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Between the feeling of being thrust into the spotlight, the one-on-one setting with your manager and the gravity of what’s at stake, performance reviews can feel pretty uncomfortable. And when you’re made to feel uncomfortable, sometimes you aren’t always the most conscious of (or careful with) your words. But if there’s one time that you want to communicate effectively, it’s then. After all, your performance review is often the one chance you get to push for a raise, secure a promotion, or even save your job.
To make sure that you don’t unintentionally sabotage yourself, we’ve put together a list of things that you’ll want to avoid saying. Steer clear of these words, and you’ll be that much closer to passing your performance review with flying colors.
1. “That wasn’t my fault”
It’s human nature to defend yourself. But when it comes to your performance review, check your ego at the door.
“Now is not the time to go into a long explanation about why a mistake wasn’t your fault… Even if it’s the truth, it makes you look unprofessional, vindictive, and lacking self-awareness,” says career coach Jena Viviano. “Instead of saying it wasn’t your fault say, ‘I appreciate the feedback and that is definitely something I’m working on for the future… Now probably isn’t the time, but perhaps we can schedule another time to discuss.’ This gives you the opportunity to collect your thoughts, come to the table calmly and pragmatically explain the incident.”
2. “Yes, yes, yes”
While you don’t want to dismiss your manager’s feedback, being too quick to say yes isn’t the right move either.
“‘Yessing’ your manager to death might seem like a good way to appear agreeable, but nothing could be further from the truth. True leaders are not yes people nor do they like to surround themselves with yes people,” says Scott Stenzler, founding partner of recruiting firm Atlas Search. “Research shows that yes people tend not to think independently, can be intellectually dishonest, lack sincerity, and often add little to no value to the organization.”
Instead of simply “yessing,” show your manager that you understand and acknowledge their feedback.
“Let your manager finish their thought. Don’t eagerly chime in before they finish speaking–instead, pause momentarily to make sure they’re done, which has the double benefit of indicating that you’re carefully considering their point, and only then let them know you agree,” Stenzler recommends. “But most importantly, be sure to follow it up with all the reasons why you agree.”
3. “You said/you did…”
It’s communication 101–when discussing a sensitive topic, never lead with “you” statements. In a performance review, this might include statements like “you said I was going to get a raise,” “you didn’t clearly outline expectations,” etc.
“‘You’ statements can come across as accusatory and blame ridden,” says Jen Brown, Founder + Director, The Engaging Educator. “Instead of ‘you,’ focus on ‘I’–I understood, I’m confused, I’d like to discuss.”
Going one step further, adding a “but” can be even more antagonizing.
“When you couple a ‘you’ statement with the word ‘but,’ you’ve created an argument,” Brown says. “For example, if you said… ‘You said [x], but I think [y],’ you’ve elevated your own opinion above the other, leading to a confrontational situation”–the last thing you want during a performance review.
To get your point across in a nonconfrontational manner, you only need to make a small tweak.
“Instead of ‘but,’ the word ‘and’ works just as well,” Brown says. “Taking the above example again, the conversation could sound like: ‘I heard you say [x] and I’ve been thinking [y], can we discuss this further?’ [This] will open conversation instead of elevating one opinion above another.”
5. “It was really a team effort”
Lots of people have trouble taking a compliment. But if there’s one time you don’t want that to happen, it’s during your performance review–your number one moment to prove the value that you bring to your company.
“Although it’s important to give credit where credit is due, it’s equally important not to deflect your personal accomplishments to other people,” says April Klimkiewicz, career coach and owner of bliss evolution. “If your supervisor is congratulating you on a job well done, say ‘Thank you! With the help of the team, I was able to accomplish the goals we set forth. I’m very proud of this accomplishment.’”
6. “This isn’t fair”
This phrase is better suited for the elementary school playground than the office.
“Aside from sounding like a child, the idea of something being ‘fair’ in the workplace is pretty subjective and emotional,” Brown says. “Think about why you feel it isn’t fair. Use specific language to define what isn’t fair–and if you keep getting back to ‘It isn’t fair,’ maybe you have hurt feelings.”
“These are valid–just be sure to temper the emotional response with facts, especially in a review,” Brown continues.
