
      That to me is a huge factor for determining next steps.

      Also I have had times where I told a person to do X not Y. They disagreed with me but went and did X as they should anyway in spite of disagreeing with me. I felt that at least they told me their concern directly instead of grumbling behind my back and they actually changed what they were doing.

      1. some1

        +1.

        We have a business casual dress code at my work M-Th and casual Fridays where we can wear jeans. Fairly soon after I started my boss reminded me of this and I thought, “???” because I was following the dress code.

        Turns out she thought a pair of corduroy pants I wore looked like jeans because of the stitching. I tdid tell her they were actually corduroys, but I stopped wearing them — it wasn’t a hill to die on.

        1. Judy

          Our dress code actually calls out the double stitching and the rivets as features of jeans. So any pants with jeans-like features are not allowed on non-jeans days. It specifically states that all jeans are not denim.

            1. Anna

              Seriously. I guess it harkens back to the “all ships are boats, but not all boats are ships” adage.

      2. Betsy

        Heh. This has happened to me before. I have had long discussions with my manager where they explained why he felt X was a better solution, I explained why I preferred Y, and we kept going back and forth. By the end, I just said, “look, I think we’ve both explained our perspective to death. If you want me to do X in the future, just say, ‘I want you to do X.’ I don’t think either of us is going to convince the other.” He said, “I want you to do X.” So I did.

        1. Laura

          I have been the manager on the other side of that conversation, and it’s infuriating. Yes, it’s the manager’s job to overrule you, not to convince you endlessly, but I would say it’s the subordinate’s role to gracefully say ” I disagree but you obviously you feel strongly about this, so I’ll do it your way” far before it’s incumbent on a manager to veto. If I as a manager say bluntly “I know you disagree, but do X anyway,” I’m way past the point of caring that you disagree and I’m framing up a performance conversation about how you need to be more willing to follow my lead.

          I think some of this comes down to different workplace styles. A hardcore business world mentality has more of an expectation that the manager will just cut off discussion, and a more nonprofit/ school culture manager expects that a subordinate will agree, eventually, and that they don’t need to be really hardcore. So it’s important to understand your manager’s mentality here.

          1. Maddy

            So much this! I am that manager right now too and those circular conversations are both exhausting and extremely frustrating! It only ever upsets an employee more when you have to directly pull rank on them rather than them innately understanding that as their boss, they have to follow your direction even if they don’t like it (and after offering one round of disagreement perhaps). Continuing to disagree with directions or strategy starts adding up to “not good at accepting criticism” very quickly in those situations!

            1. Mallorie, the recruiter

              Yes – I go round and round because I do really want my employees to get the “why” of things. But now I think sometimes it might be better to cut it off at some point because the round and round conversation seems to do more harm than good. All great advice!

          2. Not So NewReader

            I am chuckling. Sometimes I have totally agreed with what a subordinate is saying and YET somehow I have to get the subordinate on a different path.

            So what I have done there is say something to the effect of “You really do raise some valid points. However, we are in Rome and we must do as the Romans do. I can see where your thinking fits- but we are being compensated to do Y not X. This is what is expected from us.”

            This works in times where there is nothing else to explain. I have totally covered the reasons for doing Y and yeah, their rationale for X still holds up. (I really do end up chuckling when these things happen, because the feedback is usually very clever and well thought out. I am pleased to work with a thinking person.)

            Sometimes I got lucky and was able to explain a couple of angles that the employee had not considered or could not possibly be aware of. The sheer logic of the new info was enough to change the employee’s mind. And – humble pie- sometimes I learned things that I did not know and I needed to make adjustments.

        2. KrisL

          If I disagree, and I think it’s important enough to bring up, I’ll explain my point of view and why I think that (facts), and let the manager decide. The way I figure, there might be information that the manager might not have that I can add.

      3. Mallorie, the recruiter

        @NotSoNewReader: Most recently they COMPLETELY disagreed with my assessment. I was literally not even sure where to go from there. I tried to explain my perception (again, this was not a Big Deal, just something that I thought would help them a lot as they went forward from being a GOOD to a GREAT employee). The conversation went in circles and then ended. I want to be more prepared for next time though.

        1. Not So NewReader

          Only you know for sure the severity of the problem, so please don’t think I am minimizing it when I say this:

          Your explanation here was great- I clearly understood that Good Employees do X but Great Employees do Y.

          She sees you as the enemy, an opponent. I would try one more time “Employee, I am not your enemy. I am not submarining you. I think you have the potential to go from good to great and I am showing you how to do this. You can take my advice or not. It’s your choice. I know I am faced with these types of choices a lot as a manager. And sometimes I have to let go of some of my ideas. I do this because I want to be a Great Manager. I want success. And I want success for you too. But again, it’s your choice. Our company needs A, B and C from us. It’s up to me to make sure that you get this message and have the opportunity to meet these needs. I have delivered this message to you and the rest is up to you.”

          I am concerned about minimizing because you could have already tried this or because I am not getting how often you have to revisit this conversation. It could be that this employee just needs to move on.

          1. Mallorie, the recruiter

            No – I love this! I think part of the issue is my “advice” came up super organically during a conversation (as in, I didn’t set out to bring it up, but saw an opportunity to bring it up) and I think the employee felt attacked. Next time, I think I’ll set it up how you did here, as well as using AAM’s advice in making sure the employee KNOWS I feel they do an awesome job, but that I think they have the potential to be even “awesome-er”.

            Thank you – great advice. This was the first time she and I had had this conversation, but I know from my manager that she has reacted this way several times before (once during a formal evaluation).

