Women and the annual performance review: Prepare yourself!

It is that time of the year again.... Come December / January, managers in most organizations take a moment with each team member to look back at the previous year and prepare for the next. This may happen formally or informally. In any case, it is both an important opportunity not to be missed and a risk to be managed.

In this article I will discuss how to prepare for the review if you are a woman and if you are the team member. In a follow-up article, I will approach the challenge from the perspective of the manager who does a review with a female team member.

As a woman being appraised, it is important to be aware of what makes it different for you. It is equally important to prepare yourself to make sure that it turns out to be an opportunity for you. This article will describe strategies that work for women.

Recently, Fortune magazine published the results of a study that indicates that women and men get different performance reviews, even if their performance in terms of results is similar.
In environments such as technology, where women are clearly in the minority, women get more critical reviews. This happens independently of whether the manager is a man or a woman. What is more, whereas men get suggestions to develop certain skills, women are asked to change their behavior and become less bossy, abrasive or judgmental.

Because of the inherent subjectivity in performance appraisals, it has been suggested to do away with the formal system altogether. I don't believe this takes away the problem. It would also deprive the manager and the team member of an important moment of reflection and intimacy in our otherwise very hectic contemporary workplaces.

To know what is going on here, we need to look first at the difference in balance between positive and negative feedback that women and men receive. Next, we will analyze the content of the feedback.

Actually, I am not surprised at these results and will offer the following explanations. In my practice as an Executive Coach, I have noticed that women are more open to receiving negative feedback than men. This is first and foremost a strength. For healthy, balanced self-criticism is a condition for successful leadership development. Yet this strength comes with a flipside. If you are open to negative feedback, you are more likely to receive it. As a matter of fact, most managers - unless they are well-trained - dread giving negative feedback, even while fully realizing that it is important to manage the performance of their staff. Managers want to avoid conflict or are afraid to demotivate the team member. Therefore they are more willing to give negative feedback to a person who signals openness.

In itself, this is not a problem. It is better to know what your manager thinks than to be left in the dark. And it may even be helpful for your productivity. But it may prime the manager to give you more negative feedback than merited. Or create an imbalance in your manager's perception of you. So pay attention to this in the performance review and make sure that there is a balanced, fact-based view on your performance.

The real problem lies in the impact this imbalance may have on your reputation. Processes and systems do a lot to prevent arbitrariness, but cannot fully take away the subjectivity. At the end of the day, important people decisions also depend on whether you are being seen as "promotable" or a "good person to work with". Therefore, to develop your career, next to achieving results, you also need to actively manage your reputation.

In my book Leadership Strategies for Women I explain how this works. Actively using your network is a good strategy. On top of traditional networking (getting access to key information and key players), women need to use their network to build and maintain a positive reputation. Make sure to inform the members of your network of what you do and of your results. That will help them to speak positively about you.

Now for the content of the feedback. As long as women are in a minority, they stand out. That they get more feedback than men on behavior that does not meet expectations therefore is not surprising either. And even when it is not expressed, it may still be happening in the manager's mind. If it is expressed, don't get defensive. It may scare off the manager to give you the full picture. It also may trigger the stereotype of "taking things personal". Better to have your facts and achievements ready to disarm the perception.

That does not fully deal with the reputational risk, however. Another strategy from Leadership Strategies for Womenis to get a mentor. This should be a man rather than a woman. Because in addition to traditional mentoring (opening doors, helping you understand the culture), a senior man is better placed to inform you about how (someone like) you are (is) perceived by the male majority in the organization. Such a person can help you reflect on what works and what does not for a woman in that particular environment: to develop a unique, authentic, feminine leadership style. A style that is made up of a portfolio of behaviors to prevent you from being locked into a mono-dimensional stereotype.

Preparing yourself for the performance appraisal as a woman means coming well- armed with facts and watching out for an imbalance in the feedback. Managing the outcome of your performance review means actively engaging your network to build and maintain a positive reputation. A man as mentor can help developing a leadership style that enhances your reputation as a woman leader.

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