How women can adapt for success in performance evaluations

New research has found women who exhibit adaptive behaviour in their work teams are rewarded at the time of performance reviews

There are many barriers for women in the workplace when it comes to career progression. From unconscious bias that has given rise to issues including recalcitrant organisational cultures and the gender pay gap, the challenges are numerous for women looking to advance their career prospects.

A key determinant of career prospects is performance reviews. According to UNSW Business School research, women who are adaptive when working in teams are recognised to a greater extent than their male counterparts in their performance reviews. This distinction may point to a useful strategy to address historical inequities in the workplace that have generally favoured men.

The research paper, Can a Familiar Gender Stereotype Create a Not-So Familiar Benefit for Women? Evidence of Gendered Differences in Ascribed Stereotypes and Effects of Team Member Adaptivity on Performance Evaluations (published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior), examines the impact stereotypically feminine work behaviour (namely team member adaptivity) has on performance evaluations. Team member adaptivity requires being accommodating of changing relational and situational demands to achieve different work goals, and the research found that women who are able to adapt to these changing demands within their teams are recognised and rewarded more in their performance evaluations compared to men.

“For women, our results identify a way they can reap favorable performance evaluations by adapting to uncertain situations and being a flexible team member,” said Catherine Collins, Associate Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School, who co-authored the research paper. Given performance evaluations form the basis for other important career-related outcomes, she explained that women who demonstrate team member adaptivity might also be more likely to be rewarded with promotions and rewards.

Catherine Collins, Associate Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School.jpg
UNSW Business School's Associate Professor Catherine Collins said team member adaptivity is an important criterion as it is positively related to supervisors’ performance evaluation. Photo: supplied

“Though men: don’t be discouraged! Although women benefit more than men do for engaging in team member adaptivity, men do not get penalised for engaging in team member adaptivity and may still benefit to an extent,” Associate Professor Collins explained. “The fact that team member adaptivity is recognised and rewarded for both women and men is great news for everyone seeking to equal the playing field for women and supports the overall agility of organisations.”

Performance reviews and gender

Much research shows that women’s contributions at work may not be valued to the same extent as the contributions of men, according to research co-author Dr Joseph Carpini, a lecturer in Management and Organisations at UWA Business School. “Why?” he asked. “Gender stereotypes can interfere with how various work behaviours are perceived, irrespective of their actual value.”

For example, men are noticed and rewarded for demonstrating stereotype-consistent behaviour such as being innovative, and Dr Carpini said this is because innovation requires independence, agency and assertiveness. However, women who engage in stereotype-consistent communal behaviour (such as helping, for example), may not be recognised for their contributions, because he said, this behaviour is taken for granted. “This is because helping is characterised by interdependence, cooperation and individual consideration – all things people come to expect of women. In this paper we were seeking to identify an aspect of work performance that counters this trend, an aspect of work that fits with women’s gender stereotypes of being communal for which they can get recognised and rewarded when it comes time for performance to be evaluated,” explained Dr Carpini.

Read more: Why the key to bridging Australia's gender pay gap lies in statistics

Another important purpose of the research was to focus on an aspect of work performance that is critical for organisations now and into the future. “Rapid changes in the business world require employees to collaborate and be agile, in order to adjust to the ever-evolving digital transformations, meeting the demands of customers and contribute to society with grand challenges such as gender equality and climate change,” he said.

In the context of performance management systems, Associate Professor Collins added team member adaptivity is an important criterion as this work behaviour is positively related to supervisors’ performance evaluation. In fact, team member adaptivity is present in most job descriptions “Ninety-nine percent of jobs require employees to work flexibly and adapt to change which is not surprising given collaboration and agility is needed to solve complex customer issues and societal issues such as sustainable development goals. This is apparent in the recent challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic which has shone a spotlight on the importance of employees being adaptive to changes in how, where, and when they work together,” she said.

Team member adaptivity also provides an important way to show how women are contributing to organisational performance – a good reason to close the gap at the time of performance reviews. “Thus, in addition to being good for business, team member adaptivity may help level the playing field if an organisation currently has a gender pay gap,” she said. “A caution here is that managers need to be trained on how gender stereotypes impact performance appraisals overall, especially when they are linked to promotion and other incentives so that potential negative repercussions are managed.”

Read more: Why the workplace chameleon is a paradox for diversity and inclusion

Gendered stereotypes in the workplace

The research paper found team member adaptivity is subject to a gendered stereotype, and expected of women more so than of men, according to Dr Carpini, who said this finding was confirmed in an experimental study of 600 working men and women. “And interestingly, we show that the gendered nature of team member adaptivity is held across races. That is, regardless of race (White, Black, Hispanic, or Asian), people believe women would be more likely to engage in behaviours consistent with team member adaptivity, than men,” he said.

Another key finding is that there are more benefits of team member adaptivity for women than for men. In comparison to men, women receive more favourable performance evaluations for their team member adaptivity. “This finding is robust as we replicated the finding in two studies, including a wide range of Australian managers, in varied industries, working across a range of professional roles and functions, with performance evaluations completed by supervisors,” said Dr Carpini, who explained that these findings are exciting because existing research that has found women who conform to social role expectations of being communal received fewer benefits relative to men. 

“Yet our findings signal a consensus shift away from this trend. We argue this is because team member adaptivity strikes the difficult balance between conforming to the gender stereotype of being communal because the behaviour involves adapting oneself to the requirements of the team context, while simultaneously doing so to achieve organisationally functional goals,” he said.

The key is to help employees focus on the value of the work-related behaviour itself.jpg
The key is to help employees focus on the value of the work-related behaviour itself – and not the gender of the person doing it. Photo: supplied

Advice for women in the workplace

What does team member adaptivity look like in a daily work setting? Associate Professor Collins gave several examples:

  • Readily responds to unpredictable or unexpected events
  • Responding constructively to changes in the way your team works
  • Adapts plans, actions and priorities to deal with changing situations
  • Provides focus and structure for themselves and others in uncertain situations
  • Learning new skills or taking on new roles to cope with changes in the way your team works
  • When faced with change, focus on the positive rather than what’s wrong
  • Be willing to sacrifice personal interests for the good of the team

“Whether these behaviours come naturally to you or not, they can be learned. Though remember, behaving authentically is also important for thriving at work,” explained Associate Professor Collins.

For workplace leaders, Dr Carpini said the key is to help employees focus on the value of the work-related behaviour itself – and not the gender of the person doing it. “Whether a man or woman is being helpful at work, the value of that help should be the same. Similarly, the value of being adaptive to changes in one’s team should also be equally valued for women and men,” he said.

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This points to the need for those in positions of formal assessment to be cognisant of unconscious biases and the impact of stereotypes on our evaluation of others’ contributions at work. “When we emphasise the intrinsic value of different types of work behaviours and de-emphasise the gender of the person doing it, we will start moving toward organisational systems that truly value diversity and support equality,” he concluded.


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