After a long day of work, my boss stopped me on my way out of the office. “Can we chat for a sec?”
I sat down in the empty chair across his desk. It was promotion season, so like the rest of the managers at our consulting firm, he was busy working through stacks of performance reviews in addition to his full-time job as a project lead.
He was probably stressed. So was I. It was my first time writing a self-review, and I worked really hard on mine. It took me six hours outside of my regular workload. I waited for him to finish what he was working on. Finally, he turned to me.
“This is the worst self-appraisal I’ve ever read,” he said kindly.
And he was right — it was really awful. For starters, my self-review was littered with statements about work I had done with no indication that I had done them. I wrote every single line in passive voice:
The page was redesigned…
The usability of the site was drastically improved…
There were also a lot of ambiguous “we’s”:
We took on the redesign with an unclear understanding of the requirements, yet…
We tested 25 users over the course of two weeks, consolidated, organized, and structured the findings…
To top it off, he pointed out several pieces of work I had been doing in tandem with my day-to-day work that I didn’t even include in my review. This was extra work I’d taken on that didn’t seem to fit any of the categories I was evaluating myself on. It felt safer not to mention it.
For the next half hour, he explained what I could and should mention in my review. He also explained how I should phrase it. He knew how much work I was doing, and offered to correct for all the things I didn’t mention by adding them himself.
To this day, I consider myself lucky to have had a boss who saw me and my hard work, who pushed me to advocate for myself, and who didn’t let me submit something that undervalued my contribution to our company.
Good thing these situations don’t happen often — if they did, people might get held back by a system that tends to reward, elevate, and promote those who are comfortable advocating for themselves. Right?
But it does happen. A lot.
As women, we tend to be inherently reticent to advocate for ourselves based on how we were (or are) conditioned to think about opportunity and growth. Many of us think of career growth through the lens of undying gratefulness, intense humility, and adorable shyness. On top of that, there is an added perception of us that misconstrues our efforts when we do advocate for ourselves. According to studies like this one, when women advocate for themselves, it isn’t likely to end well for them:
Gender-linked stereotypes, roles, and norms constrain [women] from advocating as freely and effectively for themselves. … Women do not frequently make requests for themselves because they have learned that they may ultimately lose more than they gain.
This gendered difference has implications for ongoing pay and promotion inequities.
And for women who end up getting over this “lose more than you gain” mentality? It doesn’t end well for them either. This study summarizes it best:
1. Women are expected to be more modest than men and not self-advocate.
2. Women who do self-advocate are less likely to be liked, and their self-advocacy will be seen as excessive compared with the same self-advocacy by men.
3. Women are great at advocating for others and are expected to do so.
4. Women feel uncomfortable, uninterested, and unmotivated in tasks that require self-advocacy and don’t perform as well as a result.
5. Creating an opportunity to misattribute their discomfort is sufficient to increase interest, motivation, and performance.
So the ultimate message is: Definitely advocate for yourself if you want to get promoted, just be modest about it. Oh, and by the way, if you do advocate for yourself, we’ll probably like you less. (Ah, yes. Likability. The single most determining factor for success in life—if you’re a woman.)
In other words: Yes, this self-review is your time, but you should definitely advocate for others. It makes you look better if you attribute your success to your team instead of yourself. It makes you look, you know, more humble.
But be confident! You should be confident in the work you’ve accomplished this year.
Wait. We didn’t mean that confident. Tone it down. Sheesh. You sound better when you focus on what you could be improving on instead of what you did well.
Your promotion is contingent on your self-review, so we encourage you to ignore our blanching at your self-advocacy, self-assuredness, confidence, and acknowledgment of your own talent. Yes, this makes you uncomfortable, and yes, it makes you hate this time of year. But guess what? Everyone does it.
Good luck out there!
My parents are hardworking, proud Pakistani immigrants who bravely moved here in the early ’90s for graduate school with the promise of a better life for their kids. Every choice my parents have made since then has been with the intention of setting us up for success in this country, while trying to ensure that we also maintain a sense of connection with our Pakistani heritage.
Unbeknownst to them, this half of my identity is often in direct contrast with the way work culture in the U.S. expects me to operate to be successful.
From a young age, my parents, like many parents from South Asia, taught me that the ultimate path to success was to put my head down and work hard. There was no need to ever talk about what I accomplished; other people would do that if my work was good enough. It is distasteful and tacky to brag, it is disrespectful to speak too directly (especially to elders), and there is dignity in humility and humility in silence.
This is exacerbated by the language we use at home. Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, and Hindi are all products of high-context cultures. So forget being culturally indirect—the very language we use to communicate rarely allows us to say exactly what we mean. Instead, it is beautifully nuanced, deeply layered, and turns the concept of communication into what can feel sometimes like art (or like something that makes you want to bang your head against the table). Erin Meyer puts it well in her book, The Culture Map:
Languages reflect the communication styles of the cultures that use those languages. For example, Japanese and Hindi are both high-context languages, in which a relatively high percentage of words can be interpreted multiple ways based on how and when they are used… In Hindi, the word “kal” means both tomorrow and yesterday. You have to hear the whole sentence to understand in which context it has been used. For this reason, when speaking Japanese or Hindi, you really do have to “read the air” to understand the message.
