How to Respond to Question in Bonus Communication ("What's Your Reaction to That?")

EBITDUDE1's picture
EBITDUDE1 - Certified Professional
Rank: Baboon | banana points 133

I recently had my bonus communication meeting and was really caught off guard by a question the partner conducting the meeting asked me.

The flow of the meeting was 1) exchange pleasantries, 2) logistical details around 401k deductions, payment date, etc., 3) summary of feedback from anonymous reviews, 4) bonus number, 5) career progression/trajectory discussion

After the partner got done reading the feedback summary of my strengths and weaknesses as observed by the people on my team (#3), the partner stopped, looked at me, and said: "What's your reaction to that?". I froze and didn't know what to say. I didn't agree with all of it (positive and negative) and was frustrated to hear one piece of feedback (that I didn't "step up" as much as they would have liked), however I wasn't sure if I could comment on those items the way I wanted without sounding like I was complaining or shifting the blame. Further, I didn't think to say something would change the bonus number I was about to hear, so I just decided to say something safe like "All sounds fair - I appreciate that people recognized x, y, z". After I said that the partner kind of looked at me like he was expecting something more and just continued. Upon reflection, it really feels like I missed an opportunity here, but I can't figure out what I should've done instead.

Does anyone have any bonus meetings similar to this? What did you say when you were asked for your reaction? What should or can you say when faced with this question? Any advice to handle it better in the future?

EDIT: If I were to comment on the item that frustrated me, I would have said something like "due to how teams were staffed, I wasn't given the opportunity to step up in the way we discussed in my last review, and that was disappointing". Basically, I was told I should try to play a bigger role on the deal team, but I was consistently staffed on large teams (think me, first-year VP, more senior VP, principal, 2 partners) and so I couldn't really have a voice.

Comments (22)

Feb 26, 2019

.

    • 5
Feb 28, 2019

lol i cant tell if this is real or troll

Feb 28, 2019

I don't believe you did anything wrong.

Keep in mind - if you're decent at your job, these guys are extracting arguably more value from you than the salary that they pay you. While some feedback might be valid, the ambiguous stuff like "you should step up more" is just meant to keep you humbled and give them an excuse to not pay you the max amount.

He was probably thinking you would nod politely and smile. What did he expect?

    • 1
Feb 28, 2019

100% agree the "step up" feedback is just kind of a lazy placeholder - I'm more focused on what my reaction should have been.

The more I think about it, the more I think the smile and nod is probably the best strategy. At the end of the day, nothing I do or say can change the number, so I think him asking was just an attempt to loosen up the room a bit during an otherwise relatively tense meeting.

Feb 28, 2019

Right. I've taken a more aggressive approach in the past with good results. Oftentimes when I hear "placeholder" feedback like this, I will press for specific instances/situations where it came up. You'd be surprised, many times there isn't much there to back it up.

I think it's important from a reputation standpoint. I don't get crushed day in and day out to be known as lazy or passive, and wouldn't want that kind of reputation to take root. So I think it's perfectly reasonable to respond against this kind of stuff.

    • 2
Learn More

9 LBO Modeling Tests, 10+ hours of PE Cases and 2,447+ interview insights across 203 private equity funds. The WSO Private Equity Interview Prep Course has everything you'll ever need to break into the competitive PE industry. Learn more.

Mar 1, 2019

For me this should always be an honest open two way discussion about what has worked and what has not over the year and in what areas both parties can improve.

You should be thinking about the review yourself beforehand obviously and have a good feel for how things went over the year. Things you did well and otherwise and things your team/boss did well or otherwise. You should have been honest and discussed your feelings (re staffing). Like I said, you should have had a good feeling beforehand this would come up and how you would react but even if it was a total shock you should still talk it out. Treat it as a learning experience.

On the bonus number the correct reaction is always slightly underwhelmed but grateful.

    • 2
Feb 28, 2019
Zatopek:

On the bonus number the correct reaction is always slightly underwhelmed but grateful.

I've mastered the lip-press half-smile over the years and like to think I've got this part down!

Learn More

9 LBO Modeling Tests, 10+ hours of PE Cases and 2,447+ interview insights across 203 private equity funds. The WSO Private Equity Interview Prep Course has everything you'll ever need to break into the competitive PE industry. Learn more.

