Useful Resources

Vague Feedback is Holding Women Back

This latest piece of research appeared in the Harvard Business Review, written by Shelly Correl and Caroline Simard; it has some interesting implications for how we give feedback to women at work.

Although companies have invested heavily in programs to advance women leaders, the number of women in executive roles has not changed significantly in the last decade. Even if women are well represented as middle managers, their numbers drop off when making the jump to VP-level executives. Why are women not rising to executive ranks?

One reason is the feedback men and women receive along the way. Our research shows that women are systematically less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes, both when they receive praise and when the feedback is developmental. In other words, men are offered a clearer picture of what they are doing well and more-specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level.

When we analyzed a sample of performance evaluations of men and women across three high-tech companies and a professional services firm, we found that women consistently received less feedback tied to business outcomes. The vague feedback lets women know they are generally doing a good job, but it does not identify which specific actions are valued or the positive impact of their accomplishments. We also learned that vague feedback is correlated with lower performance review ratings for women — but not for men. In other words, vague feedback can specifically hold women back.

Our research suggests these trends may result from unconscious bias. Stereotypes about women’s capabilities mean that reviewers are less likely to connect women’s contributions to business outcomes or to acknowledge their technical expertise. Stereotypes about women’s care-giving abilities may cause reviewers to more frequently attribute women’s accomplishments to teamwork rather than team leadership.

Our deeper analysis of over 200 performance reviews within one large technology company showed that reviews for women had vague praise more often than reviews for men (57% and 43%, respectively). Comments such as “You had a great year” populated many women’s reviews. In contrast, our analysis found that developmental feedback for men was more likely to be linked to business outcomes (60% for men versus 40% for women).

Further, when women received specific developmental feedback, it tended to be overly focused on their communication style. While ability to communicate can be an important skill for leaders, it is noteworthy that women received most of the negative feedback about communication styles. Comments such as “Her speaking style and approach can be off-putting to some people at times” point to a manager’s concern but do not offer ways to improve specific behaviors. This kind of feedback was frequently offered in women’s reviews. In fact, 76% of references to being “too aggressive” happened in women’s reviews, versus 24% in men’s.

In contrast, men were more likely to receive insightful developmental feedback about their technical skills, such as “You need to deepen your domain knowledge in the X space — once you have that understanding, you will be able to contribute to the design decisions that impact the customer.” Developing relevant technical skills is essential to being considered a leader in a technical organization.

Clearly, these dynamics can disadvantage women at promotion time. Without specific, documented business accomplishments, it is difficult for a manager to make the case for advancement. Conversely, if a business objective was missed, a lack of frank feedback deprives women of the opportunity to hit the mark next time.

If reviewers do not specifically call out where women excel, where they need to build skills, and which technical projects they should target next, women are at a subtle disadvantage for promotion. This general lack of sponsorship may cause them to exit the field or move to a new company. Missed opportunities to develop critical skills may also lead to women being “tracked” into support functions, which are stereotypically female and do not lead to C-level roles or to board seats.

Necessary critical feedback can be difficult for a manager to offer to anybody, but as Professor Stacy Blake-Beard has shown, it can be especially uncomfortable when it is given across a dimension of difference, such as gender, race, or age. When giving critical feedback to women, male managers may be especially worried about how the feedback will be received. This “protective hesitation” — the failure to give feedback due to worry that the recipient might be upset — is a critical barrier in having conversations necessary to advance women’s careers.

To read the full article please click this link to be taken to the Harvard Business Review website.

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