Self-Evaluations Do's and Don’ts--An Excerpt From "Getting There: Achieving Career Success as a Woman"

by admin 7. January 2014 15:28


Andie: My first experience with reading self-evaluations of others was more than a decade ago when I served on my law firm’s Compensation Committee. I read hundreds and hundreds of them. The differences between those written by women and those written by men were striking. And, ever since then, I have read hundreds and hundreds, if a thousand, more, self-evaluations. Men tend to describe their personal performances as “exceptional” or “exceeding expectations.”  Women in the same situations -- and with the same accomplishments -- are likely to, instead, say something like “we did a good job.” A woman might say “our team delivered a win for our client,” while a man might say “I led our team to a major victory for our client.” Which self-evaluators are likely to be viewed as contributing more?

Gender Differences

Communication is a complex mixture of the words we speak and write, how we say, them, the ways in which we are understood, the ways in which our bodies react to what we say, and to the environment we are in when we are speaking. Communications are shaped by who we are, our biological hardwiring, our upbringing, our environments, our cultural experiences, our socialization, who we communicate with, and our status. The same is true for how we listen. And, although gender traits are individual to each person, these differences tend to have a gender basis. Although women might tend to have traits that are identified with females (and men might have traits that tend to be identified with males), these traits are not hardwired the way that our sex as a female or a male is genetically hardwired. Gender differences are really dimensional tendencies, where women and men tend to be more similar than the differences between all women (when compared to other women) and the differences between all men (when compared to other men). Keep these dimensional gender differences in mind.  Not all women communicate one way, not all men communicate another way.
In the following Self-Evaluations Dos and Don’ts, we flag some gender tendencies that you should be aware of before you start your next self-evaluation. Is important to understand and think about these tendencies when you are carefully recounting your strengths and successes. 

The Self-Evaluation Process

In many businesses and professions, self-evaluations are a key part of the writing compensation process. Women can hurt themselves because they often approach self-evaluations differently from men.

Unfortunately, self-evaluations play directly into gender stereotypes.  Women are often modest in retelling their achievements.  Men, on the other hand, are after, self-laudatory, carefully recounting their strengths and successes, without any modesty.  In fact, men typically mention only positive things about themselves, omitting things that could possibly make them look bad.

Why do we see these differences? Some studies suggest that gender stereotypes trigger perceptions of how women and men “actually are,” and set out standards women and men should follow in the ways they behave. They also grow up observing traditional gender stereotypes, which are reinforced by television and the movies.  Other studies suggest that gender differences are due to the fact that girls and boys grow up differently. Girls often play in twos and small groups, avoiding conflict and acting inclusively.  Boys, on the other hand, tend to play in larger groups or teams, learning to make themselves attractive to those boys that pick those teams, even if they don’t like those boys or are afraid of them.  Because of these differences in socialization, girls and boys are taught different communication styles. 

For whatever reasons, boys grow up knowing they are allowed to praise themselves (“I am the best pitcher on my team”) but girls are trained from very early ages that it is unacceptable and unseemly for them to praise themselves  (“I might be a good ballerina but she’s a much better gymnast”). Girls grow up understanding the risks they face when they step out of traditional gender stereotypes. The result is that men come to work with a better understanding than women of what they need to do to succeed.
We don’t need to agree on the reasons for these differences but, women and men tend to use different self-promotion techniques in preparing self-evaluations, men are usually willing to go out of their way to tell their supervisors about their career and compensation expectations, making their objectives clear. Men’s self-evaluations typically begin “I accomplished X” and “I successfully completed Y.”

And women? Women often find it difficult to say “I," instead, feeling more comfortable hiding behind the pronoun “we.” They write about themselves tentatively and with diffidence; often unwilling (or afraid) to boldly recount their successes, downplaying their actual contributions and undervalue their achievements. Women incorrectly believe that if they just put their heads down and work hard, they will be rewarded.

Applying the Rules of Gender Communication

Let’s apply the gender communication rules to your self-evaluation.  Think about the self-evaluation process in four steps. First, what should you consider before you start writing? Second, what is your orientation? Third, which “dos” should you follow?  And, fourth, what “don’ts” should you follow.

