What you need to know about giving women better feedback

A distinct positive correlation exists between more women in executive positions and a company’s ability to outperform competitors. Studies in recent years by DDI and MSCI have revealed that higher percentages of women in strong leadership positions correlate to better financial performance and greater returns on equity.

At Sapper Consulting, 49% of our employees are women, our management team is 40% female, and our company has grown quarter over quarter for the past three years. This is not an anomaly. A global survey of nearly 22,000 firms in 91 countries revealed that when a profitable firm moved from no female leaders to 30% representation, its net revenue margin also increased by 15%.

Unfortunately, women often aren’t given the productive feedback that’s necessary for workers to reach leadership positions. Provided that women in leadership help companies beat the competition, how can business leaders improve their constructive criticism of female employees in order to help them and their companies grow?

Consider these techniques for providing better feedback:

1. Keep your language constructive. Labeling a woman as “bossy,” for example, isn’t constructive, and studies suggest women are penalized more harshly than men for behaviors labeled “aggressive,” such as negotiating for a raise. Instead of labeling, try saying, “During our last meeting, I noticed that you interrupted others while they were speaking, which is something we could work on.”

Growing your employees and providing the feedback they need for success means making the criticism empowering. An employee needs a clear understanding of her opportunities for growth and action items to achieve it.

At Sapper, we require all employees to answer three questions when reviewing their peers: “What is something I should start doing? Continue doing? Stop doing?”

When managers review their employees, they should give clear, concrete answers to those questions, such as “She should start getting more input from her team on key decisions,” “She should continue meeting with individual team members weekly,” or “She should stop arriving late to meetings.”

We also encourage all of our team members to follow up with their reviewers if their feedback is unclear or if examples of a behavior would be helpful.

2. Don’t shame women for emotion. Crying isn’t a sign of weakness; women are simply biologically predisposed to cry four times as often as men. When women cry at work, they often feel they’ll be alienated by male colleagues or bosses. If an employee gets upset during your next feedback session, hand her a tissue, ask whether she needs a minute to regroup, and try to understand the root stressor.

Start with a statement like, “I understand that this is a difficult conversation and can imagine that you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. I’m giving you this feedback because we believe in you and want to see you reach your highest potential.”

When I ask these questions, I often hear, “I don’t know why, but I’ve always cried when I get feedback.” Sometimes an employee will say the conversation had triggered a completely different stressor. Either way, I’ve started a valuable dialogue around the response rather than dismissing it altogether.

3. Don’t be ruinously empathetic. Ruinous empathy, a term coined by feedback professional and author Kim Scott, occurs when you care about your employee but you don’t challenge her. This often results in sugar-coated criticism or unhelpful feedback. By giving this vague feedback to save your employee’s feelings, you’re holding her back from improvement.

If an employee just finished a presentation and asks for feedback, I don’t simply say, “You did a pretty good job.” Instead, I elaborate: “I liked the content of your presentation, but you spoke too quickly through some of the key points. I can practice with you before your next presentation if you’d like.”

When providing proper, useful feedback, start by taking the employee aside as quickly as possible. Tell her you’re about to give some blunt feedback, but remind her it isn’t personal. Make your feedback as actionable and specific as possible, and thank her for speaking with you. Feedback is necessary for growth — don’t be afraid to tell employees what they need to hear.

 

Emily Muhoberac is chief operating officer at Sapper Consulting, which replaces cold calling for its clients. It’s cooler than it sounds. You can also follow her on Twitter @muhobs.

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