Performance reviews can be nerve-wracking, especially if you're not sure what you're going to hear from your boss. And if your manager has feedback for you that is more about your personality than your work, it can be tough to know how to respond. Here's how to handle personality-based feedback so you can move onto focusing on improving your work.
This kind of negative personality criticism — watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental! — shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.
Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, a lawyer and behavioural economist, writes on Harvard Business Review about her similar findings.
One of my findings, using content analysis of individual annual performance reviews, shows that women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback).
How to Identify Personality-Based Feedback
Regardless of your gender, this type of feedback can be hard to spot. Shannon Fitzgerald, Director of HR at The Muse, clarifies that any time someone gives you feedback on who or what you are, that falls under personality-based feedback. Here are a few example characteristics:
Personality-based feedback isn't always negative; you also want to watch out for characteristics that box you into a gender stereotype, even if they're positive.
You don't want to miss out on leadership or development opportunities because your manager sees you as not being a personality fit.
You should also keep an eye out for other feedback in your review that downplays your contributions and performance. For example, a successful project you lead being attributed to "everyone working long hours" or to luck rather than your skills or experience.
What to Do When You Get Personality-Based Feedback
This type of feedback can be tough to hear, and even tougher to deal with, since it is often subjective. Fitzgerald recommends talking with the person who gave you the feedback. Aim to have a transparent discussion about their feedback and what they really meant. You want to end up with them giving you specific examples of your actions that tie back to the characteristics they mentioned, and specific steps you can take to address their concerns. You should walk away with them feeling like you can grow and improve. Fitzgerald explains how to get clarification:
So if someone gives personality-based feedback, ask for behaviours that may have caused that perception. Dig in deeper. A clarifying question can be "What was it that I said or did that gave you that feeling?" This will help them be more specific and it will also give you context into what actions caused that perception.
If you realise later that you've been given personality-based feedback, or you're unable to dive deeper in the moment, you can always circle back. You don't want to avoid getting more information because performance reviews can have a big impact on your career trajectory, as well as how your manager (and those above them) perceive your work. Fitzgerald gives an example phrase you can use to kick off a delayed discussion:
"You know, I've been thinking a bit more about how you said I was rude. That wasn't my intention so I'd like to get more clarity on what I said or did that gave you that perception."
If you need help navigating this conversation, Fitzgerald suggests turning to your HR department, or your company's Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if they have one. You can also practise with a trusted friend or mentor. Give them an idea of how you think your boss will respond or of past interactions with your boss so that they can effectively role play the conversation.