Give It To Us Straight: Your Soft Feedback Isn’t Helping Us

Senior business man discussing project on laptop with staffBy Nneka Orji

Feedback is a core part of self-development and all too often male colleagues and managers are reluctant to give direct feedback to female colleagues 79 percent of the time. Why? According to Barbara Annis and John Gray, authors of Work with Me, it’s because men felt they have to walk on eggshells around women and hold back criticism to women during performance reviews out of concern they may upset their female colleague and provoke an “emotional reaction.”

The issue was also highlighted in a September 2011 McKinsey Quarterly, which reported that despite the best intentions of senior executives from a diversity agenda perspective, “unintended performance bias and softer feedback” mean that the paths of female and male colleagues will diverge.

Are the majority of our male colleagues justified in their apprehension to have performance conversations with women? Are women more sensitive to feedback?

The Facts
The short answer to the latter question is yes. Women are more “sensitive” to feedback, but let’s be clear: “sensitive” isn’t always associated with anger, tears, or other supposedly gendered forms of emotionality.

A 2007 study by Soussan Djamasbi and Eleanor Loiacono found that women are more influenced by feedback, which means taking feedback more personally. This can be beneficial, but also potentially damaging.

The results of the study demonstrated the impact of negative feedback on the decisions men and women make and found that “women attach greater emotional value to rejection.” So, why not change the way feedback is given to ensure it is treated as an opportunity to grow and not as an outright rejection?

Retaining Confidence
A report in the 2012 issue of the Academy of Management found that in their study of MBA teams, women were quicker to align feedback from their peers with their self-evaluation, unlike men who continued to inflate their self-image.

So while women were reducing their self-rating as a result of less positive feedback, men were more likely to continue with their initial self-rating despite less positive feedback from peers. Women perceive their performance to be worse when given negative feedback, compared to male counterparts. This tells us that our self-esteem is more likely to be negatively impacted by negative feedback. Not so great.

There were positives. The results show that women internalize negative feedback, which means they have the potential to successfully build on development areas. There’s clearly a balance to strike, ensuring we retain our confidence levels while actively addressing tough feedback.

Call To Action
While we can continue to build on initiatives to ensure men take a more conscious approach when providing constructive feedback for female colleagues, women can take practical steps to ensure they get the opportunity to address areas of development, including:

Continuing to ask: In Annis and Gray’s book, 82 percent of women want direct feedback from men and a significant percentage of women report appreciating the importance of feedback from male colleagues, saying they do not shy away from negative criticism. The real issue is being more proactive about getting the feedback. We cannot assume that detailed feedback will be offered voluntarily by male colleagues. For those who have not yet sought feedback from male colleagues, especially the more junior women, make this a priority.

Be clear: The impact constructive feedback can have on our careers is unquestionable. Djamasbi and Loiacono also found that women are more responsive to evaluative feedback. While men tend to incorporate positive feedback to shape their future actions, women incorporate both positive and negative feedback. Our male colleagues need to be reminded that women have every intention of incorporating their feedback in decision making so stating this when feedback is requested is essential.

Be receptive: Not all feedback will be positive, so we need to accept that and appreciate that colleagues providing feedback are doing so to ensure we are developing the right skill set to take us to the next level. Be open to criticism, both in your body language and responses.

Criticism is Necessary
To develop healthy and successful careers, we need to welcome feedback. As Winston Churchill said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Women (and men) cannot develop without opportunities to receive an honest assessment of their performance. I have personally experienced the advantage of direct feedback from male colleagues, but also the lack of clarity and sometimes confusion associated with soft and fluffy feedback. Ken Blanchard, author of The One-Minute Manager, says that “feedback is the breakfast of champions.” To ensure we don’t get left behind, we must appreciate that feedback is not just nice to have; it is critical to our career progression.

So, men: give it to us straight.

1 Response

  1. rtrox

    Thanks for sharing. I am a college professor of occupational therapy (OT). A primary goal of OT is to produce excellent therapists with sound clinical skills and “professionalism”. You would think that graduate level students would enter a professional program with a certain skill set in professionalism. However, people come into the program with all manner of baggage such as poor attitude, work ethic, or people skills. The students may have excellent undergraduate grades and test scores, but there is far more to being a great occupational therapist.

    My OT program begins with an introduction to what is expected of a well-rounded therapist. As the first semester moves forward we (faculty) carefully observe students for strengths and weaknesses in professionalism. Faculty meet students individually for advising on progress in clinical skills, and professionalism.

    My first attempts at advising centered around “soft feedback”, as Nneka Orji describes. I soon realized my students (both male and female)simply did not fully benefit from soft feedback. They rarely adjusted their behaviors and often required repeat meetings to correct unwanted behaviors. I think it was my fear that students would not like me, cry, or get angry, but I was not doing my students any favors. Now I am far more direct. Feedback that a student might consider negative is cushioned with a description of their strengths. I also start the class with an informal contract between student and teacher. One section of the contract states that I will provide feedback in a positive, yet direct manner and in return the student agrees to accept feedback without immature acting out behaviors. The response has been much improved behaviors – and a growing sense of trust. The students know that when I correct their behavior it is because I am thinking of their best interest. As a side, I also ask for their feedback on my performance as a teacher. This has helped me grow tremendously.

    I am recommending all of my students read this post. Again, thanks.

    Sincerely, Dr. Reta Troxtel