How to Get the Performance Appraisal Right When the Direct Report is a Woman

There is a lot at stake in such formal performance conversations: money, career and relationships. Both parties realize that if done well, the outcome can be an engaging and productive working relationship. If done wrong, a working relationship that is undermined by bad vibes and negative energy.

In cultures where a high value is attached to formal ways of recognition, such formal conversations and their outcomes have an even bigger impact. What is more, there is a difference between having such a discussion with a female or a male direct report. As the appraising manager, it is important to be aware of why and how it is different. You then need to make sure that it does result in an opportunity for you, your team member, and the organization you serve. This article will describe a few strategies that work for bosses with one or more women reporting to them.

First, you should expect your female direct report to enter the conversation with a different mindset than her male colleague. The good thing is that it will be easier to agree with a woman about failures. The bad thing is that she may have a tendency to minimize the successes. A man on the contrary will be more inclined to minimize the failures or try to find excuses. Men tend to be more narcissistic than women. The more narcissistic a person, the more that person is likely to avoid taking an objective look at lower performance results.

The most challenging female direct reports therefore are those with a superior performance. How to assess their true added value and how to identify their true ambitions through a smoke screen of underestimation? Here it is important to get your facts right. Make sure that not only all the important results are covered in the conversation, but also that you both agree on what these results have delivered for the organization. I would recommend emphasizing why you as a manager are objectively convinced that these positive results deserve to be called successes.

Second, you need to be aware of your own mindset as you enter the conversation. Bosses are normal people and do not operate in a vacuum. People easily attach a label to a person, based on what this person says or does or how others talk about her. Ask yourself, how have I labeled this person? Particularly, if that person is different from the rest of your team. How do you interpret certain behaviors? Is asking for feedback a sign of a willingness to learn or of a lack of self-confidence? What about leaving the office in time to pick up children from school? Evidence of efficient time management or lack of commitment? When asked, most managers will say that their staff evaluations are unbiased. But what does that really mean? Using the same performance criteria or judging everyone's behavior through the same subjective filter? The formal performance discussion provides an opportunity to reset the relationship between supervisor and subordinate and take away such misperceptions that intoxicate the relationship. Keep an open mind and allow facts as well as different ways of interpreting the same fact disavow your labels and biases.

When the appraisal is also about assessing competencies on top of meeting objectives, you need to be particularly careful as a manager. How gender-neutral are the competencies you are working with, really? For when it comes to leadership competencies, they probably are not. They are usually based on what makes men successful leaders in male-dominated organizations. If you apply these standards one-to-one to all your staff, the women are likely to show up as less competent. What is more, your direct report will tend to come to the same conclusion. As a result you risk ending up both agreeing that she is not ready for more responsibility and missing an opportunity to develop and promote talent. Once you are aware of this, you can free yourself of the straightjacket of your organization's competency framework and customize it to the needs and potential of your direct report. Together you can then discuss what it would take to make her successful in the organizational context she is working in. It would be helpful for the manager to ask questions like: What is it that you need in your particular situation to excel?

Finally, call a spade a spade! If your female direct report is in the minority, do address the challenge: How can we turn your difference into a positive contribution that adds value to the business?

As a boss, preparing yourself for the performance appraisal of your female team member means coming well-armed with facts, an awareness for labels that may affect your judgment, and being attentive to differences in mindset and expression between male and female direct reports.

Further reading:

  • Paul Vanderbroeck, "Lonely Leaders: And how organizations can help them”, in: The International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching Volume VIII Issue 1 December 2010, pp. 83-90.Link
  • Paul Vanderbroeck, “The traps that keep women from reaching the top and how to avoid them”, in: Journal of Management Development 29 issue 9 2010, pp. 764 – 770. Link
  • Jean-Francois Manzoni, Jean-Louis Barsoux, The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: Overcoming the Undertow of Expectations, Boston (HBR Press) 2007. Link