    3. Joey

      Obviously first, you hear him out in case you didn’t have all of the facts or context.

      Then it depends on exactly what you’re talking about. Sometimes its a matter of him understanding exactly why your conclusions are different and what you’re basing it on.

      Sometimes people disagree not with the outcome of their performance but with the bar you’ve set in which case you should explain how you came up with it.

      And other times employees understand, but just disagree. And in that case that’s okay. At that point he needs to understand your position and whether he will accept your decision or move on.

      Id caution you also to keep your focus on the desired outcome. If he’s getting the desired outcome give him some leeway in the steps he’s using to get there.

  4. Laura

    This is a topic really close to my heart — I’ve been on both sides of this issue. As a manager, it’s really difficult for me to find the line on an employee disagreeing with performance feedback (especially more serious stuff), to both be open to their point of view and knowing I’m not infallible, but not to open the discussion so much that it seems to the employee like my feedback is frequently optional or they’re welcome to tell me all the time that my feedback is poorly thought out.

    From the manager perspective, I would say that I’m really interested in having a discussion about what you disagree about, but what’s most helpful to me is to know that you understand my point of view and the actual feedback I’m trying to give. So paraphrasing and active listening is really useful. And it makes it seem more likely to me that your disagreement isn’t knee jerk defensiveness but actually thought out.

    An implication that my feedback is all in my head or no one else but me could think that, especially without a specific paraphrasing of what my feedback actually was, is sure to make me considerably less open to disagreement. All too familiar with that.

    1. Maddy

      Are you me? I think you might be :)

      You said much more eloquently what I’ve been thinking in my head during so many conversations with a few of my staff!

  5. James M

    OK, I’m just going to grab my horns and pitchfork…

    1. Ask your boss to back up each point with a source. Mentally size up the plausibility of each point and the veracity of each supportive source.

    2. Attack the weakest point/source; really rip it to shreds. Then berate your boss for coming up with that kind of twaddle.

    3. With a sneer, explain that you are infinitely more qualified to assess your own performance.

    4. Realize when it’s time to make an exit. Crumple up a few pieces of paper (the written performance review is best, but any paper will do) and “mic drop” it, then escape before you can be escorted out. Firmly shut the door (don’t slam!) of your boss’s office on the way.

  6. stebuu

    Over a decade ago, I had a not-good annual review. However, the annual review was based solely off of a project that I spent less than 10% of my hours on.

    I had a copy of my annual review before the face-to-face review of it with my manager, and I went to it equipped with a breakdown of my hours for the year.

    I received a second annual review.

    1. WorkingAsDesigned

      Good for you that you were able to receive a second annual review – having documentation certainly made a difference!

      I had a similar situation, working in retail many years ago. The manager who delivered my review hadn’t ever been my direct manager (or manager’s manager, etc.). She downgraded my performance review based upon work I was told that I wasn’t doing well. Pointing out that I’d never been asked to do it, nor had ever been trained on how to do it, wasn’t good enough. She also said that the store manager (who was my direct manager) had looked over the review prior to it’s being given to me, and agreed with it’s content.

      I reluctantly signed the review, making a written comment that I’d never been asked to do the work that had brought my review score down.

      Within a short amount of time, the work became part of my duties, and the manager who had delivered the review was the person assigned to training me on how to do it.

      Sadly for the great managers out there, sometimes it takes having one who isn’t as good, to appreciate those that are wonderful.

  7. Vera

    I had a performance review once where I was given below average scores for “poor vacation planning”. Nevermind the fact that like most companies, my manager had to approve my days off before I took them, and I had submitted the requests months in advance with plenty of time to adjust work loads.

    My manager was actually upset because a major deadline ended up landing on the week of my vacation, and in the two months leading up to the deadline I kept e-mailing and having meetings about a critical portion of the project he was responsible for that I needed in order to complete my portion. In each e-mail/meeting leading up to my vacation, I made it sound more and more critical, with an e-mail on the Monday of the last week of my vacation stating “If I don’t have your feedback by Friday at noon, I will not be able to complete this project by the deadline.” I badgered him all week, reminded him Friday morning, and…I never got it. So on Friday around 3pm I e-mailed him (and also stopped by his desk) to reiterate that I had to leave the project incomplete because I hadn’t received his portion yet I got the same, “Yeah, sure, we’ll get to it” reaction I had been getting the whole time. Of course, while I was on vacation, he had to finally complete both his portion AND my portion to meet the deadline…and subsequently dinged me in my performance review and stated that I should better plan my vacations around our workload.

    1. Laura

      In this case I guess you need to fall back on the old “absolutely, there was a lot of firedrill mode around my vacation, which I’d really like to avoid in the future — what do you suggest?” It sounds like he might well say that you should plan better times for them, which would lead to “I did my best to plan it out, confirming it with you several months in advance– should I do that differently?” But ultimately, sounds like a guy you really might not be able to win with (like his solution might be icky things like you should have moved your vacation or you shouldn’t plan vacations until a couple weeks before so you can judge the workload).

  8. jmkenrick

    I’ve never really “disagreed” with any feedback per se, but I did once have a minor incident brought to my attention several weeks after it happened. It was so awkward, because they were asking me about it and I literally couldn’t remember the incident.

    1. Anna

      When I was much MUCH younger I was working at a national fast food chain that is associated with royalty…sort of. Anyway, I was late one day and they wrote me up. In the process of writing me up for that late start, they also informed me they had another write up for another day I was late two weeks before. I was too young to know how to handle it, but I wish I had known. The illogic of it all infuriated me.

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