When it comes to progressing through the ranks at work, don't assume that a lack of negative comments or the occasional utterance of "good job" indicates you're on the right path. Attaining higher positions and more pay — two hot button topics for professional women — requires solid and consistent input about performance.
"Feedback — whether positive or negative — when delivered professionally and correctly is a message that says [either] 'continue doing what you're doing the way you're doing it' or 'make a change,'" says Denise Dudley, a behavioral psychologist and business consultant.
Unfortunately, leaders often fail to provide female employees with the information they need to know to maintain — or correct — professional behavior. Research presented by Harvard Business Review 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."
Why the silence when it comes to women's work performance?
Part of the difficulty surrounding women failing to receive constructive criticism stems from their bosses, who are often male. Some men are uncomfortable dealing with women in workplace settings, and their communication — or lack thereof — reveals it. As Dudley notes, "[Male bosses are] less likely to engage in any sort of conversation, let alone a much more direct (and thus stress-producing) discussion about a female colleague's work performance."
Reluctance to provide women with professional guidance can also stem from men wanting to "stay safe." The media has upped awareness of the number of women filing lawsuits and bringing forth charges of mistreatment or harassment by employers. Remaining silent can seem like a better — albeit extreme — option than saying or doing anything that might somehow land the company in hot water.
Men also sometimes refrain from frank discussions with their female employees out of the notion that women "can't handle" negative feedback. They fear the listener will get emotional or cause an uncomfortable scene. Some genuinely worry about hurting a woman's feelings. Basically, they choose to "protect" women — without female employees asking for such sheltering.
For their part, women often fail to step up to the plate to ask for feedback that could improve their performance directly.
"We've been taught to be happy with what we've got, to not 'rock the boat,' to be quiet, to keep our heads down, and to keep working," Dudley says. "We're just bad at asking for stuff, from raises to performance feedback, to time off, to promotions, to bigger offices, to more responsibility. The takeaway here is that we need to ask for feedback. It's often the only way we'll get anything more than 'you're doing great' once per year."
How women can encourage feedback
So, what can be done to improve receipt of this vital contributor to career progress? Actions to generate more feedback include:
- Don't put your manager on the spot. They may feel queasy about saying things in a place where others can hear. Instead, schedule a time to discuss work performance privately.
- Prepare specific questions. Before your appointment, consider sending a few questions so that your manager understands the scope of your discussion and has a chance to formulate honest answers. Dudley offers possibilities such as, "Do you know of any skills I need to acquire in order to move into a management position with our company?" or "I'd appreciate some feedback on my presentation to the board of directors last week."
- Set the tone. As you sit down for the discussion, encourage your boss not to hold back. Try a statement such as, "I'd appreciate some honest feedback, and I assure you, as a professional who is always looking to improve my performance, that my feelings will not be hurt." Likewise, set the stage for clear, helpful commentary by saying something such as, "I'll appreciate it if you can be very specific in your feedback with me. It will help me to learn and grow."
- Understand the next steps. Before walking away, evaluate whether you know how to proceed. If your boss offered compliments, do you know specifically what you should keep doing the way you're doing it? If the feedback wasn't positive, do you know what changes you need to make to rectify it? Don't leave confused — ask for clarification.
- Avoid "one and done." Consider requesting a regular check-in with your manager. In some fields, this might be monthly, while in others, it isn't unusual to have a weekly one-on-one with your boss to check in, set priorities, and get feedback. By asking for feedback regularly, the process will feel more natural for you and your manager. Also, by having frequent, brief meetings about one or two predetermined topics each time, information becomes easier to absorb and act upon.
Whether it was negative or positive, end by expressing appreciation for the feedback given, demonstrating that you want to hear constructive criticism and have the chops to take it goes a long way toward encouraging such assessments to keep coming.