7. “Can I have a raise?”
Let me be clear–your performance review is absolutely a great time to make your case for a raise, but asking for it point-blank like this is probably not going to convince anyone.
“Now is not the time to say you need a raise. Now is the time to prove and show you deserve a raise. There is a big difference,” Viviano says. “Come to your performance review with a clear understanding of your accomplishments and how they’ve provided results for the company. Then when it comes for you to speak during your review, talk about the things you’ve accomplished that you’d like to highlight.”
Once you’ve proven your value, you can talk about why you deserve a raise.
8. “That’s not part of my job description”
It might not be written in your job description, but if you want to be seen as a top performer, going above and beyond to help from time to time never hurt.
“Almost every job description ends with, ‘and other duties as assigned.’ Stating that some function is not part of your job description can make it look like you’re trying to shirk work,” Klimkiewicz says. “Instead, be a team player and let your supervisor know you were not clear that particular duty was expected of you, but now that you know, you’ll be taking it on.”
9. “What about so-and-so?”
There’s a time and a place to bring up concerns about a colleague to your manager, but your performance review isn’t it.
“When you talk about people who aren’t there, you’re avoiding the relationship in front of you. It’s really easy to talk about another person when they aren’t there,” Brown says. “Instead of deflecting, think about why you are bringing someone else up. Are you apprehensive? Are you trying to avoid the real meat of the situation? Reflect on the why and address the real issue.”
10. “I know”
Again, recognizing the feedback that your manager gives you is crucial, but a statement like “I know” can come off the wrong way.
“This can sound defensive to your supervisor when they are trying to give you constructive feedback,” Klimkiewicz says.
“Keep in mind that ‘I know’ can be heard as ‘so what.’ And if you say ‘I know’ enough, then you run the risk of sounding like a know-it-all, which is not a good look,” Stenzler adds. In addition, “if you recognize there’s an area where you can improve, but acknowledge it by only saying ‘I know,’ then all you have accomplished is making it clear that you see there’s a problem but don’t care enough to find a solution,” he says.
Instead, Stenzler suggests “[coming] to your performance review prepared with a clear set of actions which you have implemented, or plan to implement to remediate that weakness. Be prepared to explain why some things worked and why others didn’t. Your manager took the time to prepare for the review, you should, too.”
11. “I’m not good at that”
Performance reviews are all about growth, and phrases like this show an unwillingness to change and develop.
“In Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking book Mindset, she teaches that the most successful executives are the ones who are able to move slightly outside of their comfort zone… Our clients, the companies we place people with, always report a higher rate of success hiring professionals who employ a growth mind-set,” Stenzler shares. “Let your manager know that you are willing to take on new responsibilities and are prepared to put in the hard work to grow into increasingly challenging roles within your organization.”
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With the tightening labor pool, companies are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to recruiting and retaining good employees. But, ignorance or carelessness might be undermining your efforts with women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others.
Subtle bias and “microaggressions”–brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities often directed at members of marginalized groups–can create problems in the workplace, says diversity consultant Gina C. Torino, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Empire State College in Staten Island, New York, and author of Microaggression Theory: Influence and Implications. This type of bias may be unintentional, but it’s no less damaging.
Understanding the Scope
The workplace is not immune to the biases that exist in society, so it’s important to consider the issue in a larger context, says Faye Wattleton, the first woman and first African-American president of Planned Parenthood who now co-leads the corporate governance practice at Buffkin/Baker, a New York City-based executive search firm. Because people come to the workplace with the experience of dealing with these behaviors in everyday life, facing them in the workplace, too, where their livelihoods may be affected, is part of bias’s cumulative negative impact. You can’t simply isolate this as a workplace issue, she says. And because the perpetrator of the bias is often unaware that they’re acting in such a way, the person on the receiving end is left with few ways to address it without seeming like they’re overreacting.
“The psychologists say that these subtleties are more damaging because you can’t encounter them directly. You can’t confront them directly so that there’s a way of resolving the feeling that you have that may be internalized and may affect the way you function as a human being or as you function in the workplace,” she says.