Mar 1, 2019

Not the end of the world but you did miss an opportunity. You don't have to fight the feedback (rearview mirror) but you do need to reassure them that you WANT to step up and will try to in the future. Something along the lines of "I appreciate that and in some cases felt that as well. That is something I want to focus on this upcoming year and would welcome some advice in how you think I could achieve that." goes over a lot better than "yeah sure i guess that makes sense."

    • 1
Feb 28, 2019

Yup agreed - I like that phrasing. I'm hoping to incorporate something like this next time.

Almost anything is better than the deer-in-the-headlights look!

Mar 1, 2019

You need a vacation amigo - you are starting to take yourself way too seriously.

Spend some of that bonus on a fun trip.

    • 1
Mar 1, 2019

Kinda a weird power dynamic / inbalance to be caught off guard like that. I think you responded the same as most people would.

If you really care (and depending on your relationship with the partner), I'd ask to sit down with him again. Basically say you've had more time to reflect on his comments/feedback and wanted to discuss it. You can then talk about what your edit said in wanting to have more responsibility etc. At a minimum, I think it shows you're not push over and are willing to have tough conversations - something that is more partner level-esq.

    • 1
Feb 28, 2019

Agreed on both points - I have an email out to the partner's assistant to try to set up a coffee to "talk a bit more about my performance in a less formal setting" and "get his personal view on how things have gone". Not expecting much, but to your point at least it shows engagement!

    • 1
Most Helpful
Mar 1, 2019

This advice obviously won't necessarily help you go back in time and fix this past encounter, but may help you be better prepared for your next review. One exercise that I've found to be helpful during review season is writing your own detailed self-review, from as objective / honest of a standpoint as you possibly can. Develop feedback on your own performance across every dimension you can think of and specifically reference projects / deals you worked on during the course of the year that support the positives and criticisms in your self-review. That way, when you get vague feedback like you got this past review, you are prepared to respond with very specific data points about why you agree or disagree...e.g., on the "you need to step up more" feedback, you could have been prepared to say "well, when we did deal X I believe I did A, B, and C to help move the process forward that I believe was above and beyond my current job expectations as an associate"...that's not particularly eloquent, but you get the point. Even if that doesn't necessarily change the conclusion, I think it helps show that you've at least spent the time critically evaluating your feedback and that you aren't afraid to push back against others conclusions if you don't believe the basis for their feedback is grounded in facts.

    • 5
Mar 1, 2019

Whoops, "evaluating your feedback" should say "evaluating your performance"

Mar 1, 2019

I really like this, thanks for the suggestion.

Writing a candid review of yourself is a great way to prepare yourself for what has the potential to be an uncomfortable conversation, even if there isn't anything specifically wrong (e.g., in OP's case).

Mar 1, 2019

Love the user name!

Feb 28, 2019

Thank you - this is really helpful. I appreciate the reply!

Mar 6, 2019

This is good advice.

By the way, people should not be afraid to hold their managers accountable for being managers. If they are vague, ask them to clarify. If they say things like " Well, you just aren't ready to be promoted, get a raise, etc." ask them "Ok, what does that next step look like? or what does that higher comp look like responsibility/experience wise" - Sure, you will have managers who say fuck off but in my experience many of the people who end up managing teams are simply bad at it. Great at their jobs, awful at managing people, mentoring people and developing people - with the exception of those who are like them or absurdly high performers that probably didn't need it anyway.

    • 2
Mar 1, 2019

When I go into these things I'm always prepared with some variation of, "I appreciate the feedback. Let me get back to you once I've had time to evaluate the entire year".

I think people understand that you're "drinking from a firehose" at things like this so no one is going to knock you for wanting just a little bit of time to process and appreciate the good and address the bad by coming up with resolutions to improve.

Mar 1, 2019

When you get unfair criticism, try and carve out a portion of the blame that you can put on yourself, and then push back very gently on the rest if think it was really unfair. Also, if applicable, mention any improvements you've already made.

Example: "so and so says you failed to step up on this project."

Response: "I understand where that person is coming from. There were some missed opportunities on that project, and I was frustrated with myself that I missed those. I think I've done a better job at stepping up on other projects since and will continue to be aware of this issue. I do feel that project was a tough one to step up on because the team was so large, but recognize I could've been better as well."

Then work on getting revenge on the asshole who put that comment in your review. Seriously, fuck that passive-aggressive nonsense. I've had problems with coworkers before, and it's never been hard to address it right on the spot. If someone wants you to step up, they can tell you right then and there or forever hold their peace.