Managing Performance Review Anxiety: Ten Guidelines for Women in Tech

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2020 is less than a month away! With the end of the year (and decade) comes new chapters, new beginnings, as well as evaluations and reflections on the past six months (or “half” as they say in the tech world) at work.

Performance reviews are a special season unto themselves, and they can create quite a bit of discomfort, angst and panic for those forced to endure them.

Women in the male-dominated tech industry tend to feel additional pressure in these scenarios. Many women in tech I have worked with have expressed frustrations with how they have been reviewed, the specific areas of their performance that their supervisors and/or peers have chosen to critique, being passed over for raises or promotions, or receiving what they perceive to be irrelevant or unhelpful feedback. Some have felt that racism, sexism and unchecked privilege have bled into their performance reviews.

For these reasons, I have put together some guidelines designed specifically for women in tech to assist in managing and conquering the performance review process.

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#1 Set a Clear Intention

It may be tempting to avoid thinking about your performance review and plan to just wing it, but it doesn’t take much time or energy to reflect on what you want to get out of this experience.

What are your hopes and the areas you want to focus on? Do you have something you want to communicate? Are you wanting to be awarded a promotion or a raise? Do you want feedback about a specific area in your role? Do you want to just focus on listening with an open mind? How, specifically, are you going to ask for what you want or act on your intention?

A few minutes of reflection and setting an intention for the review can help you feel more grounded, confident and prepared.

#2 Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

Knowledge is power and the unknown tends to create a lot of anticipation. If this, for instance, is your first review at a new company and you aren’t sure about the process, what the format of the meeting will actually look like, or if you need to prepare anything specific beforehand…just ask. It will make you look responsible and attentive. Plus, knowing what to expect can help to quell some of your anticipatory anxiety.

This tip also applies to the actual review. If you receive some generic or vague feedback that makes you scratch your head, remain gracious and composed and ask for clarification.

Example: “You mentioned you want to see me take more initiative. In what specific ways?” “You said that you want me to play a role in expanding the team. In your mind, what are some of the actionable steps I should be taking to bring that to fruition?”

#3 Protect Yourself Via Documentation

This step might not feel necessary for everyone, but we have a saying in the psych field: “If you didn’t record it, it didn’t happen.” If someone says something off-color, document it. If someone gives you feedback that doesn’t add up, even after following guideline #2, document it. In fact, if your gut is telling you that you need to document your entire performance review, do it.

Of course, always ask for and obtain permission beforehand (ideally via writing; perhaps over email) to take notes or audio record (review this guide for the latter) your meeting. You can simply say that you want to document the meeting so you don’t “miss any important information or feedback shared.” And if your request for documentation is denied, document that.

#4 Practice Concise But Informative Review-Writing

Tech workers have the added pressure of having to review (in many cases) their peers as well as themselves and their supervisors. For some, it’s basically like taking on a second job.

You may have a boss that just loves lengthy prose, in which case, if you feel inclined to write a novella in your performance reviews, go to town.

That said, we are living in 2019, and brevity is generally the preferred order of the day. People want their info quickly, clearly, and eloquently stated. So unless otherwise indicated, don’t feel you have to knock yourself out writing long, meticulous performance reviews. After all, you will be writing quite a few and your time is a limited resource. Come up with a few key points you’d like to communicate and figure out how to directly state your case in three to five sentences for each. Remember that a short, direct message (or “sound byte”) is more likely to be remembered than paragraphs upon paragraphs, anyway.

#5 Use Thought Records to Challenge Anxious or Overly-Negative Thoughts

Catastrophizing that your performance review will result in your getting fired on the spot, forcing you to move back home to Virginia and live with your parents for the rest of your life? Personalizing a comment a coworker made about how you’re not enough of a “go-getter”? All or nothing thinking making you feel like a total failure for getting a few pieces of constructive criticism?

Thought records can help you put these thoughts into perspective, before and after your review occurs. Check out my posts on how to use them here and here.

#6 Ramp Up Your Self-Care Practices

I know I sound like a broken record, but if your performance review anxiety is, say, making it hard to get enough sleep, causing you panic attacks, or just weighing you down emotionally more than you’d like, there isn’t any harm in increasing your self-care practices for a temporary period of time.

Exercise, mindfulness meditation, cutting down on caffeine or sugar, eating regular meals, spending extra time with your friends, partner, or pets, whatever it looks like…why not acknowledge that this is a challenging time and take extra good care of yourself? Come up with a daily self-care plan, put it on your calendar, and stick to it. You can plan extra self-care for the week leading up to the review as well as afterwards if you like.

#7 Plan & Practice Your Go-To Response

Even though I was a psych major, I took a lot of creative writing courses in college. Whenever it was time for the entire class to critique my stories, I’d get nervous. Everyone was always really nice and supportive, but, like performance reviews, getting feedback on your work is an inherently uncomfortable process. One thing that helped me was to plan and practice my go-to response ahead of time.

If you’re a Frasier fan (as I am, but that’s another blog post), you may remember the episode where Martin goes on Antiques Roadshow with a bear clock he inherited. He tells his sons, Frasier and Niles, that no matter what the antiques expert tells him about the clock, he plans to reply with: “That’s pretty much what I figured.”

You may find it helpful to come up with a go-to catchphrase of your own. Something agreeable and gracious that acknowledges what the person has said and conveys that you are going to respectfully reflect on the feedback they’ve offered. After all, there’s no rule that says you have to have a quick rebuttal to everything someone says on the spot. Taking time to reflect and absorb shows thoughtfulness and self-possession.

#8 Remember that a Lot of the Time, People Just Need to Write Something

Whether it’s writing a performance review or a college paper, we’ve all had the experience of needing to just figure out something to write and not always knowing what that looks like. Add to this the fact that performance reviews are engineered to elicit constructive criticism, and the truth is that sometimes you wind up with feedback that…doesn’t feel all that meaningful.

I’m not saying you should automatically disregard criticism if you disagree with it, but if you’re getting feedback that seems totally out of left field and the person giving it isn’t even all that familiar with you or your work, consider the possibility that…they just had to write something.

Use guideline #2 to gain as much clarity as you can, be honest with yourself, and try not to over-personalize feedback that may not be all that personal.

#9 Discuss Your Anxieties With a Supportive Person

It helps to have a friend, family member, mentor, partner, therapist or other support person you can talk to about your upcoming performance review anxiety. Choose someone who is non-judgemental, empathetic and encouraging, someone you feel safe being emotionally vulnerable with. Let them know that your upcoming review is causing you anxiety and why. Sometimes, just sharing your feelings with someone else can be comforting and remind you that you aren’t alone. If setting up a post-review debrief with them will help you feel more secure, you can ask to schedule a check-in with them. Be sure to return the favor, let them know how much you appreciate their support and always be considerate of their time.

#10 Trust Yourself to Handle Whatever Happens

Remember that whatever happens in your performance review, you will be okay. Things might not go the way you planned or wanted them to. You might not get the promotion you feel you deserved. You may feel unfairly judged or critiqued. Or, you may come out of your review feeling relieved and flattered.

You are a strong person, and you will handle whatever happens, when it happens. Take a wait and see approach and remind yourself that you have responded to difficult or challenging situations in the past, and you are fully capable of doing this now.

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In many ways, the performance review is an exercise in rolling with the punches, and learning how to handle and respond to whatever feedback comes your way while maintaining composure and a can-do attitude. It reminds me of this quote by mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn:

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

What are your strategies for managing performance reviews? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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This site is for informational purposes only. It isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any mental health problems and is not intended as psychological advice.
© 2019 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

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