black woman and white man smiling while in a work meeting

How many times have you been described as “abrasive” in a performance review? If you are a woman, you are 11 times more likely for this to be in your written feedback. How many times have you been described as “brilliant” in a performance review? If you are a white man, you are 9 times more likely for this to be in your feedback, according to a 2022 study of written performance reviews of over 25K people. 

Biases show up in a number of places, and when it shows up in performance reviews it can impact your compensation and your promotion prospects. If you are a woman or a person of color, your performance review might look very different than that of your colleagues. Whether the biases are conscious or unconscious, they are very real and can do a number on our self-esteem and our bank accounts!

How are our performance reviews different?

Not Actionable

First, the feedback is often not actionable! I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten the generalized, “You’re doing great,” and then when bonuses and promotion time come around, the actions taken did not reflect this statement. A friend of mine was up for partner at her firm, and her manager said she wasn’t ready. When she asked where the gaps were, he told her that she needed to up her technical expertise. She listed examples of her flexing her technical skills, and then asked what more she could do. His response? “I don’t know. You’ll have to figure that out.”   

Women over 40 receive more than four times as much feedback that’s not actionable compared to younger white men. If you’re a Black woman, that number more than doubles, with Black women receiving nearly nine times as much feedback that’s not actionable. If we don’t have visibility into our opportunity areas, how can we improve our skills to achieve our goals?

Focused on Personality vs Job Performance

The feedback that we receive is often more focused on our personalities rather than our job performance. A Black woman was called “aggressive” and “not a team player” in her annual review. When probed for the reason, her manager reminded her of an incident where the manager reached in to touch her hair, and the Black woman pulled away, not wanting to acquiesce to the invasion of her personal space. She was then penalized in writing for something that had nothing to do with her ability to perform the duties in her job description. Our feedback is more likely to have terms like “passionate” which is often a euphemism for troublemaker, dramatic, or “can’t get along with others.” Black and Latinx people report being described as “passionate” twice as often as their white colleagues. While white people rarely get the word “professional” in their reviews, it shows up three times as often for Black employees. Why do you think that is? Even when we do an amazing job and go above and beyond our duties, Black women get the label of “overachiever”, putting a negative spin on our hard work and dedication. 

The Feedback is Exaggerated 

Exaggerations like “You never meet deadlines on time” or “You always push back,” are found almost 30% more often for women versus men. Perhaps these bold exaggerations are used to emphasize a point. Perhaps they include recency bias, where their most recent interaction with their colleague gets confused to represent their entire experience. Regardless of why this happens, it can be an uphill battle to counter, especially when it’s your boss telling you this. 

Less Feedback Overall 

The more feedback you get, the more opportunity you have to understand where your gaps lie and grow in those areas. Black people get 20% less feedback (in word count) than whites. Black men get the least written feedback of all, receiving only 68 words of written feedback for every 100 words received by white women. 

5 Mindful Steps to Receiving Feedback

A 2023 update to the study reveals that people receiving low-quality feedback are 63% more likely to quit. However, not all of us are in a position to be able to leave, especially during economic downturns. And, while the performance review process can be challenging, you have the power to get what you need out of the process while maintaining a positive relationship with your manager. Practice these five mindful steps below and find out how: 

1. Take in the Positive! 

The “feedback sandwich” always starts with the positive, but most of us tune it out completely, letting it gloss over us as we wait for a bomb to drop. Instead, take the time to absorb and internalize it. Instead of saying “Thank you” and letting it fall flat, be curious about it! Ask follow up questions to better understand it. What are additional examples? If this is something you enjoy doing, might there be additional opportunities to further practice and flex this skill? Maybe this particular piece of positive feedback becomes a fundamental pillar in your personal brand if you play your cards right.

Food for Thought: What’s one piece of positive feedback that you have received in the last year that you could find additional opportunities to do more of?

2. Pause & Breathe Before Reacting

How many times have you prematurely reacted to a triggering comment and wished you had said something different? When it comes to comments that impact our ego and sense of self-worth, it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction that’s more emotionally charged than we would like. Pay attention to how the feedback is landing. If you feel your body tighten or your heart rate go up, these are clear signs that your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) is being impacted and you’re beginning to get triggered. If you notice yourself feeling this way, take a moment to pause and breathe before responding. 

This doesn’t have to be a long and awkward pause in the conversation. A simple deep breath can be the pause between stimulus and response that allows you to be more thoughtful and composed in whatever it is you say, and how you say it. Try doing a deep Belly Breath, where you intentionally send air to your belly when you inhale, allowing your belly to expand like a balloon. Your manager won’t even know that you’re doing it, and you will give your nervous system a chance to find balance enough to smoothly and confidently get through the conversation.

Food for Thought: Think of a challenging performance review meeting where pausing and taking a breath might have helped. Next time you experience something similar, try the Belly Breath.

