Are You Getting ‘Vague’ Feedback? It could be bad for you.

Posted on May 18th, 2016 by


falling over getting up by simmbarb

How good are you at asking for constructive feedback at work? Some recent research by *Shelley Correl and *Caroline Simmard suggests that feedback given to women is often so vague so as to not be helpful at all:

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….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.

They also discovered that when women did receive specific feedback it tended to focus more on communication styles without offering any alternative strategies. For example, over 70% of women were described as being ‘too aggressive’ as in ‘Your style is off putting’, with only 24% of men being ‘too aggressive’.

The researchers believe that unconscious bias is at play here, a conclusion with which I happily concur. Strong, assertive women are much more likely to be viewed unfavourably by colleagues of both genders; we all need to check our biases from time to time.

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.

A recent report from Price Waterhouse Cooper found that only 12% of women are satisfied with the quality of the feedback they receive. The moral of this story is don’t be content with what you are first offered by your manager. Ask for more specific feedback tied in with business outcomes, and ask for their suggestions on what you need to do to progress. Let them know you are genuinely interested in improving your performance. Vague feedback can come from male or female managers so be on your guard. If you’re a manager, check out that unconscious bias isn’t subtly undermining the women in your team, use the same criteria and feedback template for everyone.

*Shelley Correll is professor of sociology and organisational behaviour at Stanford University and the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. *Caroline Simard is Senior Research Director at the Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership at Stanford University. A synopsis of their research appeared in the April 2016 edition of Harvard Business Review and the research was conducted in the U.S.

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