Smarter Living Editor
Two weeks ago in this newsletter we talked about why it’s difficult to hear negative feedback. One of the main reasons is that most of us are awful at delivering negative feedback, so it becomes a vicious, self-reinforcing circle that trains us to avoid what would make us better at work and in life."
But I left out a key piece of giving effective feedback: being aware of our unconscious biases. In a perfect world, our feedback would always be objective and fair, but often our criticism is influenced in ways we don’t realize. So this week I’ve invited Steph Mitesser — who helpfully pointed this out, and who organizes the Women’s Employee Resource Group at her office — to talk about getting beyond our unconscious biases when giving feedback to make it more helpful and constructive for everyone involved.
When was the last time you got unhelpful or biased feedback? I want to hear about it! Tweet me at @timherrera or email me at email@example.com.
Take it away, Steph!
Recently, a female colleague shared a frustrating experience with me: A male tech lead told her the engineers (who are mostly male) were afraid to talk to her because she’s an attractive woman; they called her “unapproachable.” She was speechless and had no idea how to address his concerns.
I hear stories about unfair and unhelpful criticism from my female co-workers often, and research backs up these anecdotes: In one study across 28 companies, 76 percent of critical feedback given to women included comments on her personality — e.g., a woman was “abrasive” — while only 2 percent of negative reviews for men included such comments.
These experiences don’t just frustrate women, they keep them from reaching their full potential. And when we give women advice for dealing with this problem, it burdens them to fix something that isn’t their fault and diverts time and energy from their work.
Frankly, it’s more efficient just to give women (and everyone!) better feedback in the first place. You may never completely erase gender bias from your critiques, but being more thoughtful, objective and specific will help a lot.
Use the right criteria. Before commenting on your colleague’s work, make sure you understand the most important skills for her job. If you don’t know, ask her manager. Otherwise, you’ll probably fill this gap with more subjective (and more biased) critiques.
Appropriate criteria helps you avoid personality judgments, which reflect your personal preferences rather than the job requirements. We naturally gravitate toward certain personalities at work, but it’s nearly impossible to tie subjective traits like “approachability” or “humor” to job performance. If you can’t give specific examples of how the trait affected her work, leave it out. Similarly, give examples for how she can act on your feedback; otherwise, you likely won’t help her improve.
Take the time to vet your criticisms. Katie Stricker, a career coach, recommends asking these questions before sharing feedback: