A Blog series by Elise Misse

Blog #7

Performance Reviews – The Eternal Battle Between
the Hearts and Minds of Working Women

No matter what industry we work in, or how high we have climbed the corporate ladder, the performance review sparks dread in the hearts of many. There is something innately nerve-racking about sitting opposite our boss and, to all intents and purposes, justifying why our salary should continue to be removed from the company bottom line.

Of course, that’s not really the point of performance reviews. This is a time to drill down on our strengths and weaknesses. It should help us to emphasise the former, tailoring future duties to them. It’s an also an opportunity to reflect on the latter and find a way to overcome them.

Is this actually achievable in the short space of time allocated to these meetings? Most people think not. Personally, I agree with them – I have long considered performance reviews, in their current format, to be a waste of time. The evidence bears this belief out, too. Performance review cost money and show limited results for a business. Despite what we’re led to believe, the annual performance review does not sift the wheat from the chaff.

Performance reviews often feel like we’re standing in the dock of a courtroom, wondering what verdict will be handed down. We all know how we feel we performed during the year, but do our superiors in the workplace agree? Will we be walking out of the boardroom buoyed by a positive interaction, more determined than ever to push on for a promotion? Or do we return to our desks over-caffeinated and demotivated after another pointless meeting?

It shouldn’t be this way. We should be treating our workplace performance appraisals the same way we do job interviews. A performance review is a chance to weigh up whether a job is meeting our needs and career aspirations. This should be treated with equal importance as the opportunity of our boss to pass judgment on our achievements. Put bluntly, we should be appraising our employers just as much as they are reviewing us.

Now, I don’t recommend sitting with your arms folded and asking, “so, what have you done for me lately?” We all need to play the game, to a greater or lesser degree. What’s more, we need to be mindful of our use of language during these meetings. Whether we like it or not, the next year of our working lives will be influenced by this meeting. With that in mind, it’s worthwhile to stop and think about how we plan to approach a performance review.

This is especially important for women. It’s sad but true that many women feel undervalued and disrespected while they go about their duties at work. Whether this is by accident or design, it’s not sustainable. Performance reviews can be pivotal for a working woman to really understand where she stands. Business performance should be part of the conversation every working day. Sadly, for women, it’s more akin being questioned about whether we belong, and if our roles would be performed more efficiently by male colleagues. Yes, believe it or not, people with this view still exist. Review meetings are often the only opportunity women get to say their piece, regardless of the outcome.

A performance review for a female staff member could go one of two ways. Will the opportunity be taken to build her up, and give her something to strive for? Or will it be taken as a chance to tell pushy female colleagues (you know the ones – they’re the team members that would be called, “ambitious” and, “confident” if they were men) to pipe down, accept what they are given and be prepared to be taken down a notch?

When you’re in the midst of a review, resist the temptation to express relief that all appears to be fine and get out of dodge. During a performance review, you have a captive audience. Your boss – and potentially other senior figures in your company – have carved out a chunk of their time to spend with you, discussing your career and personal development and nothing else. No phone calls, no checking emails while you’re talking, no snatched two-minute discussions while riding an elevator. How many times can you say that?

This means that, ahead of a performance review, think long and hard about what you’re looking for from your career. More importantly, question how your employer can help you achieve those goals. Women often appear to be reluctant to ask for what they want in the workplace.

I understand that. There’s an – outdated and unwelcome – expression that opines that, “nice girls don’t ask.” Well, maybe that’s true. I’m not a ‘nice girl’, though. I am a professional woman that has sacrificed plenty of blood, sweat and tears in the pursuit of my career. To that end, I am no longer prepared to sit back and accept what somebody sees fit to spoon-feed me.

For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not claiming to be some kind of trendsetting superwoman. It takes a lot of work for me to remember my worth, and to not fall back into old habits. This is a recent revelation for me. Until recently, I was one of the women covered in this HBR study.

I was willing to negotiate on a job offer … up to a point. If negotiations were a poker game, I was the likelier party to fold unless I was certain that I was holding a Royal Flush. I subscribed to the theory that it was best not to rock the boat, lest I end up toppling overboard and lacking a life preserver. Like many women, I was almost conditioned not to discuss my achievements – and request that they be factored into any offer – lest it appear like I was tooting my own horn. As we know, that’s the worst thing that any women in the workplace can do. That is no way to live. We need to stand up and be counted, being prepared to state our case with confidence and without apology.

This is more prevalent than ever right now, with the COVID-19 global pandemic changing the way we do business. Working parents do not have the luxury of concentrating exclusively on work while we’re completing our tasks from home.

People have taken to pointing out that William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton rose to prominence while the Black Death savaged Europe. Good for them. Riddle me this, though – did these gentlemen have to plait hair, cut sandwich angles with the precision of a protractor and solve the eternal mystery of Who Started It while doing so? Anybody criticised and penalised for this during a global crisis of hitherto-unmatched proportions, especially if juggling work with childcare, is in the wrong environment. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. This is a time for the corporate world to show its support for employees, not cut corners and seek scapegoats. Thankfully, it appears that many businesses are taking this on-board.