3. Ask Clarifying Questions & Request Specific Examples

Channel your inner curiosity and ask questions to make sure you fully understand what they mean. Requesting specific examples of what they are referring to will help you amplify what’s going well and make adjustments if they are required. If they can’t provide you with any examples, either they didn’t come prepared or their feedback might not be backed with data. This is an opportunity for you to give them homework. Follow up with an email reminding them of the feedback that was shared and your request for examples since they couldn’t answer in the meeting. 

If the feedback is an improvement area, consider asking for specific actions you can take to address it. If you find that they are unable to offer you suggestions on what you can do, again I invite you to ask them in writing after the meeting to share with you once they have had a chance to think about it. Documentation is helpful so that you have something concrete to refer back to when following up. And, if for any reason the feedback was not grounded in evidence or contained bias, the documentation can be helpful for future conversations as well.

Food for Thought: Think about your last performance review. What piece of feedback could you benefit from understanding in more detail? Rather than waiting for your next review, ask about it in your next 1-1 with your manager. 

4. Be Mindful of How You Feel Afterwards

There are times when your review goes great, and I invite you to relish in those moments and take it in. However, if you find that you get home that night and notice that you are bothered by how it went, don’t ignore these feelings. If they go unaddressed, they can build up over time in the form of chronic stress. It can impact your interactions with others, including your boss, without you realizing it. I invite you to practice a mindfulness framework called RAIN to make sure you’re fully addressing and processing how you feel.

RAIN is an acronym. “R” is for “Recognize.” Recognize how you feel. Name the emotion. Simply naming it can often take away the charge of it, allowing you to understand that this is a temporary emotion you are experiencing. You are not the emotion itself. 

The “A” is for “Allow.” Rather than sweep it under the rug, give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling. Example: “I am experiencing frustration and anger, and it’s ok for me to feel this right now.” 

The “I” is for “Investigate.” Investigate where you are feeling this in the body. Maybe it’s a tightness in your chest, a lump in your throat, or a twisting in your stomach, but take a moment to notice it. This acknowledgement can be very powerful in releasing it and healing. Just describing it outloud or in a journal can be so helpful! 

Lastly, the “N” in RAIN is for “Nurture.” What would help you to feel better? Is it calling a supportive friend? Is it going to the gym to sweat it out? Is it taking a long bath to decompress? Figure out what is the right thing for you at this moment and do that!

Food for Thought: Bring to mind a performance review that didn’t go as well as you would have liked. Go through the RAIN framework while thinking about that experience.

5. Notice if You Disagree with the Feedback or Suspect Biases

If you find that you disagree with the majority of the feedback shared, ask for time to think about it. If you want to demonstrate that you are open to legitimate feedback, you can look for a few comments you do agree with and share that as you ask for this time. Saying something like, “I agree with XYZ, but as for the remainder of the feedback, I’d like to think about it and get back to you.” Make sure you do follow up, though! 

After the meeting as you digest what was said, it’s important for you to understand which pieces are the truth versus potentially influenced by biases. Ask for feedback from multiple sources so that you can validate what areas you should really think about working on. We all have areas for improvement! That said, if you find that everyone else disagrees with the feedback, it’s possible that bias might be playing a role here. Consider speaking up and giving feedback on the feedback. Rather than making accusations of bias, share data (feedback from others, metrics on what you’ve delivered) and frame it as an interest in better understanding where they are coming from. 

As a last resort, in cases where the bias is super clear, consider reporting it to HR. No one likes to be written up in this way, so this approach won’t be amazing for your relationship. According to a recent study, 46% of respondents said they don’t report bias and discrimination because they don’t believe it will be handled appropriately. That said, I know a white woman who was reported to HR for bias in her feedback and while she was surprised and unaware, she genuinely wanted to change. You will have to determine for yourself if this is the approach you’d like to take, but if you’ve tried other options to no avail, don’t write this one off completely.

Food for Thought: Have you ever had a performance review where you disagreed with the feedback? How did you handle it? What might you do differently if this were to happen again?

Final Thoughts

We all want to do better and be better. Feedback is a tool to help us on this journey. However, there are so many complexities, from biases that continue to exist, to the impact on our self-confidence and the resulting emotions that arise. The most important thing is to be mindful of how you are feeling about the feedback and take actions to both fully understand it and take care of yourself in the process!

Zee Clarke is the author of the book, Black People Breathe (Penguin Random House). She has been featured in many leading publications including ABC, Fortune, Forbes, CNBC, Ebony, Essence, and Fast Company.

She is a Harvard Business School graduate who applies holistic healing practices to corporate environments. Zee leads transformative workshops on mindfulness, breathwork and stress management tools for BIPOC employees at organizations such as Google, Visa, AMC Networks and more.

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