PART I: What game are we all playing?
I’d like to make a bold—and possibly controversial—assertion: Training women to more strongly self-promote for performance reviews is a losing strategy.
I know, it sounds crazy. There is plenty of research demonstrating that women don’t self-promote as much as men and that this has adverse career implications for women. So shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to help women get on an even playing field?
Please bear with me while I explain myself!
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In the lead-up to a past performance review cycle, a women’s affinity group within my company at the time held a workshop to help women write stronger self-evaluations, which were a critical part of the performance review process. The workshop presenters came well-armed with statistics showing women’s general reluctance to self-promote, explained how this results in self-evaluations that don’t lead to raises or promotions at the company, and connected this to negative impact on women’s career advancement compared to men’s.
The presenters then shared examples of what they considered to be strong self-evaluation statements, i.e., statements that correlated with positive performance reviews, implying—and in some cases explicitly stating—that “this is how men do it.” The presenters compared the strong statements to ones they considered to be weaker, implying that those were typical of women.
One of the key differences between the strong and weak self-evaluation statements was the degree of self-promotion: The strong statements were heavy on self-promotion and highlighted “me” and “I”; the weaker ones focused more on teamwork and coordination work and highlighted “we” and “us.”
(To clarify, there were additional differences between strong and weak self-evaluation statements. For example, strong ones included evidence of impact, preferably in the form of numerical examples, as well as expressive verbs. But the focus of the discussion was on ramping up the degree of self-promotion.)
The presenters then equipped workshop attendees with practical tips for writing stronger self-evaluations that would presumably improve our performance reviews and increase the likelihood of receiving a raise or promotion. They also led us through exercises, where we practiced writing self-evaluation statements that followed the patterns of the strong examples.
Overall, the workshop was a well-run event, effective, and incredibly generous of the presenters, as they were volunteering their own time to run it. And how cool is it that there was a sisterhood supporting each other in this way? (Answer: very, very cool!)
And yet, I couldn’t shake this gnawing feeling about the event.
Why were a group of women being trained to more effectively self-promote so that—in essence—they could be more like men? Was being more like a man what it took to be evaluated fairly and be competitive with male colleagues in the next performance review? (I thought I’d mostly left that behind when I transitioned out of the Navy.) And although there is statistical evidence supporting this man/woman split on self-promotion, it’s also true that the split does not universally apply across every individual man and woman. So directing this sort of training to women seemed unnecessarily exclusive. Oh and, by the way, the statistics say nothing about non-binary genders or race or other demographics.
The aim of this workshop didn’t feel right, even though I recognized that the presenters were sharing practical tools and advice based on the way things were. They were being pragmatic and empowering us to change behaviors that were within our control. They were teaching us how to ‘play the game’—a corporate version of realpolitik.
Maybe that was just it: The workshop had an undercurrent of resignation to this approach to performance reviews—an approach that apparently valued individual contributions over teamwork, and form over substance.
We were being taught to ‘play the game’ by amplifying “me” and “I” to ensure managers and leaders heard each of us, instead of putting the onus on managers and leaders to see through rhetorical techniques and nevertheless make fair performance assessments. And this push toward stronger self-promotion as a leveler between men and women seemed to mirror the worst of modern day mainstream media, where pithy clickbait and shouting the loudest get more attention than balanced and nuanced perspectives.
Not only did I disagree in principle with this approach to performance reviews and the values it reflects, but I was not ready to resign myself to it. Resignation in this case seemed too defeatist, especially because there is already awareness that performance review processes like this are flawed, perpetuate biases, and lead to negative outcomes for many employees, especially women and minorities. And separately, the whole idea of leaning into self-promotion is an energy zapper. For me, playing a game where self-promotion is the key to winning is not inspiring.
So, my bottom line takeaway: Instead of expecting that individual employees—and women (and minorities and other disadvantaged groups) in particular—learn to better play this game, why not demand that our organization change the game itself?
Coming soon: In Part II, I’ll share my diagnosis of what’s fundamentally wrong with this game (and I bet it’s not what you think), along with some ideas for how organizations can evolve toward something better.
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Originally posted on www.callmemapo.com.