I have found my own confidence at work, not least thanks to the support and advice of the inspirational business figures that make up the LEAD network. I have taken their advice on board especially the many and varied Life Lessons, and I hope to coach the next generation of working women to do the same.

If I have one piece for advice for anybody, it’s to find your tribe and form a personal support network. We have every right to expect reward and acknowledgement for our achievements, just like professional men do. We should not have to flutter our eyelids and say, “please” every time we desire recognition.

This is a subject close to the heart of Emer Brady, Director at Chispa Consultancy – and one of the key figures at LEAD that I just mentioned. Regular readers of this blog may recall that I met with Emer at the 2019 LEAD Conference. Since then, we managed to sit down for a fascinating conversation about woman in the workplace. Most of the key learnings from that meeting bleed into the world of performance reviews.

Emer is firm believer in the power of confidence – and the philosophy of, “don’t ask and you won’t receive.” Confidence is key when entering a performance review. Do not go into the process hoping to avoid the worst. Instead, expect the best – and if it is not forthcoming without prompting, ask for it. So many women in the workplace are seemingly afraid to ask for what they deserve.

The fear of the word, “no” is a powerful deterrent, but we should not be accepting that.

 The fear of the word, “no” is a powerful deterrent, but we should not be accepting that. We should not be expected to receive a blanket, “no” and leave it that. Ask for an explanation. After all, If the negative response is justified, there will be an acceptable justification immediately at hand. If it’s a “no” right now, how can that be changed to a “yes” in the future? Is that a decision that you can influence, or are you wasting your time and effort? Your energies could be better directed elsewhere.

Point out why your request is not just reasonable – it’s actually the minimum that you deserve. If your request continues to be denied, without any thought or time devoted to rationalisation, remember what we discussed earlier. You’re evaluating your employers as much as they are evaluating you. Are you really going to achieve your ambitions in such a workplace? Maybe it’s time to start thinking about new pastures, even if that’s just a new team within an existing workplace. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to get it turning again.

This will send a powerful message to younger colleagues. Emer explained how she spends time mentoring and teaching teenage girls, finding that lack of confidence can begin at this age. We need to empower the next generation of working women, by words, acts and deeds. We need to send a message that, as women, we are not worthy of less.

Of course, how you deliver this message is also key. Emer spent a prolonged period of time explaining how important it is to deliver communication in a manner that the recipient can understand. Stay silent if you must – let the impact of your words sink in. More importantly, however, learn the communication style of the person reviewing you. This way, you’re much likelier to have a productive meeting. It’s hard to come to a mutually satisfying agreement when one of you is constantly attempting to explain yourself.

The temptation will always be to pre-prepare a list of triumphs over the preceding twelve months. That’s all valid, and let’s be absolutely clear – women, especially, should never be shy about pointing out what we have achieved in the workplace. It’s not like anybody else is going to shout it from the rooftops.

All the same, think about your audience. Don’t come across as though you’re preparing a case for the defence before you’ve even been attacked. Be ready to listen to what is being said – and I do mean listen, not just waiting for your time to speak. This way, you’re more likely to get what you’re looking for.

Finally, Emer had a unique suggestion to completely rejig the performance review format – and its one that I am fully on board with. Emer suggests replacing the outdated model of the Personal Development Plan with the Personal Fabulous Plan. Women do not need to be reminded about what should improve. Professional women are constantly striving to do better anyway, every day. Instead, we should be reminding women why they are fabulous. Let’s build up female colleagues up, not knock them down.

Every performance review tells a story, and you are the protagonist of this particular tale. Don’t think of your boss as the villain of the piece, especially if you’re lucky enough to work within a supportive management structure. Do ensure that your value is presented, acknowledged and recognised, though. Emer was insistent on this – provide factual data that backs up what you are explaining. Nobody can deny evidence that is placed in front of their own two eyes, no matter how powerful their wishes.

You know what you have achieved better than anybody else. If your superiors are not aware of what you have done over the course of the year, demonstrate your value – all the while asking yourself why this was necessary. Above all, remember that it’s you that assigns your personal value. Nobody else has that ability, or that right – no matter what side of a desk they are sitting on.

About LEAD Network Europe

The LEAD Network Europe is a non-profit and volunteer-led organisation whose mission is to attract, retain, and advance women in the consumer products and retail sector in Europe through education, leadership, and business development. The LEAD Network is run by and for its members, women and men, and we value every individual for their unique perspective. With a primary focus on promoting gender equality the organisation strives for the advancement of women of every race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, educational background, national origin, religion, physical ability and lifestyle. Its vision is of a fair, diverse and vibrant industry where everyone can thrive. A diverse workforce where both men and women are enabled to contribute their full potential and lead their organisations to the next level of value creation. LEAD Network accounts for 18,000+ members – both women and men – from 81 countries.

For more information, please visit www.lead-eu.net