Attitude: The Unfair Expectation Women Face at Work.

I hated performance evaluations. I always greeted them with an overwhelming sense of dread – and I never really thought too much about why, until recently when I was writing a blog about preparing for an annual performance evaluation (coming next week).

When I was early in my career, I always felt like I had something to prove. As a result, I was constantly [over]analyzing everything I did and trying to figure out how I could be better at my job. So when I walked into my first “annual review” I felt pretty confident that I knew what feedback I would get. I probably knew better than my boss what I needed to work on, what I was putting off, and the places I could improve. I wasn’t worried about the conversation.

There I sat, across from my boss, ready to hear the things I already knew, get a pat on the back, and be back to work. Section after section I was met with “meeting expectations” and “exceeding expectations” with very little insight on places I could improve or specific examples of what I could do better – nothing unexpected. When we got to the final section of my review, “Attitude,” I was given, “Needs Improvement”. I was immediately confused.

What followed was a stream of statements like:

“You’re too blunt.” “You need to be better about filtering what you say.” “You need to be nicer in your communication.” “You’re aggressive.” “You speak your mind too much.” “You need to smile more when sharing an opinion.”

I sat there flabbergasted. I had never been called aggressive in my life and as a girl that was moderately bullied in my youth, being told to be “nicer” was a punch in the gut. I didn’t understand. Was I a direct communicator? Yes. Did I have opinions and state them? Yes. Was I assertive, passionate and driven? Yes. But I’d never been told that any of it was a bad thing. It felt deeply personal. Never in my life had someone given me negative feedback that felt so directly tied to who I was as a person and NEVER had I gotten feedback that my communication was a problem.

(With one tiny exception being the t-shirt I proudly wore as a 6 year-old that stated “I love my attitude problem”. Hey, it was the 80’s.)

For years to come, I consistently got feedback about my communication. I consistently was called “scary,” “aggressive,” and “blunt”. I consistently, on almost every evaluation, was told I was doing an exceptional job – except for – you guessed it – my communication.

All those years and all that feedback shook my confidence to the core. I found myself constantly second guessing if I was “too much” in a meeting, holding back from sharing my opinion because I had already talked too much, and generally sugar-coating feedback and comments that should have been delivered more directly. It was like an out of body experience. It felt inauthentic. I hated it.

It didn’t last.

Somewhere along the way, I decided to stop caring about the feedback and to be true to myself – regardless of the way my actions were perceived. Somewhere I along the way I realized that it wasn’t me. It was them.

The truth is, women are more critically judged for displaying assertive and confident communication. An article in Harvard Business Review states, “While ability to communicate can be an important skill for leaders, it is noteworthy that women received most of the negative feedback about communication styles.” In fact, their research showed that 76% of references to being “too aggressive” were found in women’s reviews.

The reality is that the expectation for women in the workplace is to be smiley, happy, empathetic, compassionate, warm, inviting, and motherly. When we, as women, don’t fit into the expectation that people (both men and women) have for us, the behaviors are seen as problematic, unacceptable, and often get in the way of our advancement.

So what do we do about it?

First, we have to evaluate every piece of feedback we receive. We have to ask for examples of the problematic behavior and request insight on alternatives. We then have to vet each of those instances against our gut. We have to ask ourselves, “Is this feedback objectively true or is this feedback subjective?”

Second, we then have to do our due diligence and find what is useful in that feedback by asking ourselves: What within this feedback is helpful? How can I use this feedback to get better (even if it is subjective)?”

Third, we have to pay attention to individual triggers that people have about our communication. Perhaps it’s a certain word or phrase you use that turns them off. Maybe it’s a certain topic. Pay attention and use that information as data to adapt, retool, and find different ways to get your point across to people – in a way they can hear it. Communication is 100% the way the message is received and 0% the way the message was intended to be received. We can’t change intrinsic or unconscious bias overnight, but we can adapt our style so our messages are heard and accepted more often in spite of that bias.

The point in all of this to not let our communication be the thing that holds us back from advancement. This Forbes article highlights women who’ve been successful in the aftermath of “bad communication” feedback. Each of the women took a different course, but all of them refused to allow the feedback to stand in their way – or shake their confidence.

Was some of the feedback about my communication warranted? Probably. I was young and hadn’t quite learned the art of finessing one’s communication to each individual. In the end, I used that feedback to find a way to be myself; direct, passionate, assertive, driven, but in a way that gives my communication power instead of weakening it. I’ve found a way to authentically deliver messages that can be received in the way I intend them. I’m still a straight shooter and I still regularly get feedback about my communication style. Am I okay with it? You bet.

Until we break more glass…