By Leah Fessler
For most of us, regardless of our gender, critical feedback isn't "a gift." It hurts. This pain is not a sign of weakness or immaturity, but rather an indication that we care about the people we work with, and how our actions influence them.
Empathy is a strength, but too often, the discomfort of criticism prevents many professionals from seeking it out. While feedback avoidance threatens anyone's advancement, research suggests it's particularly damning for women leaders. We don't need to enjoy criticism, but we do need to hear it.
As Cassie Werber reports in Quartz, white lies can profoundly skew an employee's perception of their own professional performance. Being told you are doing fine when you're actually falling short of expectations blinds you to your own blindspots. New research from Cornell University suggests this experience is particularly common for women.
"Over two separate studies, psychologists at Cornell revealed a propensity among experiment subjects to lie to women specifically, where no such tendency was apparent when giving feedback to men," writes Werber.
When presented with harsh, highly direct feedback, participants were significantly less likely to assume the feedback was about women. And when asked to grade an essay, participants inflated the grade by about 9% when the writer's name was "Sarah." There was no significant inflation when the writer's name was "Andrew."
"Here we have exposed one factor that may, to a certain degree, impede this access — being a woman," the researchers write. Reflecting on this predicament, Chief Guide and Executive Coach Hélène Seiler notes that "women who have access to less feedback information than men are less equipped than men to develop their competencies and capabilities, which perpetuates the gender imbalance."
When you don't know what you’re doing wrong, you can't fix it. This ignorance is particularly damning when you're leading through novel crises (like Coronavirus), or when leading initiatives you deeply care about, but may lack expertise in (like racial equity). In unfamiliar territory, you're significantly more likely to make missteps.
Instead of instilling anxiety, this reality ought to be viewed as an opportunity. You don't need to dogmatically love negative feedback to recognize that your output will be stronger if your team feels comfortable telling you what's not working. Beyond intimidation, Seiler notes that leaders are also less likely to get feedback because team members may not have sufficient knowledge about which behaviors are most effective for their leaders in different situations.
The truth is that employees don't need to know exactly what you should be doing to offer critique on how your behaviors make them feel, or how they impact workflows. "Ultimately, feedback is not about the feedback recipient: it is about the feedback giver, who expresses a need, that may or may not make sense to fulfill," says Seiler.
As leaders, our feedback behavior sets the standard for everyone else. To ensure you're welcoming criticism, take note from organizational psychologist Adam Grant, who, as author Angela Duckworth recently explained on Freakonomics, insists on feedback from everyone he works with after every presentation or meeting. This regularity makes critique habitual. More importantly, after receiving feedback, Grant rates himself on how well he received it.
"He doesn't like the experience of receiving negative feedback, but grading himself on how he receives it gives him the opportunity to still get a 10 out of 10," says Duckworth, who is Grant’s colleague at Wharton. This practice communicates to the recipient that you're truly listening to what they're saying, while also acknowledging that it's okay to have some ego around criticism.
Seiler also recommends encouraging your team to practice the behavioral situational feedback model, which mitigates the risk of sounding judgmental. It consists of four phases: When giving critique, first describe the situation, then describe a specific behavior from the feedback recipient, then describe how that behavior impacted YOU, the feedback giver, then let the feedback recipient decide whether they want to explore this feedback further with you, at another time, or in another setting.
If you do explore the feedback further, as a recipient you can practice what Sheila Heen, co-author of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, refers to as forward and backward looking questions, which help us understand where the feedback is coming from or going to. "We need to say, 'Something happened that prompted you to say this to me. Help me understand what happened, looking backwards in time,'" Heen tells Quartz in a feature on how to receive feedback. "And looking forward, we need to ask questions like, 'Assume that I agree I should be more proactive and I take your advice, what would I do differently?' Sometimes forward-looking questions are a bit easier for us to hear or talk about if we're feeling particularly defensive."
Ultimately, as Seiler mentioned, it's our responsibility to recognize that not every piece of feedback warrants intense investigation. "Really what you have to do is learn to sort out the different categories of criticism," says Stephen Dunbar on Freakonomics. "They go into heaps. The heap that has criticism that's truly useful is very small. Let's say I write an article that gets 500 comments on Twitter. 80 say, 'I can't believe you let that person come on your show,' and those are people who have a point of view I disagree with. It's nice to hear ideas you disagree with. Then 10 or 15 say, 'You tried to make this point in your article, but ultimately you failed because you didn't bring in this variable or idea.' That is the most valuable."
Everyone thinks and feels differently, and if people disagree with our ideas or behavior, that's a positive indication of a critically thinking community. We need criticism to move forward — especially realizing how, as women, we've likely received too little in the past. To separate noise from value, focus on feedback that clearly articulates what you missed, what impact the miss had, and why the miss is important to your team's mission. When contextualized this way, feedback becomes less personal, and more precious to your pursuit of continued success.
Originally Published July 13