Performance Reviews: when authenticity is not good for you

For a few days I have been mulling over a post – how do you react to negative feedback in your performance review? I could not bring myself to write it, almost ashamed of what I had to put out there. Don’t get me wrong – I had an excellent performance review, but it felt less exceptional than before and, more importantly, it had not so good comments that I truly suffered with. I barely remember any of the good comments made to me, as I am certain I read none of those sentences through the end, as I quickly jumped to the development needs section. I knew what was coming, I had been pre-warned. No matter how much my manager tried to downplay it, I was not there to talk about anything else. 

It was not until a few days later, as I read an HBR article on ‘The Authenticity Paradox’, that I knew how to frame it. It is funny the world. I had this article for over 2 years printed and at my desk. And it was not until this week when I had an urge to tidy up and declutter, that I found it again and decided to put it in my bag to read it in my commute.  The moment I started reading it I knew that was the framing I needed to approach this not so smooth topic. What if your performance review has feedback you did not expect and that it may require you to go against what you believe yourself to “be”?

I believe in authenticity, and according to the article, that seems to be a problem. Why?

I am generally ‘true-to-self’ and, per the research, going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors. However, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what it is comfortable. And I decided that no matter how much I may have felt misunderstood in my attitude, I recognise it gives room to interpretation and therefore I am willing to step out of the comfort zone. What was the problem then?

Open Communication

I say to my team, more often than not, what I think when I think it. I am open about the different projects we have, different issues we face, the wins we get. I believe that makes them understand better the whys of doing what we do and be more inspired to do it well, but also more inspired to come up with more things we can do to achieve our end goals. I will let them know about conversations and meetings they have not been part of, as well as management conversations that give them insights into how the place is run. I recognise in the process of open communication 2 things happen:

  • I will provide my views on different matters, which may or may not be controversial. I do it always for the sake of challenge or showing the 2 sides of a story, but I am acutely aware of how it can be misinterpreted as open disagreement. I can most likely make this clearer in the future.
  • I will usually be working on a million different things, which is perfectly fine for me, but that may create a sense of under delivery in the broader team. I need to ensure I am more open about the fact that multiple projects don’t mean that anyone needs to lose sleep on it. Even I rarely do

Bear with me, as I am on guessing/ introspection ground here! In no way trying to be defensive, but really figuring this whole thing out myself…

Immediate Feedback

I installed on my team an immediate feedback culture. There are a few reasons for that, but I will highlight the biggies. First, I am someone who can hold resentment. Even though it is a trace of my personality I have been working on for years, I am acutely self-aware and therefore I find that addressing a problem the moment it happens will prevent any later resentment. The other reason is that I try to do it on the go, with a smile or a joke. I believe this allows people to know it the moment that it happens (rather than 3 weeks later, when it is hard to remember examples) and also that it is light enough that it does not require me calling them into a room with a serious conversation. What’s wrong with it then?

  • Banter is not something that everyone enjoys and most of all, it can be interpreted in very different manners. I recognise I “grew” up in banking, and my brain may be accustomed to a broader set of comments than those of the new generation. I am struggling with this one, but only awareness will help me here.
  • Immediate feedback can have the effect to add to the pressure, especially if there is a lot of it. There were a lot of deliverables in the team in the last few months, and I did push the team for more autonomy, which probably has the effect of requiring more feedback. This is one where I think I can work on.
  • Not everyone enjoys getting feedback in public. I do so because I thought it was not even feedback, but comments on outputs, which for me is something very different. If I am talking about a slide, an analysis or a chart, that for me is ongoing BAU and should be done on the spot. It does not require a pep talk. If we are talking about people stepping up, taking ownership or having an ownership, that is feedback and that will also be done 1on1 behind closed doors. But I recognise the younger generation could have a very grey line between the two.

The final bit is that I assumed the immediate feedback was open to the entire team. But I have not always kept myself in check to whether they are also sending feedback back to me. So I am finding ways to ensure that both avenues are open.

Approachability

The other side of authority is approachability. Even though this was not splashed on my review, I could see myself on it as I was reading through the HBR article talking about Cynthia, a new manager who, when given a new senior role, told her team it was scary and she would need their help. Even though she felt she was enlisting them, she was, in fact, undermining herself, as people questioned whether she would be able to do the job. I believe in being close to my team and approachable for many reasons:

  • I want to serve as role model, especially to women (I have 4 women in my team of 4 at the moment, which is by the way also a change of 2 out of 4 only 8 months ago). So I tend to over-share some thought processes and some choices, as I want the juniors to know that it is ok to make personal and professional choices, to take care of oneself, to value your family, to take time off, to work from home when you feel less well (or not work at all). I want to show them human is allowed at work as they start their careers.
  • I want them to feel entitled to contribute with ideas, challenge and discussion. I may make the ultimate decision but I do not dismiss ideas at the first go, without thinking through and evaluating the inputs. However, I do recognise I may have been at times less receiving of ideas, especially in the last 6 months. As the team went through a transition, I was mostly in teaching/training mode while trying to “get things done” and recognise I may have sometimes shut down ideas that I should not have, therefore being inconsistent with my own values. Point to note and improve taken!
  • I want to make them comfortable to approach me. I want them to know that I have doubts too, and therefore it is ok to have them and ask people around you for help. I never thought before that this might create any sort of doubt, but the article has left me wondering.

I will speak of one more point, one that can come from directs or managers, peers or partners. It is a free for all for people like me.

Attention to Detail vs. Stuck on Detail

This piece of feedback goes back a long way, and in all honesty, it had been disappearing as a development need from my reviews. In fact, it is no longer there this year, so why am I even bringing it up? Should I not be singing victory?

This year, one of my attributes was “detailed”. It was meant as a compliment, and it showed up more than once. And I felt disappointed with my efforts. Let’s be clear, I am EXTREMELY detailed. However, recognising that this would not help my positioning as strategic and I had to “grow out” of it as I grew in my role, I have taken measured efforts to get involved in the discussions at a more high level, while doing the background work with the team that still ensures I have all the data and facts I need to have to have that same discussion. I kind of thought it was working, so I was surprised to see it there. I guess strategic was also somewhere there, and I know there is a huge amount of conflict in my professional profile (even Lumina Spark agreed) so maybe I should just relax. But I may write it in big red letters in my notepad before my next intervention at the next meeting.

As you can imagine, I am barely happy with what my performance review told me. There were only 2 quotes out of the large number of them that are providing positive views on my performance. But constructive feedback is what makes you grow and develop and be stellar. And that is the path I want to be in. I am sure every year different feedback will show up, and I won’t always be expecting it. I am happy that old feedback gives way to new more niche comments. The HBR article says ‘By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right and suits our organization’s changing needs (…) that takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviours that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous”

Here it is, my authenticity paradox. I am now off to being authentic to my developing self (rather than just to self).

Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

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