Step One: Before You Start

  • Take the whole process seriously. This might be your only chance to have the undivided attention of your supervisors and the decision makers.
  • Carefully consider the compensation process and the unwritten – as well as the written – rules.
  • If you have a job description, review it, along with all previous self-evaluations and performance review notes from prior years. Identify contributions beyond your job description.
  • Apply what you’ve learned from prior compensation cycles. What worked before? What was not effective?
  • Do you have a file with all of the information relevant to the current evaluation cycle? If not, you should. You should include your achievements, compliments, thanks, praise, and gratitude from customers, clients, colleagues, and others.
  • Examine your organization’s business plan and marketing materials to make sure its goals mesh with the way you present your accomplishments.
  • Carefully consider how you want to present yourself to the decision makers.
  • Collect and confirm the accuracy of your statistics and objective performance data for the evaluation cycle.  Make sure all records are accurate and reconciled.  Think about how best to work this information into your self-evaluation.
  • Identify possible reviewers who can provide positive performance reviews for you.  In some organizations, reviewers must be formally notified through the compensation process in order to submit performance reviews.
  • Identify possible reviewers who might have negative things to say about you. Ignoring them is a mistake. Try to neutralize negative reviewers by acting on constructive feedback (if any), showing you’re serious about personal improvement.
  • Identify and seek out a sponsor or an “advocate” (official or unofficial) who can favorably present you to the decision makers. Third party reports with positive information about you can be very helpful to an evaluation.
  • Provide your reviewers with relevant statistical data and information about the projects you worked on together, and remind them of favorable results and outcomes.  Remind them of submission deadlines.
  • Ask yourself: If the decision makers do not know me, what do I need to include in my self-evaluation to make sure that they do?
  • Ask yourself: Have I developed a positive image about myself by seeking out others who can show me as successful and effective.  Reach out to possible allies and supporters. If you have not done so in time for this evaluation, develop allies and supporters for your next review.
  • Do you see yourself differently from the ways in which you think others see you? If you want to be seen differently, develop a plan for explaining and presenting in your strengths and contributions that you believe are not sufficiently recognized.
  • Are you prepared to proudly recount your successes without undue modesty? If not, think again, while keeping in mind, the double standard (successful women are just lucky but men are assumed competent to handle their jobs) so be prepared to prove your successes and accomplishments.
  • Are you approaching your self-evaluation as you would an important project? You should be. Take the time you would for an important assignment, giving yourself the same thoughtful consideration you would to an important business project.
  • Are your compensation and career objectives clear? How are you going to let the decision makers know in an unambiguous way what your expectations are for advancement and promotion?
  • Plan to avoid interruptions.
  • Complete your first draft early enough to reflect on what you have written and still have enough time for a major re-write (if necessary).
Step 2:  Consider Your Basic Orientation
  • “This has been a year of phenomenal growth for me and my business activities because of _________.”
  • “The projects I’ve taken on have greatly increased my ability to do the following ___________.”
  • “I have expanded my business in the following ways:  X, Y, and Z.”
  • “I took on a lead role in this trial/transaction by handling ______.”
  • “I have worked with a large number of partners, associates, and staff [executives, managers, and staff] to accomplish ______.”
  • “All of my projects were completed in a timely and cost efficient manner.”
  • “I work independently.”
  • “I seek out assignments from other Offices and Departments.”
  • “I have immersed myself in the following [specific] activities:  X, Y, and Z.”
  • “On this assignment/transaction/case/project, I effectively handled ______.”
  • “I took on a key role in this significant matter when I did ______.”
  • “I have successfully completed the following [specific projects]:  A, B, and C.”
  • “I have been very active in ______.”

Step 3:  Consider the “Dos”

Carefully read and follow the instructions before beginning your self-evaluation and be sure to turn it in on time.  Many organizations will not consider your self-evaluation if submitted late.

  • Organize, in an easy to understand fashion, all statistical information.
  • If you spent a lot of time on key projects, include your hours, revenue, and successes in your project descriptions.

