Receiving constructive feedback is a critical component to career advancement. But, if you’re a woman or person of color, chances are you’ve missed out on this crucial element throughout your career.

According to Lean In and McKinsey & Company, women are more than 20% less likely than men to say their manager gave them critical feedback that contributed to their growth. And according to a recent survey, Black and Latinx employees are more likely to receive feedback about their personality than the actual quality of their job performance. This lack of feedback can be linked to a common workplace phenomenon that Morehouse President and former Harvard University Professor Dr. David A. Thomas refers to as “protective hesitation.”

According to Dr. Thomas, protective hesitation is when a leader fails to give constructive criticism to an employee out of fear of being perceived as racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other prejudice. While the intent behind this action may seem like a good idea for leaders hoping to avoid difficult conversations, the reality is that this feedback style does more harm than good to an individual’s success.

“A lot of this is risk avoidance,” says Organizational Behavior Researcher Dr. Courtney McCluney. “You don't want to risk ruining a reputation or saying the wrong thing. Therefore, you avoid it all together. But in the context of feedback, when it's decontextualized, on the surface it's meant to be performance enhancing. And constructive is the best form of feedback. It's one in which people can learn from what it is that they're doing and improve upon it, given the information that's shared to them.”

Dr. McCluney explains that leaders have a responsibility to make sure their team members are performing at their highest level, and providing an honest assessment of one’s work is a core part of that. “It's the main loop that exists between communicating to employees before, during, and after their performance, with hopes that the employee will improve,” she adds.

But, with one in four C-Suite leaders being a woman, and one in 20 being a woman of color, it’s easy for protective hesitation to go unchecked by white men at the top, leading to ongoing stereotypes and biases in the workplace. “When leaders withhold critical feedback that can help improve one’s performance, especially a marginalized person, the person in question then continues to underperform because they are not given any [helpful criticism],” says Dr. McCluney. In turn, she says, this may confirm pre-existing biases that a leader already has around why a person isn’t well-suited for a role.

“It confirms so many stereotypes, especially if a person is one of a few or an only,” she says. Not knowing where you stand can be crippling to marginalized individuals who are unaware of how good or bad they're doing on the job. To fix this issue, Dr. McCluney says workplaces need to first improve their feedback culture so that it’s not viewed as a bad or negative thing that leaders and employees should fear. She says this can be done by leaders giving feedback more often. Rather than making it a highly anticipated meeting that takes place once a year or once every quarter, she suggests leaders get in the habit of giving feedback every week or every two weeks. This way, executives can develop a better relationship with employees that makes it easier for them to offer constructive criticism and employees can get a more concrete, consistent idea of how they’re really doing in a role.

Additionally, when giving feedback, she says leaders need to be mindful that the advice they’re giving is measurable, skills-based, and something that people can actually put into practice. “So telling someone, You need to be more professional, it’s like, What do you mean,” she says. “Leaders need to put concrete actions behind their words rather than speak in the abstract because giving that level of quality feedback can help.”

For leaders who fear saying the wrong thing during interracial interactions at work, Dr. McCluney points to research from University of Houston Professor Derek Avery that highlights how writing a script for how you want a meeting to go can help ensure that bias doesn’t creep in. “My hope is that over time you won't need the script. But at least to start, I think it would really help if leaders had a basic framework that they gave for every single one of their employees because the other bias that we've seen in research is that people tend to give people who are similar to them more lengthy, more concrete, and more robust feedback,” she says.

“For example, if I'm the only Black woman in a firm with a lot of white people, I might get a one to two sentence, You're doing a great job. It's great,” she says. “But the other white people may get more in-depth feedback like, On Friday, November 10th you were doing this, and scripts can really help with that. They can help you set up prompt questions to make sure you cover x, y, and z things.”

Outside of ensuring that majority leaders at the top give unbiased feedback on a more regular basis, Dr. McCluney also challenges marginalized executives to evaluate their own biases to ensure that they too aren’t practicing protective hesitation.

“I think when there is an underrepresented or marginalized person who has ascended into a level of leadership, they might feel like they have to distance themselves from other people who are members of their same group,” she says. “Because if they’re the only woman in senior leadership and the other men senior leaders see them mentoring a woman, they may think they’re being biased. But, I really encourage women leaders to quiet those voices because everyone needs your feedback, including other women.”

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