The Consequences of Bias
But just because microaggressions can be vague doesn’t mean that they don’t have real costs, says former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attorney Stephen M. Paskoff, CEO and president of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., a training company that addresses bad behavior in the workplace. When people feel excluded, they’re less likely to speak up. Microaggressions can affect everything from the ability to listen to communication about safety issues or other problems. When some employees avoid others, either because of bias or not wanting to deal with biased behavior, productivity takes a hit, too.
“One of the questions I’ll ask groups is, ‘Who does their best work when they’re ignored, embarrassed, not listened to, made fun of, or one way or another treated differently in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable in their team or in their group?’ Those are all variations of what you might call microaggressions or could be,” Paskoff says. “We’ve groomed people to focus on the blatant and the illegal, not recognizing that this other stuff can be just as malignant in a sense.”
The immediate response to a microaggression takes up cognitive and emotional energy that could be used in the person’s work. “Dealing with that microaggression can really take up a person’s resources, because that person has to stop and think, saying, ‘Is this a slight? Did that person actually sit far away from me in the meeting because I’m black or because they just wanted to sit by that person?’ Or, ‘Did they not include me in going out to the bar after work because I’m a woman or because they already knew each other beforehand?’” Torino says. Ultimately, the person experiencing biased behavior toward them may feel excluded, unwelcome, or worse.
And that’s a problem. A 2016 survey by Ultimate Software found that 6 in 10 employees would quit a job immediately if they felt emotionally unsafe, so off-handed comments and biased behavior could affect also your turnover.
Overcoming Subtle Bias
At London-based management consulting firm EY, to help foster a sense of belonging, “we ask our leaders to reflect on with each other: Is a decision somebody’s making a preference, a tradition, or a requirement [called PTR]?And so that it can help surface the thoughts and biases that might be underlying certain processes,” says Karyn Twaronite, global diversity and inclusiveness officer. “It’s also a way to call a colleague out without calling them out.”
Here’s how it works: If she sees a colleague considering hiring someone exactly like them, she can say, “Did you pick this person because it’s your personal preference, or because of likeness and sameness, which is the ease of doing business, which is a very real thing, or is it because the person that traditionally has been in this role always looked and acted this way, and had the same skill set, or are you selecting them because they meet the requirements for the future?” Twaronite says the exercise gets people to think beyond their preferences and consider a broader picture.
Mentoring can be another important step toward fostering understanding and decreasing bias, says Kyle Emich, PhD, an assistant professor of management at the University of Delaware who has coauthored research on how women are perceived in the workplace. But, to be most effective, the mentor and protégé should be different. “What you find a lot of time is that if you look at the entrance, not in every field, but a lot of the time, minorities and women make up about the same percentage as white men at an entry level,” he says. “The problem is getting people to those leadership positions. They trickle out throughout the way.”
The experts agree that one of the most powerful actions individuals and companies can take to reduce subtle forms of bias and microaggressions is to foster awareness of the behavior. When you create an environment where people can learn about bad behavior they don’t even realize they’re exhibiting, you foster communication instead of defensiveness and resentment.
“I think it’s much easier to grapple with this difficult phenomenon when the corporation attacks it from a corporate perspective as we do sexual harassment–a consciousness-building about what can be said and what is said that often is perceived as harassment [when] people may not have encountered that kind of knowledge or that kind of perception,” Wattleton says. And when awareness is raised in the workplace, it may just have a positive benefit in other areas of society, too.
When Angelique Brunner moved to the nation’s capital two decades ago, she was shocked to find neighborhoods with no stores, no services, and burned-out buildings.
“I started asking around about what is going on here, people told me it was the riots,” she tells Fast Company. “I said, ‘Oh, what riots?’ They said, ‘The Martin Luther King riots.’ I said, ‘The riots were in 1968. So, this is why D.C. doesn’t have grocery stores, and it’s giving away houses for a dollar?’”
The local city government was, in fact, selling off long-abandoned homes for a buck to developers who had the money to rebuild. Some of Washington’s once vibrant black neighborhoods never quite recovered from the unrest in the days following the assassination of the civil rights leader and the subsequent departure of the middle class.
Brunner was stunned and, armed with her degrees in public policy from Brown and Princeton, started learning the ropes in venture capital and then real estate development—determined to make a difference.
And she is making a difference, bringing jobs, homes, and new business to once blighted streets.
