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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Feeling Off Your Game? How to Bring it Up to Your Boss

So, you had an “off” week. Sure, maybe you didn’t make any completely devastating mistakes (like leaving the office door wide open all night or accidentally shredding your only copy of a big contract)—but let’s just say your A-game was more like your C- or D-game.

Your first instinct may be to do some serious damage control by approaching your boss to apologize and making sure he or she knows you’re back at your best. But it turns out, it’s tricky to strike the right balance between owning up to a true sub-par performance and overreacting every time you think you may have veered a bit off track.

Follow these four steps to help evaluate when it’s truly necessary to bring up your weak performance—and how to handle the conversation from beginning to end.

1. Step Back and Reevaluate

The truth is, in the heat of a panicked “I’m definitely going to get fired for this” moment, you may not be able to accurately judge how bad your work actually was. So, it’s important that you don’t go bursting into your boss’s office every time you think you made a mistake.

Assuming your sub-par work hasn’t created the need for immediate damage control (e.g., you overcharged your biggest account by $10,000), wait a few days—then, come back and reevaluate. For example, sometimes I’ll write an article and immediately think, “Ugh, this is terrible!”—but if I step back and revisit it a few days later, I’ll often realize that it’s completely usable. In the same way, you may think an assignment was terribly inferior—but after a few days of debriefing, it may not be as bad as you think.

Going a little further, think about your assignment in the bigger scheme of things. Does it have a truly lasting impact? If you threw together a last-minute mock-up for a big client’s website and now he or she is looking at other options for a web designer—it’s time to talk to your boss. But if it’s something on a smaller scale (e.g., you slacked on your social media updates and saw a drop in online traffic one day), a conversation may not be necessary. The better plan of action is to simply step up your game and do better going forward.

2. Know How You’re Not Going to Approach It

When you put together a resume or cover letter, the last thing you want to do is point out your lack of experience—à la “I know I’ve never worked with computers, but you should hire me as an engineer anyway.” It doesn’t convince anyone—and it will get your application promptly thrown in the trash.

In the same way, approaching your boss in a way that blatantly points out your weak work (“The analysis I turned in last week was terrible, wasn’t it?”) is like writing “slacker” on your forehead in thick, black marker. If you knew it was so awful, why did you turn it in?

The same goes for assuming that you can present your manager with a simple excuse and make the issue go away. “Sorry—I was just really tired last week!” isn’t going to get you very far.

When you approach your sub-standard performance the wrong way, it doesn’t come across that you’re sincerely concerned about your work—but rather, that you just want to avoid getting in trouble. And that’s probably not the impression you want to make.

3. Be Proactive, Be Open, Be Brief

Once you’ve decided that your weak performance truly warrants a chat with your boss (and you’ve put your slightly whiny excuses behind you), they key is to be prepared and act proactively.

First, don’t bombard your boss when he or she is in the middle of something. Try to give a little warning—try a short, simple email with a sample of your work attached: “I wanted to get your thoughts on this—can we meet for a few minutes later today?” This will give your boss a chance to prepare feedback—which will start the conversation on a much more positive note than if you had barged in unannounced.

Then, when you step into his or her office, don’t just look expectantly at your manager for a barrage of advice—begin the conversation yourself with a well thought-out assessment: “I read over the blog post I wrote last week and I think it came across a little negative—which may be why we saw such a drop in page views. What did you think?”

By taking ownership of your failure (without backing it with an excuse), you’re proving to your boss that you’re committed to constant improvement—and the open-ended question at the end can serve as a good jumping off point for you to discuss what you can do next time to improve.

4. Take It and Use It

On that note, be prepared for your manager’s response. You asked for feedback, so you need to be ready for constructive criticism—not sympathy or reassurance.

That means, if your manager confirms your assessment (“I agree that your post came across a bit negatively—it wasn’t quite up to par with your usual work”), don’t take it personally. Accept it, work together to determine a game plan for how you can move forward, and follow it.

In the end, that’s the best way you can recover. When you bring up a weak performance in the right way, you’ll prove to your boss that you’re proactive, committed to quality work, and ready and willing to do what you need to do to improve. And if you take your manager’s feedback to heart, you’ll avoid repeat performances in the future.

Photo of boss and employee courtesy of Shutterstock.

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