This means that growing up, I spent a great deal of time going back and forth between the English language — where directness was not just appreciated, but required — and an Eastern language where being direct was seen as, well, rude. It gets even worse because English, unlike these Eastern languages, is a language spoken by one of the lowest context cultures in the world.
When you think about people who carry both pieces of this identity with them, that stark dichotomy is unreal. (More on that here!)
Over 17 million Asian Americans are being raised to hold onto the values of generations of Asianness, exacerbated by language and religion, both of which value humility, silence, modesty, and indirect communication. Add being a woman on top of that, and you start to see how (even more) difficult this can be. Meanwhile, U.S.-based workforces make promotion, growth, and success contingent on the ability to speak clearly, coherently, and concisely on the work you alone have done.
And that’s not all. You’re also expected to take credit for the work you do. You’re expected to feel comfortable promoting yourself and putting your work out there to be lauded or critiqued. And when you critique others, you should do so directly, without beating around the bush. You should share that conference talk you gave and that article you wrote widely in your company Slack or your own Twitter. You should feel confident telling others the things you have accomplished personally and professionally. You should tell your boss all the nice things people are saying about your work and the way your contribution to a project directly led to its success.
The entire self-review process was designed by and for people who assume their users are like them.
Imagine how successful someone who is raised to advocate for themselves comfortably and overtly might be in this culture.
Now imagine how unsuccessful someone who is reconciling this need for directness and self-advocacy with decades of conditioning to do the exact opposite.
This discomfort manifests in my emails and Slack messages, which are littered with exclamation points and smiley faces I stress over to ensure I don’t sound too direct, confident, or intense. It manifests in a brilliant piece by a friend of mine I just edited to remove the phrase “I don’t mean to be braggy.” She included it because she doesn’t want to take direct ownership of a quality she should be proud of. She’s worried about how her pride in her own growth might sound.
When that tweet about the three biggest things you’ve accomplished this year was going viral, it manifested itself in hundreds of people who saw it and reflected on what they accomplished, but didn’t feel comfortable writing it out because of how they’ve been conditioned to approach talking about themselves.
It even manifests in my 1:1s. While I might be using 1:1 time with my manager to ask “What can I be doing better?” (as I was raised to!), my colleague might be starting their 1:1 sessions with “Here’s everything I have accomplished this week.” I might be more hesitant to take credit for projects that I worked on while my colleagues do so easily. And while I might choose to use a high-visibility meeting, like an All Hands, as an opportunity to elevate and applaud others instead of my own self, my colleague might use this as an opportunity to describe their own work.
When promotion time comes around and both of us are up for a senior role, my colleague will, on top of dozens of weeks of repeating how good they are at their job, do an excellent job advocating for themselves. I will, instead, out of shyness and respect, assume that if my boss thinks I am good enough, I will get promoted.
Guess who gets this promotion?
And the next one, and the one after that?
Without inclusion, women and people of color who have made it through the front door of a company will never make it upstairs, where the power lies.
At the crux of it, this is a usability issue. It’s self-review season, and the entire self-review process was designed by and for people who assume their users are like them: comfortable in self-advocacy, able to clearly communicate the work they’ve accomplished without hesitancy, Western, and ideally English-speaking.
Without inclusion, women and people of color who have made it through the front door of a company will never make it upstairs, where the power lives. Access is only the first step in a long road of ensuring that equality isn’t at the expense of the equity that sets all employees up for success. Leadership must be aware of the perceptions and realities of processes for everything from onboarding to review to promotion. This involves asking some tough questions about your own company policies and processes:
What do these processes assume?
Who doesn’t fit this assumption?
What (who) are the costs?
When I started thinking about this, I asked friends who’d been raised like me if they had ever experienced something similar to my experience when writing their self-reviews. They all had. Every single one of them had been in a situation where their tongues faltered, hesitating to find the words to describe their own brilliance, no matter how brightly it shined.
They described situations where others took credit for their work when they shyly assumed credit was guaranteed. Others described colleagues who became frustrated at their inability to describe their accomplishments clearly and concisely. Many described how appraisals tended to be the toughest time of the year. It took them extra time to write and rewrite what they had done in a way that would balance what they were comfortable with and what was expected of them. Often, they chose to forgo that extra adjective if it felt a little too braggy.
One of my best friends shared a story almost identical to mine—that she’d written a horrible self-review littered in passive voice, and hadn’t fully taken credit for work she had done. Her manager asked her, specifically, if she spoke Hindi at home. He told her he had seen this pattern in appraisals written when English was a second language, particularly when the second language is as passive as Hindi.
I told her that she was lucky that, like me, she had a boss looking out for her who recognized her review should be rewritten to better reflect her work and immense talent. She was lucky she had someone to help her find the words, even when she couldn’t herself.
“Yeah, but I’ve been at this job for five years now. Why did it take him this long to tell me?”
I couldn’t help but wonder where she might be had she known sooner.