Send Your Questions

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and issues many professionals face.

We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

Even the words ‘performance review’ can send a shiver down workers’ spines. And there are many quaking employees out there.

Performance reviews — which assess how well workers have done their jobs during the previous year — have become almost standard in companies large and small. Almost 90% of US companies perform these formal evaluations at least once a year, according to a 2014 study from the Virginia-based Society for Human Resource Management. Internationally, 78% of companies have one-on-one performance discussions with employees, according to consultancy Mercer’s research.

So what happens if your latest review turns out to be less stellar than you’d hoped?

In the moment

It’s easy to get uptight when your manager says she would have liked you to do things differently over the past six months or year. Try not to get defensive, says Ruth Ross, a Northern California-based employee engagement consultant, author and speaker. “Instead, take a deep breath and ask for more information that will clarify the feedback, such as specific examples that will help you identify the issues and behaviours,” she said in an email.

Rather than saying, “I don’t know what you want from me,” say, “I want to be sure I’m clear what the expectations are,” suggested Ross. “Ask for additional information and time to process it.” One way to do this is by letting your boss know that you need some time to digest their feedback and would like a second meeting to discuss it further.

Appearances count

You’re going to feel hurt, and you may even want to sulk a little, and that is okay, according to Dr Uta Bindl, associate professor of management at the London School of Economics. “Especially if you feel passionate about your job and proud to have achieved the career you are in, bad performance reviews may come as a major blow to your ego.” But be careful not to share too much of your feelings at work. “One thing you should definitively not do is to vent your negative emotions in front of your colleagues or boss,” said Bindl in an email. “To express these negative emotions in your workplace — although they may make you feel better in the short term — will likely not help but harm you.”

Instead, you’ll want to remain polite and professional. “Try to think of any negative performance feedback you receive as a situation that can be improved. It’s not about you as a person,” said Bindl. “The frame of mind that you want to adapt is to try not to see yourself as a victim but as an active participant in a situation that you can and will help to improve in the future.”

Give yourself a break

If the review has left you emotional but you need to stay at work for the rest of the day, take a small break, walk around the block or get a cup of coffee, suggested Bindl. “Do something that will cheer you up in the moment, and then go back to work when you feel calmer.” When you get home, it’s okay to give yourself a short mourning period. Let your friends cheer you up over a cup of coffee or your partner take you out for a nice meal, she suggested. “To help feel better again, engage in activities that you know you will enjoy.”

What next?

Once you feel ready, slowly read the review again to process the information. “Develop key questions to elicit specific examples or concrete input, and formulate your plan to improve,” said Ross.

If you are able to secure a follow-up meeting, start by acknowledging the feedback you received and then suggest working together on a plan for moving forward. “Convey gratitude, an openness to receive the information and a willingness to make change,” suggested Ross.

What if you don’t agree with everything in the review? “On the points you believe are accurate, admit them and share your thoughts about how you can develop so they will not be repeated,” said Connecticut-based Mike Stallard, founder of business management consulting firm E Pluribus Partners, in an email. “On the points you disagree with, explain why.” Just don’t go at it alone. Before going in for that follow-up meeting, have a couple of good friends review your responses and give you feedback.

Not the end of the world

Keep things in perspective. Make sure to take the time to “remind yourself that a bad performance review is not the end of the world and that it can be the catalyst to positive personal and career growth,” said Stallard. “I once had a supervisor tell me I was a people-pleaser. He was right. I learned from it and became a more effective leader.”

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.