               - If you managed other employees, include their responsibilities, revenues, and accomplishments in                         your descriptions.
               - Include collections or sales data on key projects.
               - Put the size and importance of your projects and successes in context.
               - Quantify your successes and contributions. State the dollar value of transactions and projects you                           have worked on (if helpful) and identify the benefits to your organization.

  • Be sure the final version of an on-line self-evaluation is of the correct length, accurately inputted and covers all of the points you want to make.
  • Plan to prepare more than one draft.  Your self-evaluation often becomes part of your official employment file so treat it as the important document that it is.
  • Focus on yourself -- your strengths, contributions, and your accomplishments -- without criticizing your colleagues. 
  • Lead off with your strengths.  Brag about your value and set out your accomplishments. 
  • Be enthusiastic.  Step into the spotlight and rightfully claim your successes. 
  • Write with authenticity and pride.
  • Focus on important assignments, highlighting your strengths, in a positive way.
  • Use direct statements.  Avoid qualifiers that do not convey competence and authority.
  • Use action words.  Highly valued traits are likely to include organizational, leadership, interpersonal, and communication skills, initiative, and creativity.
  • Include any cross-selling and mention the type, quantity, and value of the projects you were able to obtain from others.
  • Discuss the people you work with:  Your interactions can showcase your professional development and your value.
  • Address criticisms and suggestions from prior reviews and the current evaluation period, explaining the steps you have taken (or will take) to address them.
  • Be specific about your management skills and how you used them in this evaluation period. 
  • Ask a senior colleague or a good friend to review your self-evaluation after you’ve written it and carefully edited it.  This person does not need to be in your field or know your organization, just someone you trust to comment candidly.
  • If you had professional or personal setbacks, address them.  Explain the significance of increases or decreases in your production\performance\numbers.
  • If you had health or family problems, mention them at the back of your evaluation, unless they accounted for a significant amount of lost time, in which case, address them right up-front.
  • Many self-evaluations are submitted on-line with responses limited to a fixed number of words or characters.  When you reach the maximum number of words or characters, you cannot type another thing. 
Step 4:  Consider the “Don’ts”
  • Don’t turn your self-evaluation in late!
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to start writing!  Give it the time and thought it deserves.
  • Don’t ignore the questions you are asked you to address.
  • Don’t be modest or shy about your accomplishment.  Take credit for your accomplishments.  Step up to them with pride, not modesty.
  • Don’t down-play your accomplishments by using terms like “we” or “I was on a team” -- unless this is the only honest way to describe what happened.
  • Don’t assume anything! Be explicit!  The decision makers do not already know your successes or their significance to the organization.
  • Don’t let your numbers do the talking.  Tie your responsibilities and accomplishments to your numbers, explaining why they show important contributions.
  • Don’t express anger or frustration, no matter how justified.  A self-evaluation is not the place for it.
  • Don’t be emotional or use emotional words, such as “disappointed” or “hope.”
  • Don’s use platitudes and hollow self-praise.  You must demonstrate what you’ve accomplished.
  • Don’t blame others for your failures or obstacles.  Acknow-ledge and move on.
  • Don’t use vague terms or sweeping generalities.  Be clear, direct, and specific.
  • Don’t exaggerate -- be sure you can to prove every one of your key points.  Honesty is the best policy. Developing trust and credibility with the decision makers are key components to the compensation process and protects you from the double bind.
  • Don’t apologize for things that were not your fault. 
  • Don’t focus on your activities outside of your organization.
  • Don’t get off track. Focus on core responsibilities and “mission critical” accomplishments. 
Andrea S Kramer, a nationally recognized lawyer in tax at McDermott Will & Emery LLP, founding member of the Diversity Committee, esteemed author, and philanthropist, gives expert advice through contributions to a recently published ABA guide, “What You Need to Know About Negotiating Compensation.” For further explanations of Kramer’s points check out the WBAI newsletter. Her practical advice can propel women towards equality and instill confidence in established lawyers who are too modest and hesitant to be aggressive in seizing the opportunities they deserve.


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