As president of EB5 Capital, which she founded a decade ago, Brunner is now one of the driving forces in the revitalization of D.C., leveraging a controversial program that puts rich foreign investors on a path to citizenship in return for their investment dollars.
Founding her own company
The road to founding he own firm was paved during those first years, initially at a VC firm. “I was the only African American female from New York to Atlanta that was in venture capital.” She later moved to Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association), where she became an expert in community investing.
“Laypeople might assume that urban areas struggle to get development dollars because no one wants to build there. I learned through the late 1990s and early 2000s that there has always been interest, just not the financing needed to actually execute,” she says.
It was during this time that she became familiar with the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program and saw an opportunity to bring development dollars to neighborhoods that others did not want to touch. So with the gap in money needed persisting to complete urban projects, and the scars from the riots still showing, she founded EB5 Capital.
“I felt motivated to address this, which is why my second project ever was a grocery store on 7th Street in Northwest D.C. that also had an affordable senior housing component,” she says.
Since then, Brunner has helped connect foreign investors with several major D.C. gems, including City Market at O Street, bringing new residential and commercial life to a once dilapidated but beloved historic city site. Brunner is also behind D.C.’s Columbia Place development, bringing two new Marriott hotels to the downtown convention center area.
Brunner sees her mission as twofold: Rebuilding the capital’s neighborhoods and bringing new jobs to people who desperately need them. And she is an unabashed fan of the EB-5 program, which is up for renewal—and reform—in U.S. Congress. Job creation is at the core of the program, which was founded in 1990 and is administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). It offers foreign investors green cards in return for job-creating investments in domestic development projects.
“People are willing to invest in the United States for an expedited visa process. The only hitch is that you have to create jobs with the money they invest,” she says—basically 10 for every $500,000.
“We are focused on job creation, but livable cities require jobs and affordable housing,” Brunner explains. Gentrification, like the luxury apartments that now make up the O Street Market, is necessary, but there are ways to mitigate the displacement that sometimes follows.
“First, as a financier of multifamily housing developments, we are able to advocate for higher than required moderate- and low-income housing set-asides,” she says. “We work with a particularly sensitive developers committed to the mixed-income fabric of our neighborhoods.”
EB5 Capital’s latest project in Washington, D.C., has 14% of its rental units set aside as affordable housing–the District of Columbia’s inclusionary zoning program only requires between 8% and 10%.
The company also focuses on bringing living-wage employment opportunities to areas that need them. “Be it working in the construction trades or an entry-level position at one of our hotel projects, I believe jobs that present meaningful advancement opportunities, located in the areas that are being developed, are very important to strengthening the fabric of a mixed-income community,” Brunner adds.
“You can actually have financial gains in a neighborhood that don’t necessarily change the racial fabric of a neighborhood initially. To me, the only way to address the addition of economic opportunity is to consciously create mixed-income neighborhoods.”
“We’re not a manufacturing city. We’re not a place where we can easily absorb a non-educated labor population. We struggle with that, and so we have to bring retail, and we have to bring the jobs into those neighborhoods,” she says.
EB5 Capital is now worth $500 million and has 35 employees with 12 nationalities who speak 16 different languages, and have visited more than 90 countries looking for investors. The company’s portfolio also expands to cities like L.A., New York, and Nashville.
Brunner and her firm have an unblemished history with the USCIS, but the EB-5 program in recent years has come under increased scrutiny. “I think our company has used the program effectively and in a way that creates a cascade of benefits for their respective cities, including new jobs, new housing, and new business opportunities,” she says.
Still, critics have called the sale of citizenship to high bidders unseemly. The AP reported that in return for nearly $8 billion in investment, the USCIS has approved 40,000 visas for Chinese nationals and their families. A company owned by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, came under SEC scrutiny earlier this year for its dependency on EB-5.
And just this week, more than a dozen Chinese investors in Royal Palm Beach in South Florida sued, claiming they were defrauded by American developers.
Brunner, who has testified before Congress on reforming the program, says she supports efforts to tighten accountability.
“The EB-5 industry has been advocating for new legislation for the program, and I am in full support of strong integrity measures to ensure it’s being used as intended and in a lawful manner,” she says.
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